How Old Is Too Old?

This has the makings of what could be an interesting discussion. It’s not so much a theological question, although it does impinge on our understanding of priesthood and vocation. It’s a disciplinary question which apparently already has been decided, at least for the time being. It touches on sociological mores, and our attitude towards a portion of human society. The question? At what age is a man too old to be ordained?

The question is prompted by an email discussion in which this very matter was raised. As I said, it appears that the issue has been settled by those who have the responsibility to decide such things, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be discussed.

Here are some excerpts from the email conversation:

“I have been much saddened to have been informed lately that men coming into the Church here in the States from Anglican clerical backgrounds aged 80 or above, regardless of their orthodoxy and state of good health (and, seemingly, regardless of what they were led to expect in the past) will not be ordained in the Catholic Church.”

* * *

“Do you mean the age limit of 80 years? It would seem that it applies to all clerical converts (although those of whom I have heard being ‘rejected’ on that basis all were ordained in a Continuing Anglican body), and it has been described to me as ‘a decision of the CDF.’”

* * *

“It would seem 80 is a reasonable benchmark. Bishops are asked to submit their retirement at 75 and cardinals cannot vote for pope once over 80. Many dioceses expect priests to retire at 75. Given life expectancy green bananas can be a bad choice at 80 plus. One thing to recall, the church is consistent.”

* * *

“I see no reason to ordain men that old. It would be a kind sentimental gesture, but the Church ordains men to do a job, which a man of 80 is not likely to do, or do for long. The Church is being generous enough just in letting us in. A friend in his early sixties was told he was too old to ordain. In his case, since he had a pension to take care of him in his old age and would have been a superb priest, this seemed to me foolish, but the diocese felt it had a responsibility to its elderly priests and understandably didn't want to accept the responsibility (personal and financial) for someone who'd only be active for ten or so years. One can point out that he and others have their pensions, but old ways of doing things die hard.”

* * *

“Here in xxxxx, the archbishop ordained an 80 year old man who had been widowed and had been a permanent deacon, from what I can recall. He lived three years and had a wonderful ministry. He only recently died.”

* * *

“There was a dear old 'traditional' time when Roman Catholics believed in the intrinsic and infinite value of each offering of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Some of us still do. Probably those trashed old men do. Who can measure the benefits to the Church Militant and the Church Expectant of an old man faithfully offering the Holy Sacrifice, even if it is only for a few hundred times, in his eighties, before he dies?”

* * *

“One would think there would be ministries for them if only to say daily mass. But I have heard it said more than once that a married priest costs more than single. Despite its social teachings, the church often makes decisions based on dollars and cents or pounds and pence. I know a church secretary who wanted to work part time after 25 yrs service. The pastor decided to hire someone else part time because the secretary would still get benefits whereas someone new part time would not. Now that priest is an accountant but not a pastor.”

* * *

“Eighty year old ex-Anglicans will undoubtedly have a house and a pension. All they would ask would be the right to say Mass as long as their health permits it, and to give any help they can to the local church … during vacancies, when clergy are on holiday, on the pastor's day off, when a church cannot be given a salaried priest.”

* * *

“I hope that out of generosity and compassion there will be dispensations in this area. Those who have put everything on the line to lead their flocks into the Catholic Church I would hope need not be humiliated and punished for doing so.”

* * *

There are some interesting issues raised in the discussion. Of course, a vocation to the priesthood – no matter how sincerely one senses the call by God – must be ratified and issued by the Church… although we should remember that the Church is led by an 85-year old Pope who is certainly energetic and sharp. It’s obvious God still uses him, and that in itself lends some flavour to the conversation.

Author: Fr. Christopher Phillips

Fr. Christopher G. Phillips is the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served for the past twenty-eight years. He is the founding pastor of the first Anglican Use parish, erected in 1983 under the terms of the Pastoral Provision. Fr. Phillips was ordained as an Anglican for the Diocese of Bristol, England, in 1975. After serving as Curate for three years at St. Stephen Southmead, he returned to the United States and served in two Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Rhode Island. In 1981 he left the Episcopal Church and moved with his family to Texas, where he was subsequently ordained as a Catholic priest in 1983. Fr. Phillips and his wife, JoAnn, have been married for forty years. They have five children, all grown and married, and three grandchildren.

