ASK FATHER: An old priest gets confused, hard to understand

old_priest_by_vidagr-d5laqk6From 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!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Kerry says:

    Father, in the ten ring, at a thousand yards, with open sights. Nice shootin’ pardner, Padre.

  2. TomCom says:

    Nice writing, Fr. Z. An element I’d add, though, is that perhaps like Pope Benedict, at a certain point an elderly priest may best serve the Church through a more contemplative mode. What you describe is in many ways just the priestly struggle with getting old and having a hard time accepting the realities of that, much like elder folks of all states of life struggle when it becomes apparent they can no longer drive a car, or otherwise perform some important act. It’s a struggle all who get to a certain age and a certain point of health have to deal with, and it is sanctifying.

    If it is God’s will expressed through reality that someone cannot perform the duties he used to, or cannot take care of himself, one should not look at oneself as a burden or useless.

    On a different note, I once attended a Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation where the elderly celebrant said the words of consecration for the wine over the bread, and then said them again over the wine. So half a Mass?

    I approached the pastor who was outside after Mass to let him know, and thankfully another gentlemen also came for the same reason so he believed us. He was also a wise priest: many would have said “Ecclesia supplet,” not understanding that is a canonical/jurisdictional concept and not one of sacramental form.

    He immediately understood that the unconsecrated hosts from that Mass had been commingled with consecrated ones in the ciboria, and said he would place all the hosts on the altar at the next Mass with the intention of consecrating any that were not consecrated.

    This was some time ago, but I think the elderly celebrant of that Mass, who clearly suffered from some dementia, went to a retirement home not long after. A bit sad as these things always are, but the right step.

  3. Kathleen10 says:

    Heartbreaking! No, I admit we always assume priests have some place to go or someone who is waiting for them somewhere. It’s a horrible thought to imagine any of them lonely or struggling to say the Mass. I get what you’re saying Fr. Z.

  4. Sieber says:

    Don’t worry, padre. You miss two days of this blog & I’m having your room checked!

  5. Holy Mackerel says:

    Right on, Father! We are called to love the Lord God with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength. These men are doing that and they deserve our help, prayers and love.

  6. As a late vocation, and watching friends die while being shuffled to another parish after the 6/7 years are up, it is difficult and lonely. I too want to die in the confessional or at the altar after completing the sacrifice of the Mass. I have battled chemo from several cancers, struggle with allergies, and want to keep going on when younger priests say retire and enjoy myself. My joy is being a priest. One Christmas, before I found out I was allegoric to pine, I offered all the Masses and have no memory of it due to all the medication to took to keep me on my feet as there wasn’t a substitute available. I trust I properly consecrated, and I didn’t get a telephone call from the Bishop for preaching anything heretical so I know Mary – Queen of Priests – guided my mind, heart and hands as I did my best to serve her Son’s children. As far as being able to hear the priest’s words, sometimes I can’t speak over a whisper and no one other than Christ and the angels hear the consecration. Thank God you have a living icon of prayer willing to dodder to the altar or confessional, to help you to heaven. Pray for him and pray for Fr. Z, and maybe pray for me. God Bless.

  7. OldProfK says:

    Well said, Father. Thank you.

  8. OldProfK says:

    Southernpriest, may the Heavenly Father bless and keep you. Thank you too, Father.

  9. yatzer says:

    Thanks to all of you faithful priests. I’m getting up there myself, and can (at least sort of ) sympathize.

  10. gracie says:

    God makes the rules but He’s not bound by them. A Mass may be invalid but it is what it is and God – if I may be so bold as to hazard a guess – isn’t going to hold it against us in the great Recording Book of Life if a Mass gets screwed up due to no fault of our own. Also, just because a priest messes up doesn’t mean he should be put out to pasture. If it’s just a case of repeating himself or getting things out of order, maybe an assistant – I think they used to be called deacons – could stand with the priest and quietly whisper in his ear if something starts going astray. We’re in a new world where priests don’t normally drop dead at 60 like they used to. Now they’re living into their 80’s and 90’s and wouldn’t it be lovely if we came up with a way to help them continue with their duties as long as possible.

  11. ckdexterhaven says:

    We had an old priest who was assigned the most remote, poverty stricken parish in the diocese. He only had a wood stove for heat in very cold winters. Father L was a lovely man, and he got confused quite often in the middle of Mass. When he did so, someone from the congregation should say loudly “Father, we already did that,”Or “Father, we’re at the ‘Agnus Dei’, etc. He didn’t seem to mind. When he gave Communion, he would say “Body of Christ, 1”, 2,3, and so forth. Just a sweet man. It seemed like his frailty prompted us to pray for him all the more.

