A demographic cliff is forcing the French Church to tackle the arrangements for retirement of aged priests, as well as their replacements.
Driving the news
As La Croix reported, today is France there are fewer than 15,000 priests, and half of them are over 75, the mandatory canonical age for retirement.
That fact poses not only a personnel problem, also given the decline in vocations to the priesthood, but also logistical, administrative, emotional and spiritual problems as well.
“Retirement? If some [priests] are preparing for it, many have never thought about it”, Nathalie Devaux, social worker in the archdiocese of Besançon, revealed to La Croix.
“All their lives they were told what they were going to do. When they retire, what do they want? Most of them don’t know the answer”.
From a practical point of view, from the age of 65 French priests are entitled to a state pension of 750 euros a month, the equivalent of an average cleric’s salary during his working life.
That’s on top of Mass stipends, which vary between 200 and 300 euros extra monthly, depending on the diocese in which the priest resides.
According to the Code of Canon Law, too, the bishop is responsible for providing “suitable housing and subsistence” for retired priests.
But with their material needs catered for, how do elderly priests fill up the hole of no longer ministering to their people, but also the hole of the lack of men to carry on their legacy?
Why it matters
Some priests, such as 72-year-old Dominique Auzenet, of the Diocese of Le Mans, are content to take it easier in retirement.
“Of course, the situation should be considered on a case-by-case basis, but we are asking far too much by asking the priest to take the responsibility at the age of 70 as he did at 40 or even 55”, Auzenet opined to La Croix.
But priest Auzenet is also worried that “if we leave, there are no successors and the work falls on our colleagues”.
It’s a dilemma which Jean-François Berjonneau, a priest from the Diocese of Évreux, suggested to La Croix can be solved by approaching it from a different angle.
“There are spiritual issues at stake in this stage. Do I have a plan to live my retirement, to be a priest in another way?”, said Berjonneau, who organises counselling sessions with doctors, psychologists and social workers for priests in their seventies to prepare those clerics for what’s to come.
“The temptation is great to keep going, no matter what”, the Évreux priest lamented.
But he added that “the important thing is to reread the ministry and ask myself how my experience can enrich the Church in a different way”, beyond the retired priest considering himself – or being considered – a mere “stopgap” or a casualty of a life-long vocation.
For the record
That thinking about enriching the Church “in a different way” is something Paris psychologist Caroline Dry, who attends retiring and retired priests, also recommends for clerics of a certain age.
“You have to let go of a certain position”, Dry explained to La Croix, adding that she tells elderly clerics not to focus so much on “doing” priesthood but on “being” it.
“Their relationship with God is the foundation of their life, and in retirement it can still unfold”, the psychologist recalled.
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