The rectory can be an odd place – not quite a home – not quiet an office space – not quite a family place since it is all males – not quite private – not quite open to the public. But that does not mean that it is safeguarded from situations that arise in much more traditional living spaces with more traditional tenants.
One area in which this is true is with aging “family” members. There was a time when there were many more priests to take care of each other and priests could either retire or there were enough men on hand to keep a failing guy plugging along. That is becoming less common. There are less priests, later retirements, and there fewer young Turks to keep a guy going who might not be able to keep all six pistons going.
A couple of times now I have had the privilege to live with a man who was at the end of his priestly career. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not so much. Sometimes a pleasure, sometimes nothing that six pack of martinis could not at least deaden.
It can be an intense ministry. A high maintenance priest can take up the ministry time that could go to scores of other people. It is a delicate balance to weigh. “Do I spend time giving Father the attention he desires today or do I go with the youth group?”
In the back of one’s mind is the thought, “One day that might be me. Sure I have nephews, but will they come by and make sure that I am eating all right and taking my medication? If I want to be taken care of I need to set the example.”
There is a pleasure taking care of a fellow elder-priest. There is much to learn from him. And there is value in respecting the life of such a man. And it can be quite fulfilling if the man also happens to be cooperative. (We priests can be notoriously uncooperative.)
I almost killed one elder-priest with whom I was living. It was not that I didn’t like him, I loved him quite dearly. In fact I thought I was doing right by him when I said he should stop using the equivalent of an entire salt shaker every few days on his food and perhaps should take up the habit of having at least one glass of water a day. (We liked to drink scotch together.) Within a few weeks he was in the hospital with a low salt problem and was given orders to drink straight bullion for a month.
I’ve also seen how difficult life can be for an elder-priest. I forget things all of the time. One of Fr. P’s duties is to make sure that I do not embarrass myself by forgetting something. When I was living with one elder priest, if I forgot something people would pat me on the head and chuckle, if the old pastor forgot something (and far less often than I did) in certain circles it became a sign that he was failing and should step down.
The nice thing about being elderly is the opportunity to stop caring about what people think. I remember the above priest hearing that a lady in the parish was complaining because he forgot something and so he called her up and bluntly said, “Hello Betty! I understand that I am forgetting things. Perhaps you would care to elaborate and remind me what it is.”
Who knows what the solution will be. We will grow into one – or, as I plan, there will be a HUGE influx of young men into the priesthood by the time I need someone to tell me I have one blue sock and one back sock on. In the past, it was many priests in constant contact – but as we strive to keep as many rectories as possible open, that is thinning the heard. And Social Security has all but wiped out housekeepers. And nuns at the parish are as scarce as the hairs on my head. In the meantime, if you can, give the old dodger a hand if you can – pray for older priests – and understand that like in your family, the other priests may be spending a goodly amount of time tending to one of their own.