    God bless the old priests!

  12. The Egyptian says:

    many years ago we had an elderly assistant priest, Fr Harry, wonderful priest and a fine man, sadly he started to deteriorate in his time here, during a wedding mass he forgot the book with the marriage rite in it, so he went into the sacristy then over to the rectory looking for it. Sadly he left his cordless mic on. Our pastor took over weddings after that but Fr Harry said mass for over a year after. Finally went to the CPPS rest home for Priests, Our pastor visited him almost daily, (5 mile drive) took him to our high school football games for 3 seasons, he lived for 4 years after that wheelchair bound but still cheerful and a holy man. I miss him.

  13. Tom A. says:

    That’s the beauty of the Low Mass. Inaudible except for a few words.

  14. Poustinik1 says:

    84 year old Father Jacques Hamel, while celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, was slaughtered by terrorists in front of those present, many of whom were also elderly. The terrorists thought it would be humiliating and send a message for the Priest to film it all and capture it on video. Instead, it became a testimony of a beautiful aged Alter Christi serving as he breathed his last for the glory of God. What a gift for all of us that Fr. Hamel did not retire. He kept his boots on to the very end – a true martyr who maybe one day will have his own feast day on the Church Calendar

  15. steve51b31 says:

    As deacon assisting at holy mass for an elderly visiting priest, who had poor eyesight and a bad back, it was necessary that I hold the missal about a foot above the altar necessary for those parts of the mass. He needed the focal length for his eyesight. What a blessed privilege it was to assist him ! I remember him and that mass often.

  16. hwriggles4 says:

    For several years, our parish had an old good Jesuit priest as a parochial vicar. Fr. H had done mission work, taught in a minor seminary in Corpus Christi (seminary closed circa 1980), been a pastor, and in his younger days, a chemistry and math teacher at several Jesuit high schools in the Southern United States. Around 2008, Fr. His health began to decline, and his memory began fading. Within a short time, he could no longer give homilies (he would have a deacon), but Fr. H could still consecrate, and at the end of Mass, he would say, “the Mass has ended, go now in peace to serve the Lord, and one another.”

    Fr. H went to the Jesuit retirement center in New Orleans circa 2011, and passed away in January 2016 at the age of 92. He is missed, and I went to his memorial service, which was standing room only.

  17. mthel says:

    My great uncle was a priest in his 80’s who died while saying mass. He had previously had a few heart attacks and was told his heart mostly didn’t work anymore, but he was tough as nails – firmest handshake I’ve ever felt – and he sure wasn’t going to sit back and retire. While saying mass one Sunday, he lifted the chalice at the consecration, froze for a brief second, set the chalice on the altar, and collapsed dead from another heart attack. Always thought it was a beautiful way for a great priest to die.

  18. zag4christ says:

    When I travel for business or vacation, I try to attend daily Mass wherever I am staying. Recently I was in a city where the parish church I attended early morning Mass was celebrated by a very elderly Franciscan priest. I was first impressed and delighted by the use of incense at the beginning of the Mass. The priest spoke slowly and enunciated each word with emphasis and clarity. When it came time for the consecration, he bypassed consecrating the bread, which I had never seen before, and the deacon assisting him gently and lovingly. touched the priest’s shoulder, whispered to him, and the priest bowed in thanks to the deacon, and consecrated the bread, never missing a beat the rest of the Mass.
    My first thought at the time was not about the mistake, but was one of wonderment and appreciation for the testimony exampled by that priest and the deacon. They knew that it is not about them. It is about the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
    I was able to attend two daily Mass’s and a Sunday Mass at that church. All were celebrated with refreshing solemnity by the elderly priest. He never gave a homily, but his celebration of the Holy Mass was a truly amazing example of a holy man persevering and keeping his eyes on Jesus. After the Sunday Mass, I was able to shake his hand and offer my thanks for his vocation. I just wish I would have had the opportunity for him to hear my confession.
    Peace and God bless,

  19. un-ionized says:

    mthel, i am in tears. thank you.

  20. Bthompson says:

    I have a sure and certain hope that Deus Providet when a faithful brother, though no fault of his own, mumbles or skips or omits. All efforts should be made to correct Father in the moment, yes, but I trust that, unless the lapse was obstinate and willful, God will provide.

