By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published February 20, 2014
ATLANTA—In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Msgr. Stephen Churchwell is a helping hand for the many retired and senior priests.
Msgr. Churchwell is Vicar for Senior Priests and chair of the Priests Retirement Committee and the first to fulfill this role of vicar created in 2010. A priest of the archdiocese for nearly 38 years, he has been chair of the priests retirement committee for the past 24 years.
After becoming increasingly concerned about the situation of retired priests in general, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory named Msgr. Churchwell as the inaugural Vicar for Senior Priests.
“I wrote up a job description,” said the very detail-oriented priest. But he says the description is nothing like what he actually does on a day-to-day basis.
There are 52 priests over the age of 65 in the archdiocese. Some remain in active ministry as pastors, some are officially retired but continue to serve the church in various ways, and still others have ongoing or serious health issues as they age.
Msgr. Churchwell is the liaison and minister for these priests, and his duties might include arranging medical appointments for an elderly priest, overseeing the small corps of volunteers who provide transportation for these priests, coordinating out-of-town visits from family, or spending time with ill priests. The volunteers are small in number and are matched to the personality of the priest.
“Most priests have spent their whole lives being independent,” explained Msgr. Churchwell.
More than 20 priests near or older than retirement age are still assigned to the ministry on a full-time basis. Others are officially retired and living on their own or at St. George Village in Roswell, a Catholic continuing care retirement community. There are 10 units available at St. George Village for retired priests, but not all are filled at this time.
Msgr. Churchwell said many of the priests in assisted living or skilled care at St. George Village don’t have family living nearby. Their former parishioners are often the ones who support them with visits and cards.
“What he’s done is amazing,” said Bishop David P. Talley about the monsignor’s efforts.
Not only has he created this new category of senior priests, Msgr. Churchwell often drives priests to the doctor himself and handles or oversees their daily care needs.
“He has found himself pastorally. I believe it’s an act of love,” said Bishop Talley.
While there is a distinction between a retired and senior priest, the terms are still being defined in Atlanta and in the United States. A senior priest often means one over the age of 65 who no longer has the administrative duties that come with being a pastor, but has the heart and ability to be part of pastoral ministries.
“They are finding a new way to work,” explained Bishop Talley. “We don’t want anyone warehoused.”
Msgr. Churchwell works with current pastors to develop agreements or contracts on how senior priests can be of assistance.
The monsignor, too, is not ready to define all of what it means to be a senior priest.
“This is a new category for us, and we are constantly learning more about it. What is clear to me is that the archbishop values his older priests and wants to support them at this time in their lives,” said Msgr. Churchwell.
June Owens, executive assistant for the Office of Priest Personnel, works alongside Msgr. Churchwell to organize a celebratory Mass and special luncheon for the senior and retired priests annually.
“He considers the welfare of the priest,” said Owens. “He helps them with their financial wellness as well.”
Owens said the monsignor might call himself an “office priest” but that he’s really a “priest’s priest.”
While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops created an annual collection to supplement the funds congregations had set aside for retired religious—nuns, brothers and religious order priests—it is the role of the local diocese to address the retirement needs of diocesan priests.
Msgr. Churchwell said that the Catholic Church has done a good job planning for so many issues but that the “retirement of priests is not one of those.”
However in Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory began to look at the long-term care and day-to-day needs of senior priests before it became a problem.
“We’re still in the process of discerning what those needs are,” said Msgr. Churchwell. “What Archbishop Gregory has done is to understand that this is a big issue with a lot of moving parts.”
Diocesan priests can participate in a 403b retirement pension fund, and in 2012 an avenue was also created to provide for funding of long-term care. “It’s available to them,” said Msgr. Churchwell.
In the 2014 Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, $600,000 is set aside for priest support and retirement.
On Feb. 16, Msgr. Churchwell spoke to parishioners at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell about senior priests and how contributions to the Annual Appeal support the ministry.
The monsignor said that most of the priests he works with do not have family in the Atlanta area or anyone to take the place of family.
“Thus, the archdiocese has to take on that role for its senior clergy. It is very gratifying to me that I can participate in providing care for the priests who need it as they age,” he said.
Bishop Talley called Msgr. Churchwell a “shepherd” to his aging brothers. The vicar’s work is an example for the laity to not forget older priests and “just to be with them and love them through the life cycle,” said Bishop Talley. “There’s still a heart that wants to serve.”
Tending to the needs of the older priests is not the monsignor’s only ministry. He also serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar of the Metropolitan Tribunal handling marriage annulments, and oversees the Clergy Welfare Fund. “It’s a gigantic load,” said Bishop Talley.
It’s clear that the wellbeing of his fellow priests is at the forefront for Msgr. Churchwell. One might hear him ask at a priest’s ordination, “Have you thought about retirement?”
Zeal and planning ahead are other assets the monsignor brings to his role. “He always thinks ahead,” said Bishop Talley. According to the bishop, Msgr. Churchwell is already looking for someone to eventually succeed him in this important position.
Aging is something all have to think about and plan for eventually.
“I think maybe my experiences can be likened to that of a lot of families,” said Msgr. Churchwell. “It’s when kids begin to take care of their parents.”