National Shortage of Catholic Priests Forcing Many to Work Past Retirement Age

By Lots K. Solomon

August 11, 2008,0,2235424.story

Many in thinning ranks of Catholic clergy hitting retirement age

By the time they reach 65, most people have been thinking about retirement for years, even decades.

Not the Rev. Frederick Brice. At 80, he is still the pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Lighthouse Point. He said he has not even considered slowing down.

"I am ready and willing to keep going as long as the archbishop will have me," Brice said.

Brice said he knows why the Archdiocese of Miami still needs him: the national priest shortage, which compels church leaders to keep their oldest priests working past what most Americans would consider a reasonable age to retire. At the same time, a burgeoning number of priests are hitting retirement age. And some church observers say the church needs a plan to replace these aging men as the number of Roman Catholics increases. The Catholic population of the United States has grown steadily since 1965, from 45.6 million to 64.1 million this year. There are 1.3 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Miami and 278,674 in the Diocese of Palm Beach.

Priests are eligible to retire at 65 with their bishops' permission; at 75, they may submit their resignations, although their bishops still may ask them to keep working. Canon law requires bishops to retire at 75.

About a third of the 79 priests in the Diocese of Palm Beach and the 192 in the Archdiocese of Miami are over age 60. By comparison, about 9 percent of the U.S. work force are senior citizens. A level as high as the church's might panic leaders in the business community. But leaders of the Archdiocese of Miami say they believe their aggressive recruitment efforts could stem the retirement tide.

The Rev. Manny Alvarez, the archdiocese's vocations director, said he thinks often of the looming retirements. He said he has redoubled his recruitment efforts in the past few years, with Internet campaigns and posters in parishes, because he knows there are 70 priests in the archdiocese's 120 parishes and ministries who could retire in the near future.

"We have no idea how many of our senior priests will be active in the next five to 10 years," Alvarez said. "One of the most difficult decisions is telling a priest when it's time to retire, because it's not just a job; it's your whole life."

Across the country, although less common in South Florida, dioceses are closing churches and Catholic schools and asking priests to cover two or three parishes. These trends are largely because not enough men are entering the priesthood. The reasons for the shortage: the celibacy requirement and lifelong commitment, said Dean Hoge, sociology professor at Catholic University of America.

At the same time, large numbers, many of whom entered the priesthood in the 1970s, are approaching retirement.

"It's a hugely understudied phenomenon," said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which recently undertook a research project for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on diocesan priests' retirement needs.

In 1999, the average age of American priests was 60, Gautier said. No studies have been done since, she said, although she said the average age now is "higher than that." The problem also can be seen through the declining number of priests in the United States, which peaked in 1975 at 58,909; this year, there are 40,580, statistics show.

"Any diocese has to consider this one of the greatest problems it has," said David Yamane, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who has written several books on the Catholic church. "They can't continue to exist the way they have for centuries. The problem compounds itself because the more aging priests there are, the more of an unattractive option it becomes for young people, who see a 65-year-old man who might be running around supervising three different parishes."

Yamane said there is some good news in terms of attracting men to the priesthood: Although the number of ordinations across the country has plummeted, from 994 in 1965 to 442 in 2000, 480 ordinations are expected in 2008.

To serve the growing Catholic population, many dioceses are relying on retired priests, including the Rev. Walter Dockerill of Royal Palm Beach, who retired five years ago but still keeps a full schedule officiating at Masses, weddings, funerals and baptisms.

"I knew when I retired I would still be busy," said Dockerill, 78, who pastored at St. Rita Catholic Church in Wellington for 22 years. "I don't feel like I've slowed down much."

Lois Solomon can be reached at or 561-243-6536.


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