20 thoughts on “How Old Is Too Old?”

  1. There are loads of cases of men being ordained on their deathbeds. This is more of the same imperialist (and largely ignorant) Roman attitude we have witnessed over the past few years since AC.

  2. The Rev. John A Staunton, the first rector of St Mary's Episcopal Church in Sagada in the Philippine Cordilleras decided to become a Roman Catholic in 1930 after the Lambeth Conference approved of artificial contraception. He was old and losing his vision then but still Rome ordained him. He wasn't able to complete his seminary training in Rome but he still was ordained. The Pope was said to have been moved by his circumstances. Since the decision to ordain a man to the priesthood lies with the local ordinary, perhaps we just have to pray that the bishops get sufficiently "moved" by the Holy Ghost!

  3. I was ordained in 1997. Six of us were ordained together in the Cathedral. Two were ordained later that year. One was too young and had to wait for his 24th birthday. The other was ordained at the age of 82, his sons attended his ordination and he gave 10 years service to the Diocese before he died at 92. He spent those years as a Chaplain to a convent and working in the Diocesan offices. We were all cradle Catholics. Since the essential "job" of a priest is to offer sacrifice, that of the Altar
    (Mass) and that of Praise ( the Office) I see no reason not to ordain a man if he is capable of both.

  4. It used to be the case in the Catholic Curch that a candidate for the priesthood who was in possession of an income sufficient to support hm for the rest of his life, and who could assure the bishop of this, could be ordained in the title of patrimony. Unlike a priest ordained in the title of eclesiastical service, he was not entitled to a benefice, and at no stage became a charge on his bishop.

    I'm not sure why, but I don't think ordination in the title of patrimony is bestowed anymore. (I may be wrong.)

    Perhaps someone else knows more about this.

  5. The decision of the bishop is one of the signs of a vocation. A sense of grievance and entitlement is entirely out of place here. And the implication that the lay state represents "humiliation" and "punishment" is insulting.

    1. Excellent point. There are many cradle Catholics who had to give up much to remain faithful but in a quiet and unnoticed way. There are priests who gave up lives as great husbands and fathers for the sake of the priestly calling. Conversely, there are men who gave up their desire to be priests in order to follow a vocation in marriage and family life. And, yes, the Church's guidance through Her teachings as well as her affirming or denying a certain path is a key aspect of understanding one's vocation. All who follow Christ, will suffer in some measure. Being denied a certain path by His Church may be the suffering needed for one's redemption. Perhaps, those who are coming to the Church as converts may be realizing this but those who have worked to be faithful since birth are well aware of the price and have been striving to pay it albeit in less dramatic fashion. To be ordained a priest is not a right; it is an amazing gift and those who publicily fret over the Church's decisions may want to be mindful that they are doing so in front of others who gave up either a life in Holy Orders or a life in marriage, with little or no noise.
      God bless and welcome. I hope many of our new converts find that life in the Church can be arduous but it is always rich and joyful because no matter how crazy it gets – and it does! – Christ is in our midst.

      God bless,
      Dan Hoffman

  6. The age limit for bishops and cardinals was introduced after the council, together with many other novelties, many of which haven't stood the proof of time. In my eyes, the age limit is wrong wrong wrong. A bishop is supposed to be the father of his diocese – does a natural father cease to be a father when he turns 75? The whole sad idea has led to a mentality of bishop being a "job" one can retire from.
    Fr Philipps raised the example of our Holy Father, not exactly a spring chicken, but still energetic and alert. At which age should the pope automatically retire – 85? 90? 100?
    The whole idea of age limits for priests, bishops and cardinals is wrong, contrary to the original idea of priestly service and should be abandoned soon!

    1. Respectfully, this analogy does not match Catholic practice. Does a natural father get transferred to a bigger family after a few years of experience with a smaller family?

    2. On the other hand, there comes a point in the lives of our parents where it is the grown children who take on the role of caring for their parents, and it is perhaps more fair to the bishops who ARE too tired to care for their flocks as full bishops to be allowed to rest as Bishops-Emeriti rather than be "transferred" to a titular see as the former case was.

