Priests need to seek permission from their bishop in order to retire.
At retirement, a priest who once served in active ministry can back off, relax, grow spiritually and enjoy his golden years in peace. Retirement enables him to live according to his own schedule, interests and desires and be freed from administrative or organizational responsibilities. Often, the best time for a priest to retire is influenced by his mental and physical health.
The Code of Canon Law does not require diocesan priests to retire. It says, “When a pastor has completed 75 years of age, he is asked to submit his resignation from office to the diocesan bishop, who, after considering all the circumstances of person and place, is to decide whether to accept or defer the resignation; the diocesan bishop, taking into account the norms determined by the conference of bishops, is to provide for the suitable support and housing of the resigned pastor” (538.3). In other words, a pastor (priest) is not mandated to retire, nor is the bishop required to accept his resignation. Since a priest’s retirement is not definitely determined, a great deal of latitude exists.
In addition to Canon 538, which mentions providing for pastors, Canon 281 mentions providing social assistance for clerics (bishops, priests and deacons). It says, “Provision must also be made so that they [clerics] possess that social assistance which provides for their needs suitably if they suffer from illness, incapacity or old age” (281.2).
Michael N. Kane, in his article in Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, “The Taboo of Retirement for Diocesan Priests,” says some believe “that priesthood is a vocation from which there can be no retirement. The expectation is that the priest will continue to be of service throughout his life until he is physically or cognitively unable to do so.” This perception harkens back to an era when priests never retired, and to the conclusions that may be drawn from Canon 538.3 quoted above.
The tradition that a priest can retire from active ministry, while retaining his faculties to serve as a priest on a part-time basis, has developed in the United States since Vatican II. The retirement age, financial support and other matters vary from diocese to diocese. They are influenced by and dependent of customs and resources in each diocese.
Retirement doesn’t mean a priest ceases to be a priest. Senior priests usually are happy to assist in ministries associated with the heart of priestly ministry, such as the Eucharist or reconciliation. Parishes would be in dire straits if it were not for their generous help.
Retirement can be a fruitful time, filled with meaning and purpose. A priest’s positive attitude toward retirement, his sense of humor and his planning for it are important. They set the stage for his transition from active ministry to retirement. As the St. Meinrad pre-retirement workshop for priests indicates, a priest’s retirement is the time for him to find “new purpose, new meaning and new direction.” A major question is, “When will a priest retire?” - Tips for Priests Nearing Retirement