Several people have said to me recently, “Priests do not retire.” I cannot speak justly for diocesan priests, because I am not one, but for my part, I think that parish priests can and do retire, and in many cases, deservedly so. I am happy for a retiring diocesan priest who served his parishioners for years, who proclaimed Christ faithfully in word and deed, who truly dedicated himself to “the care of souls,” that is, to the spiritual well-being of his parishioners. Such priests—and bishops—deserve to retire, and to continue to serve in a pastoral role if and when they wish to do so. Such service is optional after retirement, and how much one does, and the kinds of work, would depend on the individual priest’s willingness, interests, and health. That they continue assisting with some pastoral duties is not required, but their own personal choice—with the permission of the local bishop, of course.
But I am not a diocesan priest, but a Benedictine monk, who was selected for ordination to the priesthood by my Abbot to serve our monastic community and, at times, to assist others who are linked to our monastery. A Benedictine monastic, male or female, has one primary goal: to seek God with all of one’s resources, with the grace of God, until death. The work of seeking God does not end, and from this task, one does not retire. For those monks who are also ordained as priests, there is always a tension, if not a contradiction, between the life of a monk and active priestly ministry. Normally, the monk seeks God within the walls of the monastery. With my Abbot’s permission, I temporarily served as a Navy Chaplain with Marines and Sailors during the Gulf War because of emergency need. Later he asked me to assist in a parish a few miles from our monastery. Then with his permission, I served as a parish priest in the Midwest, and in 2009 I returned to serve temporarily in parishes in my home state of Montana. I serve here only with the permission of my Abbot, to whom I belong as a monk, and with the permission of Bishop Michael. Whether or not a bishop permits me to function as a priest in his diocese after retirement is his decision.
As of early this year my Abbot granted me permission to remain living outside of the monastic walls, at least “for the duration.” He has the authority to call me back to St. Anselm’s Abbey at any time, and for any reason. As I retire from active pastoral duty, my monastic calling and vows must return to the fore: to give my energies to seeking the presence of the living God. This search requires many hours of solitude, profound peace, contemplative prayer, and nourishing study. Having been formed as a Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey (Washington, DC), and having lived the life for years in our monastery, I have a good sense of what is required of me. It will necessitate making considerable changes as I retire from active ministry on 1 July: it will take time and prayer for me to know how best to live as a faithful Benedictine monk.
To help me adjust to returning to the life of a Benedictine, I will in effect be taking a sabbatical, and not be available for pastoral substitute work at least for some time. I must also limit social invitations, as befits a more contemplative lifestyle. The best way to contact me, should you wish to do so, is by email. My iPhone will be turned off much of the time, as required for silence. Furthermore, I have planned day trips to areas in Montana in the summer months to exercise my dogs and me, and to see more of beautiful Montana then active life has permitted. I will also spend time with my brother in Utah, make a quiet retreat on the Oregon coast in the fall, and then visit my sister and her husband in San Diego over the Christmas holidays. I have not seen my family for several years.
As several of you have truly said, I will need to be retired for a while to learn how to handle the changes well. Having worked full time since my student days, and having been busy serving in active priestly ministry since 1991, retirement will require major adjustments, as it does for everyone. Some folks have asked if I will be “bored.” My response is: “Are you serious? I have many interests and hobbies.” More fundamentally, retirement permits one to strive for peace in solitude and silence, as befits a Benedictine. In truth, retirement is a graced time for anyone to seek God; that is our human calling. Furthermore, writing would be a more suitable way to continue ministering to the faithful, as it requires solitude. The LORD will guide me to assist in pastoral duties, such as funerals, at the right time, if it is appropriate to do so. In all things, peace: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Know that you will be with me in my heart and prayer. I will treasure the years we have spent together in this passing light.
—Fr. Wm. Paul McKane, OSB (Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey)
In writing these brief meditation-memos, I have usually avoided including much personal material, although I use some of my life-experiences to illustrate more general points in homilies. On this occasion I reverse the process: discussion of my vocations may be too difficult for some to hear in homilies, so I sketch it out here, rather than in a homily. My purpose is to explain to parishioners something few apparently understand, because of lack of experience with Benedictines monks (men and women): the nature of the monastic vocation is strongly different from the call to be a priest in the Church. If this memo fails to clarify my vocational situation for you, let me know and I shall write a longer version and post it on our website.
We all have multiple vocations from God, not just one. To focus on a single vocation is naive and misleading. Our foremost and common vocation is to become what we have been created to be: happy, virtuous, fulfilled, engaged human beings, who find our ultimate completion in God alone. Furthermore, some have a calling as men, some as women. Most human beings find considerable personal fulfillment in being married and raising loving children. Furthermore, our natural abilities and interests point to having other vocations. In my case, I have long been interested in learning and in teaching; in music, photography, literature; in philosophy and in spiritual life. We also share the vocation to be men and women in Christ Jesus, and to live out this calling as faithful Catholics.
I have two additional vocations which have been highly significant in my life: I have been called by Christ and by a Benedictine community to live as a monk until death; and my abbot chose me to serve, at least at times, as a priest for the community, and in the larger church. Repeatedly I have learned that even life-time Catholics do not understand the monastic vocation; many consider it invalid, escapist, or inhuman. The essence of the Benedictine monastic calling is to seek God in community. We take three vows: obedience to the Rule of St. Benedict and to our abbot; stability of life as a monk until death; and a life of ongoing conversion to Christ. To seek God means that one truly trusts and acts as though “my happiness is in You alone.” Monks forsake marriage, family life, property. The vocation of priests is to serve parish families, helping to lead people to God. Priests keep their earthly families, are attached to place, may inherit and own property. In brief, whereas monks are called to seek God in prayer and study, Catholic priests are called to active ministry. They are very different and even conflicting vocations. Every monk who is a priest knows well the conflict, and seeks to find the right balance in his life.
Let me be practical. I entered St. Anselm’s Abbey in 1982 to seek God. With chaplains needed for the Gulf War, I entered the Navy in 1991, and since then, have been a fully-engaged parish priest. My life as a Benedictine monk was not negated, but was at least partially suspended. Active ministry has left much less time for study and contemplation. As I approach retirement from active ministry, my monastic vocation returns to the fore. My abbot has chosen to restore my status as an active member of our monastery. As such, I am obligated to spend generous hours in prayer, study, and meditation every day, as well as do some manual work. Most of the monks of our monastery share in some pastoral ministry, including writing, teaching, preaching, care of the sick, and so on.
When I retire on 1 July, I will no longer be a parish priest, nor am I a diocesan priest. I will return to full-time status as a Benedictine monk. I may on occasion preach in public, or offer a Mass, but my main form of teaching and preaching will take the form of writing. To write, I must meditate and study. To these ends, I will considerably reduce my social life, as Benedictine monks live a life of relative seclusion from the world, from business, from socializing. I am not leaving the planet, but please understand if I decline opportunities to socialize or to minister in public. Please understand: I am not a diocesan priest, but a man who vowed himself to seek God in prayer, study, and contemplation. This vocation requires large amounts of time in solitude. With the help of God, I will live out my Benedictine vocation until death.