Retired priests serving as senior parish priests help with Mass, ministry but also find ‘spiritual home’ in retirement

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retired priests
Father Robert McAleer, a retired priest of the Diocese of Davenport Iowa, processes after Mass at St. Anthony Church in Davenport earlier this year. He now serves the parish in an official capacity as a senior priest. (OSV News photo/John Cooper, courtesy The Catholic Messenger)

DAVENPORT, Iowa (OSV News) — Father Robert McAleer retired from active ministry in 2014 and since then has been a substitute celebrant at St. Anthony Parish in Davenport. When Bishop Thomas R. Zinkula suggested the possibility of serving the parish in an official capacity, as senior priest, Father McAleer jumped at the opportunity.

“Since I was already celebrating Mass often at St. Anthony’s, I believed that an assignment as a senior priest would give me the ‘spiritual home,’ I have missed since retiring,” Father McAleer told The Catholic Messenger, Davenport’s diocesan newspaper. “Such an assignment offers to the people a relationship far beyond just showing up as a visitor for Mass.”

Father McAleer is one of three retired priests who will begin serving parishes as senior priests in the Diocese of Davenport this year. Father Tony Herold will serve St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf and Father Richard Okumu will serve St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City beginning July 1.

“Acknowledging senior priests recognizes the desire of some priests to continue ministry for parishes after retirement in a new way,” said Deacon David Montgomery, diocesan chancellor and chief of staff. “It benefits the priest by responding to the call to serve others and benefits the parish he serves by sharing the good work that only a priest can provide.”

The Davenport Diocese, like most U.S. dioceses, is experiencing “a growing shortage of priests, which makes it difficult to provide suitable pastoral care to the people of the diocese,” Bishop Zinkula said.

“We are doing a number of things to address the situation, such as actively promoting vocations, restructuring parishes, seeking the assistance of international priests and appointing parish life coordinators on occasion,” he said. “Meanwhile, we are blessed with a resource that is not being fully utilized: many wise, experienced, older priests.”

Father McAleer has the opportunity to converse with clergy across the country through his involvement with the Association of United States Catholic Priests. He hears about Catholics who have limited access to the Eucharist due to priest shortages and his heart aches for them. “I have come to know how important it is in the life of our people that they have the opportunity for Eucharist.”

Serving as a senior priest “is something we, as retired priests, can do to help,” he said.

Senior priests function similarly to parochial vicars but with much more flexibility. “The senior priest and the pastor discuss and agree on how much time the senior priest will devote to parish ministry each week and what services he will provide to the parish,” Bishop Zinkula said. This arrangement is beneficial to the pastor of a parish or group of parishes who, due to a shrinking presbyterate, “has more and more on his plate.” A senior priest can help “take the edge off” and provide “competent priestly ministry.”

Retired priests willing to serve regularly help parishes by celebrating Mass, providing sacraments and completing other tasks. Some prefer to serve one parish and “get to know members of and belong to one particular community,” Bishop Zinkula said.

A senior priest assignment offers retired priests such an opportunity but also can be an option for priests who are nearing retirement but feel excessively burdened by administrative duties, perhaps due to physical limitations associated with aging. A priest normally initiates the request for assignment as a senior priest, Deacon Montgomery said.

Father McAleer, who began his new assignment May 1, appreciates the flexibility of senior priest status. He and St. Anthony’s pastor, Father Rudolph Juarez, agreed on a schedule that allows Father McAleer time to continue with other ministries close to his heart. These include Unbound prayer ministry and celebrating Mass with religious sisters in Davenport and Clinton and Rock Island in the neighboring Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. “What is most important for me is that I can continue to minister and offer to the Church the gifts that I still have.”

Father Herold, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Newton and a former vicar general, recalls Bishop Zinkula brainstorming the idea of senior priest a few years ago. It “was always something that appealed to me,” said Father Herold, who will serve as senior priest at St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf beginning July 1, after his retirement.

The parish’s pastor, Father Rich Adam, said he is excited and looking forward to welcoming Father Herold to the parish. “This is a huge parish and although I feel things are going well, having another helping hand on board and ready to help will be most beneficial.” Father Adam anticipates Father Herold celebrating Mass and assisting with home and hospital visits, anointing and other pastoral ministry “for those who call and just need to talk to a priest.” The Bettendorf parish already has a dedicated volunteer base. A senior priest “will enhance these ministries and be much appreciated!”

“I love celebrating Mass, preaching and ministering to the people of God,” Father Herold told The Catholic Messenger. The part-time, flexible assignment “will afford me the opportunity to be relieved of the busy work of administration (while) devoting myself to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I am looking forward to getting to know the parishioners at St. John Vianney Parish and working closely with Father Adam.”

Lindsay Steele is a reporter at The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.

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