    On another note, I know the presumption of grace filling up our faults has limits: I remember a certain supper when I was in seminary wherein an elder priest (wonderful man, but a product of his time, his heyday being in the 1970s-1990s). He waved his hand at an anecdote about a certain seminary using raisin cakes as hosts in the late 1980s and commented, “Ecclesia supplet.”
    To which the local pastor and our host slammed his fist on the table and said, “[NAME] [OBSCENITY], Ecclesia non supplet quod non habet!”

    As for deviations from proper form, seemingly willful or not: Please! Do not put up with such nonsense! You have a right to call us out, even if we are simply tired and are mumbling, to pronounce the sacramental forms CLEARLY! We will (or should) not take it as an insult!
    I do my level best. Yet I know, in my frailty, I have more than once had to repeat the form of an absolution, anointing, or even The Consecration quietly to supply for even the possibility of a defect or lack of form or intent.

    -Fr Thompson

  21. MouseTemplar says:

    We have a retired priest’s house on our parish campus. All but one of these men are over 80; they all work as hard as they did 15 years ago. The most noticeable change in them, to a man, is an increase in personal holiness and kindness. I think of them, and try to treat them, as the living treasures of our Church.

  22. stephen c says:

    southernpriest – Your comment was very moving: thank you for your service. I love the smell of pinewoods and when I pray that I and those I love will wake up one day in heaven I imagine the scent of pinewoods in the distance. Sorry about your cancer and your allergies, I will pray for your restored and continued health. I know you don’t need “my” prayers (although I speak for myself only here, not for my guardian angel, whose prayers maybe you do need, I have no way of knowing…) but do me a favor and accept my prayers with kindness.

  23. Thank you so much for this post, and I thank all those who posted such edifying comments, as well. I too, am in tears. This will certainly give me renewed impetus in my daily prayers for our treasures, our priests.

  24. You remind me of the old Jesuit priest who taught me Latin one-on-one when I was in my sophomore year at Wheeling Jesuit University (this was about 2010-2011; incidentally, I was his last student before he got sent to a long-term care facility for Jesuits at Georgetown University). He was 90 years old at the time he taught me, but his Latin was still sharp as ever. He was one of the Jesuits of the “old guard” and could say Mass fairly well (without much error) at that age as well. I can’t ever thank him enough for all of the hours he spent teaching me (perhaps his time as a faculty member at the bishop’s Latin school in Pittsburgh, PA for a time helped him hone his great teaching skill) and the priestly example he gave me.

  25. Every night we pray for our beloved priests, those who have heard our confessions and those dying or in despair. We will add those who are lonely as well. May God have mercy on them and console them through Our Lady.

  26. KateD says:

    I miss our old curmudgeon who went on to his reward a year and a half ago…..

    There was a beautiful family whose boys altar served and discreetly helped him when he missed something.

    We were just reminiscing about one of the last times we took him to dinner. He was Scottish and loved his salmon, so we took him to a place famous for seafood over looking the ocean. He took one look at the price and flat out refused to order the salmon on principal. We begged him to allow us to treat him, and he finally agreed but only to (the still over priced in his book) fish and chips. He let them know in no uncertain terms that he ‘dinno carrre fer th chips’. The young lady offered to bring him more, but he wondered aloud how more bad chips could ever be considered an improvement over fewer.

    Old priests are pure gold!

    I count it a blessing to attend Mass at all.

  27. Grant M says:

    I remember a wonderful elderly Monsignor who used to say the EF for our Latin Mass Society. He would sometimes get confused by the fact that in the OF the blessing comes before the dismissal, whereas in the EF it comes afterwards. If I was serving I sometimes had to prompt “Father, give the blessing”. He could not genuflect at the consecrations, but we all appreciated tremendously the effort he was making.

  28. carmelitadescalza says:

    My 96 year old uncle who is a priest still says Mass and hears Confessions. When he gets “too long-winded” at the sermon the Seminarian assigned to care for him whispers: “That’s enough now”” and he stops. On Good Friday a couple of years ago he sat in the Confessional for six hours straight because so many people showed up. He is full of zeal and love for the Church. May God give us good and holy priests!

  29. That Guy says:

    Fr. Z.,
    I dare say that you can’t go a postless day without your readers noticing, though admittedly your undisclosed location may make it difficult to find you. Perhaps you might consider sewing a bluetooth beacon in your 5.11 shirts so some of your select donor/readers can geo-track your whereabouts.

  30. Sonshine135 says:

    Those Priests who slog on to make Jesus present for the faithful, I would never concern myself with validity. How prideful to believe that the Lord is limited and would not help them. Jesus, I trust in you! Thank you Lord for all of these battle-hardened and war weary Priests.

