Thinking about the future and the needs of senior priests

Father John A. Kiley

Father Peter J. Gibbons, once pastor of St. Teresa Parish in Providence, was among the first priests to come under the Diocese of Providence clergy retirement policy in the 1970s. Father Gibbons, much celebrated for his parish scholarship program to La Salle Academy, made clear at his retirement party that he was not pleased with his being shown the door. His frankness occasioned many comments. Priests of his era, of course, never thought of retirement. They all expected to die in their rectory beds.

Old age was not a consideration. Monsignor Peter Blessing, pastor of St. Michael Church, Providence, ran what was reputed to be the largest parish in New England from his bedside. Of course, Msgr. Blessing was attended by Jeanne d’Arc sisters, had four curates to maintain the parish and a convent full of Mercy sisters to tend to the school and the religious education. But then, the local Church in the 1970s experienced the availability of fewer priests and far fewer religious sisters. The 70s also witnessed the arrival of participatory liturgies, parish finance boards, parish councils, formal marriage instructions and many novel social ministries. Parishes could no longer be run only from the pastor’s desk, let alone from the pastor’s bedside.

Although priests have long participated in the government’s Social Security program, in the 1960s priests were salaried at only $100 a month which gradually crept up to $250 a month in 1970s and $1,000 a month in the 1980s. Such salaries would not earn much of a monthly Social Security check! The diocese happily and prudently saw the need for a pension program for priests who would retire, many at age 70, some at age 75, a few even older. An annual priests’ retirement collection, taken up every September, was instituted in all parishes throughout the diocese. This Priest Retirement Fund is the primary means by which priests who have served the diocese and the people of the diocese for decades are supported in their later years. Even after retirement from parish assignments, senior priests of the diocese continue to serve the faithful and help their fellow priests through part-time assistance with Masses, funerals, confessions and hospital visits. But, nonetheless, retired diocesan priests live independently in retirement. After their active ministry finishes, they no longer can rely upon their parishes for support. In other words, with retirement their room and board ceases. They actually have to provide for themselves.

So, to help retired priests meet every day needs like food, housing, transportation, and health care, the diocese established the Senior Priest Retirement Fund in the mid-1960s. But as with other retirement benefit programs—such as Social Security — the Fund is challenged by increasing current expenses and projected costs that exceed its income. Like Americans in the general population, priests are living longer and hence are placing a greater demand on retirement resources. And, of course, there are those senior priests who require assisted living or nursing home care. There are currently 90 retired priests in the Diocese of Providence who rely on this fund’s monthly contribution to their support. And, of course, this fund’s strength is important not just for those who depend on it today, but also for those who will rely upon it in the years ahead. There are increasing challenges that this fund will need to meet in the future.

The Senior Priest Retirement Fund currently receives revenue from five sources. The annual Catholic Charity Fund Appeal held each Spring devotes some of its income toward priests’ retirement. The Diocesan General Fund, the money by which the Providence diocese conducts its daily business, funnels some resources toward retired priests. An annual Our Lady Queen of the Clergy parish assessment which is basically a tax levied upon each parish helps the Senior Priest Retirement Fund. The annual September Priests Retirement collection, taken up at all weekend Masses throughout the diocese, is a key resource for the Fund. And happily gifts and bequests from generous persons and corporations throughout the state greatly assist the work of providing for senior priests. Retired Bishop Robert Mulvee initiated an endowment fund for priests’ retirement which receives donations from wills and estates which are then wisely invested through the Catholic Foundation to insure a fruitful return benefiting the senior priest fund.

The current on-going diocesan Capital Campaign, Grateful for God’s Providence, that will continue into the months ahead will devote a good measure of its received pledges toward bolstering the Senior Priests Retirement Fund. As pledges to the $50 million campaign are honored, $8 million will be added to the Fund supporting retired priests. Current generosity today will guarantee well-deserved security tomorrow.