We should be grateful for the service provided by our senior clergy. They continue to work in our parishes and many offer their services to help parish staffs provide sacramental liturgies. Every time I have the privilege of being in their presence, I learn more about the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from these living historical textbooks. Not only am I told of the great events and the sacrifices made by so many of our communities, but I am treated to the experiences they have of the characters who occupied positions as pastors. I hope that it doesn’t shock you that I described some of our presbyterate as “characters.” As a priest for 36 years, I can readily say that these individuals add that special flavor to the face of the priesthood.
The reflections of our senior priests often take them back to when they were young priests just out of the seminary, how they depended upon one another to learn the ropes, and learn the idiosyncrasies of the pastor to whom they had been assigned.
Certainly it’s a different time in the church today. We don’t have a staff of priests in any of our parishes. Someone recently remarked that 40 years ago there might be five priests assigned to one parish while today there might be one priest assigned to five parishes.
One thing that has not changed, however, is the solidarity of the priesthood. As the years go by in my priestly life, I find myself identifying more and more with our senior priests. No surprise, the connection is easy! I don’t have to explain who Howdy Doody was (if you don’t know then you can’t be a member of the Peanut Gallery) or the Cisco Kid (Oh! Pancho) or Milton Berle (Uncle Miltie).
Even in the area of theology, I lived during the Second Vatican Council, experienced the changes and the dramatic impact, whereas for many of our young priests born after 1965, Vatican II is a study in ecclesiological history.
It’s probably true to say that in the human family, there is a natural gravitation to Grandma and Grandpa. The “kids” find comfort and safe haven in the seniors. Kids are not threatened by seniors who often exercise their wisdom with compassion and their opinions are often respected by authority figures like Mom and Dad.
Our senior priests, being free from a regular assignment, are able to offer that same wisdom and compassion. We clergy love to hear the stories of our senior priests; we value their opinions and live vicariously through their priesthood lived during some of the great moments in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
I write about our senior priests, first to express my gratitude to them but also hoping that it might evoke some attention not only to our senior priests but our seniors in our communities.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of our obligations (2218) “The fourth commandment reminds grown children of their responsibilities toward their parents. As much as they can, they must give them material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress….”
The Book of Sirach (3:2-6) tells us “For the Lord honored the father above the children, and he confirmed the right of the mother over her sons. Whoever honors his father atones for sins and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure. Whoever honors his father will be gladdened by his own children, and when he prays he will be heard. Whoever glorifies his father will have a long life and whoever obeys the Lord will refresh his mother.”
Given today’s economic climate I worry that our seniors may become vulnerable to economic expediency. Social Security, pensions and retirement benefits assist our senior population in living lives free from the fear of dependency. As we go forward as a nation and discuss changes to the current system, they must be done with reason and a sense of fairness, understanding that we owe something to those who have contributed to our society.
As health care costs spiral, we must be vigilant that adequate health care will be available to those in need. We can help our family members by discussing with them their wishes for health care treatment. Making sure that senior family members have a “Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care” or a “Living Will” is an important aspect of caring for our seniors.
Documents are being fashioned and proposed that follow a person from institution to institution and impose modes of treatment or denial of treatment. These documents may even supersede a “Durable Power of Attorney” or a “Living Will.” At times these new documents may be offered by health care affiliates who are not doctors, without the consultation of any family or spiritual advisor, i.e., priest, minister or rabbi.
As people of faith, it is important for us to be afforded the dignity that God gave us over our lives. A Catholic may not reject treatments that are beneficial or palliative. Does a patient or senior understand that the person explaining this document may not be a Catholic? Does he or she realize the ramifications of signing a document denying treatment? Decisions concerning the end of life should be made with broad consultation, including input from one’s personal physician, family members and spiritual advisors who can help the individual make an informed choice. Shortcuts to that process can lead to a disservice to the elderly and may, at times, even be immoral.
Our lives are enriched by the seniors in our families and communities. We need to create an environment that respects our elderly and, as their friends, we must be vigilant to ensure their dignity. We help create the environment now because, either presently or in the future, we all will be seniors.