      And, for what it's worth, the law requires a bishop to submit a letter of resignation to the Pope; it does not require the Pope to accept it. Sometimes he asks the bishop to continue. I'll grant it's likely that there are cases where the bishop should have more freedom to continue if his health and desire are both present, but I daresay that the majority of bishops feel themselves lucky if they make it TO 75 in good health.

      Probably what we need most is a new language of talking about it–something that doesn't make it sound like retirement from a job, but recognises that our elders in the faith have "retired" to a more easier, more contemplative form of life, spiritual grandfathers as it were rather than fathers.

      1. In the old church, the bishop was likened to a husband wedded to his diocese. Consequently, the practice of transferring a bishop to another diocese was very disputed when it was introduced. Now I am not saying pre-conciliar practice was perfect, nor am I saying that alll the changes were for the worse. But why is 75 considered an age when every bishop becomes magically unfit for office?
        I know the actual practice of how a bishop retires; I also find it a hard case to come up with many bishops whose offer to retire was declined by the Holy Father. Before the changes, if a bishop felt tired he asked for a coadjutor that – if given – would take over some of the diocesan bishop's tasks, depending on how much workload he would want to give up. That way, not only wouldn't there be a "Bishop emeritus" (isn't that exactly the kind of language that suggests bishop is a job you can retire from?), but also the transition would go more smoothly, without a diocese waiting months and years for a successor, in effect being left fatherless.

        1. On the other hand the magical 75 has allowed for the getting rid of many of the worst of the "Spirit of Vatican II" gang, such as Weakland and Mahoney.

          1. On the other other hand (is it the fourth? :)), that cannot be the rationale for an age limit. These bishops you mentioned shouldn't have been appointed and consecrated in the first place!
            BTW, I think at least Bishop Weakland would have been suspended at the very latest when his sexual, shall we say, misconduct became public. But let us not go there…

          2. UGH. MAHONEY. He, having been the former Archbishop of my archdiocese had the nerve to ask for a flimsy string to attach to his galero when he dies, so he goes to heaven faster. The Los Angeles Cathedral's monsignor said there were only steel cables available for him.

  7. "There was a dear old 'traditional' time when Roman Catholics believed in the intrinsic and infinite value of each offering of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass."

    The intrinsic value of offering the Mass is a venerable Catholic belief. But I think we need to be careful about using piety-induced hyperbole. If we believed that each Mass itself had an infinite, unqualified value, the "infinite value" of offering Mass would "infinitely" outweigh, say, celibacy. Or any other disciplinary roadblock to the offering of more "infinitely valuable" Masses.

  8. I don't believe this is a formal decision of the CDF; I attended the Ordination of an 82 year old to the Ordinariate last year – concelebrating was an 81 year old ordained the previous day.

    So the attacks on the CDF seem off the mark. I don't know where this comes from but the story is probably different than we assume.

  9. The normal lower age limit established by Canon Law is 25 years old at the time of ordination. There's no upper age limit in Canon Law.

    That probably means a lot of gray area in the issue.

    Elderly clerics from non-Catholic backgrounds can have valuable input in a parish community, but they shouldn't be ordained as Catholic priests if they're older than the bishops' retirement age just as a rule of thumb and for the sake of consistency. This will discourage any "deathbed ordinations" being viewed as the norm rather than exceptions. Of course, I think those elderly individuals who REALLY want to be priests probably have the freedom to make a case for their ordination at an individual basis. After all, a good priest is a good priest, and is preferable to many priests.

    The permanent diaconate seems sensible in their case. No one should look down on deacons as if they're "inferior"; this is the same sort of mentality certain women have with regards to not being ordained as "priestesses" and "bishopesses" as if they have to "settle for" being nuns. A deacon can be as important as the priest in his function to the parish. They may be instrumental in keeping certain priests in check, as they are the Bishop's eyes and ears.

    As a Roman Catholic, it may seem as "imperialistic", but I just see it as the Roman way, to emphasize discipline, sobriety, and obedience to do as what the bishop commands. It is not a suggestion, from our side of the hierarchy. Of course, other Catholics have their own attitudes, and if questioning authority has to come from Anglo-Catholics, then God bless the Anglo-Catholics.

  10. Fr John Hunwicke is to be Ordained to the Priesthood in Oxford Oratory at 7pm on Wednesday, 27th June. Deo Gratias.

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