  31. NBW says:

    Thank you Fr. Z. for a beautiful post. May God Bless you and all priests!

  32. James in Perth says:

    I thank you too, Fr. Z. As for priests who want to die with their boots on, please remember Fr. Stephen Kato, the late pastor of St. Stephen Roman Catholic Magyar Church in McKeesport, PA.

    When their small ethnic parish was slated for closing, he asked the bishop to keep the parish open as long he was able to say Mass. Bishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh granted his wish and the parish was able to remain open for another eight years. He died with his boots on.

  33. vetusta ecclesia says:

    Surely in such cases the Church provides what is lacking. I forget the technical terms.

  34. 21stCentury Anglican says:

    I served for three years as the MC for an elderly Anglican minister. He had issues with his eyesight and his memory, and towards the end of my time helping him, his enunciation. I had some frustration with him, mainly because of his attitude about it all, but i think the Lord put me there to learn patience and that the disposition of our heart is so important.

  35. oldconvert says:

    In the UK and Ireland, we are desperately short of priests as vocations have all but dried up; may God bless and keep safe all the elderly priests in their seventies, eighties and even nineties, who have come out of retirement or never retired, who keep our parish churches open. The only downside (and I say this out of love and admiration, not mockery) is the temptation to spend the service perched on the edge of my pew, ready to rush up with help, as the frail, elderly and physically disabled celebrants threaten momentarily to stumble and fall right out of the Sanctuary. I am sure that even were the Lord to call crowds of men to His service as priests, these faithful servants would not sink into comfortable retirement but wish to soldier on in service.

  36. Joseph-Mary says:

    I will never forget Fr. Bertrand. After ‘retiring’ from parish work he went to live at a Catholic hospital. He had a tiny apartment behind the lovely small chapel and was on call 24/7, 7 days a week. He offered daily Mass which I frequented. He was not allowed to offer the TLM but I am certain he would have if he could have. He always used Eucharistic prayer I. He also had Mass and confessions on Sunday so when I could not make the little window of time for confession at the big novus ordo parish, I could go with my family on Sunday to Father B. After my reconversion, there came a time when all the sins of my life came to mind. I went up to the hospital chapel to pray and Father came through. I asked for confession and he graciously heard that general life confession and told me to never bring up those sins again for they were now forgiven and forgotten. Finally, the bishop forced him, “kicking and screaming’ to quit. He wrote a letter that was bitter in his having to stop being the priest he had always been. He declined after that. He was in his mid 80s I think.

  37. Aquinas Gal says:

    I immensely admire all the old priests who keep on doing their ministry as long as they can.
    But if it comes to the point when the priest really is unable to offer the Mass, then though it’s a sacrifice, he needs to give it up. If a doctor got dementia and could no longer understand what he is doing, for the sake of the patient’s good he needs to give up practicing medicine. This problem is not unique to the priesthood.

  38. Charles E Flynn says:

    From A Paulist Priest’s Wonderful Life, by William Doino Jr., for First Things:

    At ninety-five, Fr. James Lloyd is the oldest living Paulist priest. But you’d never know that from following his busy schedule. Each day, at his quarters in Manhattan, he recites his morning prayers, celebrates or concelebrates Mass, hears confessions, and practices the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. As evening approaches, he has dinner with friends, recites the rosary, then retires to bed, eager to begin a new cycle the next day.

    To say that Fr. Lloyd has lived a fulfilling life would be an understatement. The joy and gratitude he feels for being a Catholic priest is the first thing he likes to talk about, and he never tires of recounting how the Lord called him to the priesthood, almost seventy years ago, when he was growing up in New York.

  39. MikeM says:

    For awhile I went to a daily mass at an odd time with a priest who was very elderly. He’d repeat parts, skip parts, mix up days, mumble, lose focus and daydream for a minute, etc. I can’t say that I wasn’t annoyed by it some days. But one day when the few of us who attended were about to leave, he stopped us. He dropped his curmudgeonly facade and told us how much it meant to him to be able to say mass for us.

    Obviously there are concerns that have to be balanced, but I don’t know that I would trade that mass experience for one with a younger, healthier priest.

  40. frjim4321 says:

    Years ago I learned that a Columban Mission priest was dying and happened to be living in the home of his sister which was in my parish. I visited the home on a Holy Thursday. Even though there is typically only one mass (in the evening) on that day I celebrated mass with that priest (who was bed ridden and on his very last day) at his sister’s house. It was a very humbling and amazing experience.

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