From a reader…
Our parish has a mass that is served by an increasingly elderly and frail priest. His physical limitations are what they are. The concern that he needs prompting through the entire mass, not just the daily changes, but including prayers and the consecration. Also despite prompting from his loyal assistant sections are often mumbled, and the congregation can’t understand what is being said. At what point do we have to worry about whether the mass is valid? Or confessions?
Isn’t it a wonderful consolation that Christ took our human infirmity into mind before founding His Church and priesthood? He knew that we – his priests – would grow old, get sick, suffer from the effects of the Original Sin which He came to resolve.
There were a couple summers when, back from Rome at my home parish, the pastor would send me (bottom of the pecking order by far) over to the chapel each day to help the octogenarian priest he allowed to come every day for the afternoon Mass. I often questioned this choice by the pastor. This priest, by the way, was in the 3rd wave at Normandy and was at the Battle of the Bulge. He was an ornery little cuss. Many were the times when I would have to have him back up and do something over for validity, though I learned to let some things slide. He was hard to work with. However, over time, this former Lutheran of Prussian descent learned a lot from having a church in Italy and helping this old priest.
Would there have been times when I wasn’t there and Mass wasn’t valid because he did not get the words of consecration right? Probably. Would there have been times that he didn’t get the form of absolution right? Probably.
And yet Jesus chose us poor men, who get old. I’m sorry that we can’t be 33 years perfect for you all the time. Talk to the Lord about that when you see Him. I, for one, want to have a serious discussion with Him about why He made our breathing tubes and eating tubes cross. Perhaps that’s so that He could kill off some of us when we were done. Perhaps.
There is a huge difference between the work of the elderly and the work of the able bodied. Were I a bishop, I would bring the wrath of God down on a man who, completely sui compos, changed or omitted sacramental forms. Believe me: The Ride of the Valkyries and Robert Duval would be nothing compared to what that priest would experience at my hands were I to get involved.
But when it comes to old priests… who’ve serve for 5, 6, 7 decades… I’d try to give them them lots of support to keep working if they wanted to.
Thousands of Masses. Many thousands of confessions. Hundreds of baptisms and marriages. Countless acts of counseling and kindness. Tens of thousands of hours of praying the breviary and rosary. Many hours of suffering. Old priests and old soldiers….
Thank the Lord, folks, when you get an old curmudgeon in a confessional once in a while who cuts through all your oblique patter.
Lots of lib priests retired as soon as they can. Lots of faithful priest want to die with their boots on.
I know old priests who want to die saying Mass. I’ve actually watched a couple priests die while saying Mass.
None of this, of course, diminishes the problems of invalid Masses or confessions. Yes, that’s a problem. The faithful shouldn’t ever have to wonder or doubt. There are also the issues of stipends.
Yet… Jesus didn’t change our human nature when He chose us. We are still weak and infirm, sinners and sinned against.
Maybe this can teach lay people about how very alone an older priest can be. You might not think about that. You really should think about that. Some of them soldier on without a lot of support. I, for one, in my present circumstances might not be missed for some time, were something to happen.
As priests get older, and their condition of life changes, they look back on what they gave up. It is sometimes harder for the older priests than for the younger men, whose zeal can carry them forward more easily. I’m starting to get this more and more as my hair rapidly goes gray or simply takes a break.
Let’s always keep our eyes on these old guys and get them extra help when questions come up. Be good to them. Thank them. They just want to be of service. Their whole identity for their entire lives, for which they sacrificed so much, is tied to the activity of being a priest!