Senior clergy play critical role in the church

Father William Fichteman received the bread and wine during the offertory at a 2014 Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption celebrating the 150th anniversary of St. Xavier High School. (Record File Photo by Jessica Able)
Father William Fichteman received the bread and wine during the offertory at a 2014 Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption celebrating the 150th anniversary of St. Xavier High School. (Record File Photo by Jessica Able)

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

One would never know Father William Fichteman is retired by looking at his calendar. His list of appointments rivals that of any full-time pastor.

Even in retirement, priests, such as Father Fichteman, continue to make significant contributions to the Archdiocese of Louisville.

About 35 percent of the total number of priests in the archdiocese are senior priests, according to the priest personnel office. Of the 67 priests who are officially retired, about 40 are available for “supply work,” which includes weekend Masses and penance services, said Father Roy Stiles, who serves as the vicar for senior clergy.

Father Roy Stiles, vicar for senior clergy

And this work is invaluable to local Catholics, according to Father Jeffrey Shooner, vicar for priests.

“We couldn’t provide the ministry we provide to the people of the local church without them,” he said.

Father Shooner described senior clergy as a “reservoir of wisdom” and called their service an “invaluable contribution to our local church.” He likened them to “a steady rudder.”

Father Fichteman, 75, celebrates Mass two times a week at the Ursuline Motherhouse on Lexington Road and once a week at Nazareth Home. He assists with weekend liturgies at the parishes that make up the Pax Christi Collaborative. And once a month he celebrates Mass at the Kentucky State Reformatory.

Priests can retire from service as pastors and administrators at age 70, though many continue to lead parishes past that age, Father Stiles said in a recent interview. However, priests do not retire from ministry.

Father Stiles noted that members of the senior clergy provide various levels of support to parishes, schools or organizations based upon a number of factors, including health and interest in a particular ministry.

Father Stiles, 77, retired in 2009 and lives at the rectory at St. Bartholomew Church. He continues to minister to retired clergy, a ministry he enjoys, and helps with weekend Masses around the archdiocese.

By the time many priests retire, he said, they are ready to let go of the administrative duties required to run a parish.

“It’s like running a small business. You are the CEO, so to speak,” he said. “Many look forward to laying that aside and doing more priestly stuff: preaching, teaching and visiting.”

Father Fichteman serves on the board of directors of Nativity Academy at St. Boniface. He is a member of The Record’s editorial board and continues to be involved with ministry in Haiti. And, until recently, he served on the board of overseers of St. Meinrad Seminary in Southern Indiana.

Last year, Father Fichteman, who retired in 2011, served as the administrator of St. Bernadette Church for eight months. He described the temporary position as a “good experience” but also noted “it was a big deal to get back in the saddle.”

Father Fichteman said he’s happy to assist with Masses, noting that the Eucharist is “so important to priests.”

“It’s a major part of who we are and what we do. It’s a joy to continue to do that, not so much a burden,” he said.

His service and that of other senior priests helps ensure better health of pastors and other priests, too, noted Father Shooner.

“Their assistance lightens the burden or load of commitments of our priests by allowing them to take retreats, to continue their formation and education and by allowing them to take vacations and sometimes days off, too,” he said.

Father Shooner said retired priests also offer a sense of companionship and support to priests in active ministry.

“They provide a sense of stability and continuity because of their wisdom. A number have assisted really above and beyond what is normally expected of retired clergy,” he said, noting Father Fichteman’s contributions to St. Bernadette last year.

As part of his role as vicar for senior clergy, Father Stiles considers himself the “designated visitor.” He spends time dropping by the various places where senior clergy reside. Most live independently in houses, apartments or condominiums. Some are in assisted care facilities or nursing homes. And a few, like himself, reside at parishes.

Citing a 2009 study, Father Stiles also noted some real concerns many retired clergy members say they feel. The study, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, reported on the concerns, perceptions and experiences among diocesan priests who have retired from office.

The study — called “When we can no longer ‘do:’ Issues in retirement for diocesan priests” — noted that many diocesan priests in retirement face the same concerns as lay people, such as “financial security, declining health, loneliness and loss.”

One survey respondent wrote that his greatest fear is “to have no one to care for me in my old age and/or bad health.”

Father Stiles said it is a real concern when some priests are unable to drive themselves to doctor appointments. Many times, he said, he or other senior clergy can provide transportation, but that’s not always the case.

“A couple of priests have given up driving due to poor eyesight,” he said. “But they are not ready for a nursing home. It would be nice if a couple more people could help with that.”

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