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Priests must wait till age 75 to retire

Archdiocese faces staffing challenge

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By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, continuing to grapple with a shortage of clergy, is raising the retirement age for priests from 70 to 75.

The change is part of a broad, ongoing effort by the archdiocese to find ways to staff its churches with fewer priests. The archdiocese has also closed nearly 20 percent of its parishes over the last five years and has increased the number of priests who are assigned to oversee more than one parish. The archdiocese has also been restricting its benefits for retired priests.

The archdiocese announced the change, which is effective Aug. 1, in an e-mail to priests sent July 21 by the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese. Erikson said that healthy priests can continue to seek the status of “senior priest’’ at 70, but then will be required to fill in for priests who are sick or on vacation.

“Priests are normally expected (health permitting) to remain in active ministry, as pastor, parochial vicar, or special assignment, until the age of 75,’’ Erikson wrote. “. . . Upon reaching the age of 70, priests may request senior priest status, but must agree to provide temporary emergency response until they reach the age of 75.’’

The archdiocese’s secretary for parish life and leadership, the Rev. Thomas S. Foley, said in an interview that priests who are unwell will not be required to work. He also pointed out that in the past many priests have worked past 70 voluntarily and that pastors, like bishops, do not have to offer to retire until age 75, so that the policy will mostly affect healthy priests who might in the past have sought to relocate at age 70.

The archdiocese’s policy appears to be in keeping with national trends. The Rev. David L. Toupes, director of the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview yesterday that clergy retirement ages range from 68 to 75 nationally, but that “the vast majority of dioceses would have 75 as a retirement age.’’

“Certainly, we need our brothers to keep their hands on the ministry,’’ Toupes said. “And when you have a pope that’s in his 80s, the rest of us can work, too.’’

A study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that, because of the rising average age of priests, only two-thirds of all priests are serving in active ministry and that half of all US priests are expected to retire over the next decade.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, there are 331 priests over age 70, of whom 84 are still active. There are 32 priests older than 75 who are still active, including a small number of pastors in their 80s and one in his 90s serving voluntarily.

Priests interviewed yesterday expressed acceptance of the new policy, which some said was not a significant change from past practice and others said should be a cause for reassessing how the archdiocese plans for ministry in the future.

“With the diminishing number of priests, the real change is asking these priests, who are healthy, to be available when the need arises,’’ said the Rev. Robert L. Connors, who at age 64 oversees two parishes in Dracut and a school in Lowell.

Connors said that although he wants to remain active, he also believes that he is “not the same pastor’’ that he was when he was younger, a point made by other priests as well.

Monsignor Dennis F. Sheehan, 70, made a similar point, pointing out that he had chosen to give up his pastorate in Cambridge last year and assume a post as a parochial vicar in Newton. “As you get older,’’ he said, “your ability to concentrate on a million things and bear up under stress diminishes, so you want an assignment where you can preach, take care of the sick, and celebrate the sacraments, but you don’t have the overall responsibility that a pastor has.’’

Several priests said the move was a practical response to the clergy shortage.

“It’s realistic, given the commitment that we’ve made to lifelong service, and the continual and increasing needs of the archdiocese,’’ said the Rev. George P. Evans, pastor of St. Julia Parish in Weston. But Evans also said the change will require the archdiocese to encourage “a collaborative approach to ministry’’ because “70 and older is an older age to be holding down a lot of responsibility.’’

And the Rev. Austin H. Fleming, pastor of Holy Family Church in Concord, said: “Like other dioceses, it may be time for Boston to consider the possibility of appointing parish administrators who are not priests. Having learned that closing parishes may not be the best response to pressing problems, I hope we don’t learn the hard way that assigning multiple parishes to one pastor may not be the best answer either.’’

“I’m looking forward to a retirement in which I can still minister on a regular basis, as my health permits, but also a time when I will no longer sit at the desk where the buck stops,’’ Fleming said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.