By JOANNE FOX
Retirement may mean more opportunities to play golf, have lunch with friends or take afternoon naps.
That would not be the way most retired priests of the Diocese of Sioux City are spending their time. It is not unusual to see these 70-plus-year-olds celebrating Mass, hearing confessions or visiting those in need of spiritual direction.
With the advent of Ministry 2025, pastoral planning for the diocese, many priests are defining retirement in different ways.
“A priest’s retirement means letting go of administration: the meetings, finances, deadlines, correspondence, personnel concerns, and so on,” said Father Tom Topf of Sioux City. “One important advantage of retirement is that you can set your own schedule and say yes or no to opportunities that come up.”
Father Jim Smith of Storm Lake, who retired in 2011, echoed those sentiments.
“I would define retirement as getting rid of all the stuff they didn’t teach you how to do in seminary,” he quipped. “Things like balancing a budget and raising money and dealing with personnel at the parish. Now that I’m finally retired, I can actually do what they taught me to do in seminary.”
Those seminary studies focused on the celebration of Mass and the sacraments, which with Ministry 2025 will become more important. One proposal is limiting priests to celebrating three weekend Masses. To accommodate that recommendation, pastors have already started reaching out to their retired brothers for assistance.
For example, Father Topf, who retired in 2008, typically celebrates Masses at Trinity Heights Queen of Peace, Cathedral of the Epiphany, an occasional Mass at St. Teresa Parish, Dakota Dunes, S.D. and other Masses, as requested, in the Sioux City area.
“If I include confessions before Mass, which often accompany the weekday and weekend Masses, I’d say I am ‘working’ around six or seven hours a week,” he speculated. “We also have many opportunities to hear confessions at the communal penance services before Christmas and Easter.”
Father Smith celebrates four to five Masses a week at St. Mary Church in Storm Lake, plus the nursing home, the school and for the Knights of Columbus. He motors over to his native parish – Early Sacred Heart – to celebrate Mass, picks up Masses at Christmas and Easter and will come off the bench to help at Cherokee Immaculate Conception and Remsen St. Mary.
“I don’t think I’m celebrating Mass any less than when I was working,” he said. “I don’t have much in the way of hobbies, although I do like to walk and read. Honestly, all I got to do now is celebrate Mass.”
The spiritual direction training sponsored by the diocese for its priests opened another doorway for Father Topf to do ministry, both before and after his retirement.
“I’ve been able to help the diaconate program by spiritual direction for deacons and also to other individuals,” he said. “Likewise, the training has allowed me to help with several retreats each year at the Broom Tree Retreat Center located at Irene, S.D.”
Father Smith admitted this approach to ministry elicits strong satisfaction.
“To be able to celebrate Mass and serve those different parishes I mentioned, really gives me great joy,” he said. “I truly enjoy having Mass without having to be the pastor or principal priest of the parish.”
“My greatest joy is helping others along the journey of faith with encouragement and occasional insight,” Father Topf said. “The Holy Spirit does most of the work in spiritual direction. People do change and grow spiritually and it’s a joy to see it happen.”
With the decreasing number of priests available to serve as pastors and Ministry 2025 pastoral planning looking to be implemented, some of the faithful have asked why retired priests could not be assigned to parishes.
“I think it’s wise in saying you can’t count on the retired priests to serve the parishes,” Father Smith said. “For all practical purposes, I am the third priest at St. Mary’s Church and I am most willing to help, but there are priests who are not willing to tie themselves down to regular service at a parish or parishes, and I understand that.”
God willing, both retired priests hope to continue their service to the diocese as Ministry 2025 begins to implement some of the proposals this summer.
“However, let’s face it, we are not getting any younger,” said the 76-year-old Father Smith. “Age does creep up on us.”
“It’s probably not very helpful for a priest with relatively good health to have nothing to do,” Father Topf pointed out.
But sooner or later health issues and declining energy enter the picture, the 79-year-old priest acknowledged.
“That’s when we really retire,” Father Topf said.