I have been saying for years that the biggest shortage in the Catholic Church is not priests or money, but imagination. We have more money and more technology than our great, great grandparents, who built our monumental churches and service institutions, but we can’t seem to get our act together and do anything nearly as heroic as they did.
Here is a shocking statistic that we will have to deal with very soon, but have barely begun to allow ourselves to think about, much less have some serious plans in place to deal with it. Fifty percent of all American Catholic priests are scheduled to retire in the next six years. That’s right — half of our priests.
Since I am one of them, and since I have not been one to wait around to be rescued or get permission, I have already started to apply some imagination to the situation and call together some others to do the same.
As director of the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, I have begun working on implementing a dream I have for my own retirement, as well as for other priests who are interested. At this point, I am calling my idea Encore Ministries.
Encore Ministries would be established to retool willing priests to go back into ministry in new and creative ways that would be life-giving for them personally and extend their generous service to the church. It would offer exciting alternatives to the limited options now available.
We have a long way to go before this dream becomes a reality, but we are kicking off the first of several brainstorming groups. We have sent out invitations to all the U.S. bishops to see if we can get a small number to attend an initial exploratory conversation this October.
As I have gone around the country leading priest convocations, I have been collecting names of creative and energetic retiring priests to invite to a second brainstorming session to solicit their ideas and to gather examples of existing imaginative retirement strategies.
After that, we hope to call together representatives of priest personnel boards and parish councils to collect imaginative ideas on how retired priests could be creatively involved in targeted ministries, both regionally and in specific parishes.
From all this input, we hope to design a program that could put Saint Meinrad in the forefront of innovation in this area. St. Meinrad is an ideal home for such a program because it has always been out front in addressing evolving church needs and is already blessed with most of the needed resources.
In the ideal, I can imagine constructing short-term-use condominiums on the property because most retiring priests would not be interested in living in dorm rooms for several weeks. These housing units would offer privacy, while golf carts would offer accessibility to new formation opportunities.
Now I need to win the lottery!