Priests continue ministry well into their senior years

Archbishop supports, works with priests on options for ministry as they age

By Jean Parietti

When his car died last summer on the way to say Mass near Lake Quinalt, 83-year-old Father Steve Roman just pulled off onto a logging road and hitchhiked the rest of the way.

Now the “retired” priest carries a cell phone, given to him by Father Dennis Robb, pastor of the six parishes in western Grays Harbor County where Father Roman helps out.

“When my car broke down, he said, ‘Here, from me to you — use it,’” Father Roman recalls with a laugh.

Father Steve Roman, 83, is on his third car since moving to Grays Harbor County 17 years ago. He lives at St. Jerome Parish in Ocean Shores, but drives to Aberdeen, Westport, Amanda Park, Hoquiam and other communities to help out as needed. Photo credit: Karie Hamilton
Father Steve Roman, 83, is on his third car since moving to Grays Harbor County 17 years ago. He lives at St. Jerome Parish in Ocean Shores, but drives to Aberdeen, Westport, Amanda Park, Hoquiam and other communities to help out as needed. Photo credit: Karie Hamilton.

Father Roman lives and ministers at St. Jerome Parish in Ocean Shores, but he hops in his new Honda Civic — a replacement for his deceased Hyundai — just about every weekday to travel the 40-mile roundtrip to Aberdeen. Depending on the day, he may visit the sick, say Mass at an assisted living residence, spend time with students at St. Mary School, chat with volunteers at a free lunch program or stop by the St. Mary Parish office to do paperwork. On a recent weekend, his schedule included Masses in Amanda Park, Ocean Shores, Westport and Hoquiam.

Like other senior priests in the archdiocese, Father Roman is committed to helping out where he can, continuing his life of ministry to make sure Catholics throughout Western Washington can attend Mass and receive the sacraments as the number of priests declines.

“I did retire, but I’m working harder now than if I had not retired,” Father Roman said. “If you’re a priest, you just die in the saddle. That’s my attitude,” he said. “I’m happy and working hard.”

Senior status
In the Archdiocese of Seattle, nearly two-thirds of diocesan priests are over age 60, according to David Reynolds, associate director for priests in the archdiocese’s Office of the Vicar for Clergy. Of those, 63 have been granted senior priest status.

At age 65 and later, a priest can discuss his future ministry with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.

“The archbishop is very supportive of all his priests and wants to work with priests to understand and provide them with options for ministry as they age going forward,” Reynolds said.

Those options include continuing in a current assignment (typically pastor), choosing to become a parochial vicar to leave behind the demands of running a parish, or seeking status as a senior priest.

Senior priests have no official assignments, but instead help out with the church’s ministry as they desire, Reynolds said. That can mean everything from assisting at parishes on weekends to working in special ministries.

‘Very enriching’
For Father Tom Vandenberg, 77, becoming a senior priest five years ago has given him more time to focus on marriage ministry, a longtime interest. He’s a sought-after speaker and marriage retreat leader, and last summer he published a book on the importance of the sacrament of matrimony — something he didn’t have time to do while pastor of a large, busy parish.

“I have a sense that I’m doing something worthwhile in my retirement,” said Father Vandenberg, who is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way and also helps out at other parishes.

Father Richard Gallagher, who just turned 80, enjoys celebrating the Mass in churches around the archdiocese, as well as in special locations, such as at the Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn every Sunday evening from February through September. Most of the workers and their families are from Mexico and Father Gallagher can say Mass in Spanish.

“I’ve been up and down the diocese, from Bellingham all the way down to Woodland, here and there,” Father Gallagher said. “I find it very enriching.”

His other special ministries include regular visits to inmates at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent, where he says Mass in Spanish each week. Every Friday, Father Gallagher says Mass and visits patients at the veterans hospital in Seattle.

Although Father Gallaher said the local church has many laypeople and deacons doing “wonderful” work in hospital, prison and other ministries, the Mass might not be as available if not for senior priests helping out.

“I don’t think it would be done,” he said. “There’s just no priests to do these things.”

As for Father Roman, he isn’t planning to fully retire anytime soon.

“I love parish life,” he said. Although his health isn’t as robust as a few years ago, he said, “I figure as long as God has given me good health and I’m able to do this work, I want to keep doing it.”

189 total
67 age 59 and younger
122 over age 60
Of those over age 60:
48 percent with assignments
52 percent with senior status

Living situations vary for older priests

Nurse care managers help priests with medical needs, transition to assisted living

Just like other retirees, senior priests in the archdiocese can wonder about their security, health and living situations as they age.

“The only concern is, what’s going to happen when you’re not able to move around?” said Father Richard Gallagher, who just turned 80, is still very active in ministry and rents an apartment at the archdiocese’s eight-unit senior priest community at the Palisades in Federal Way.

“We are pretty well taken care of, but there have to be some decisions made,” he said, including when to give up driving and move into a less independent setting.

It may surprise some people that the archdiocese doesn’t have a designated place for retired priests to live as they age, said David Reynolds, associate director for priests in the archdiocese’s Office of the Vicar for Clergy.

“Because they’re a priest, people think everything is taken care of,” Reynolds said. That may be true for priests in religious orders, he said, but diocesan priests, who receive a salary and don’t take a vow of poverty, “know that they have to plan for their retirement.”

‘The challenge’
At age 65, a diocesan priest is eligible to collect Social Security and his pension from the archdiocese, Reynolds said. Any time after age 65, a priest can request senior status, which means he no longer has an official assignment with a designated parish as his residence.

Senior priests may live independently, find a home in a parish rectory or live at the Palisades, where the priests can celebrate Mass in a special chapel and have meals at the adjoining retreat center.

During his years with the archdiocese, Reynolds has worked on the idea of establishing a place where retired priests can live together, but “not one thing can satisfy all the desires,” he said. That means each priest’s situation is handled individually.

When a priest can no longer live independently, Reynolds works with Sound Options in Tacoma, which specializes in geriatric care management, to find a group home or assisted living facility that meets the priest’s needs.

“There lies the challenge,” said Karen Allard, a nurse care manager at Sound Options and a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Tacoma who has worked with priests for many years.

“There isn’t an assisted living (facility) that just caters to the priests and their Catholic faith,” she said. “I might choose a place that’s closer to the priest’s power of attorney, who in most cases is another priest.”

Living near a parish allows parishioners to become part of the priest’s support system, said Allard, who also accompanies priests to doctor appointments, provides medication management and has helped priests through the process of hospice care.

Typically, a priest’s pension and Society Security will cover most of the cost of an assisted living home, with the rest coming from his savings and investments, Reynolds said. The archdiocese covers any remaining shortage.

“The people of God and the archdiocese are actually helping to pay for some of their care,” partly through the Annual Catholic Appeal, Reynolds said. “People love their priests. They want to make sure they’re taken care of.”

Of the archdiocese’s priests over age 60:
51 live in rectories.
49 live independently.
5 live at the Palisades.
6 are in assisted living.
12 live outside the archdiocese.
*As  of Jan. 1

May 23, 2013