by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — During these busy times of Advent and Christmas, you might see a different priest at the altar instead of your regular pastor.
Don’t call him the “new guy,” however. He’s a veteran who has done and seen it all. And now, he’s retired.
But retirement hasn’t taken him out of the game.
The archdiocese has 24 retired priests, not including those who belong to religious orders. Some of them are ill and no longer exercise their ministry. Others, however, fill a vital role in the life of the church in the archdiocese. When pastors need an extra hand or a substitute, the retired priests step forward.
One such priest is Father Tom Hesse, 73, now living in Lecompton. His last assignment as administrator at Holy Family Parish in Eudora ended five years ago.
“My practice of ministry helps me appreciate my priesthood,” said Father Hesse. “The day I retired, I didn’t just drop off a cliff not to be seen anymore, nor did it mean I didn’t enjoy my priesthood.”
Father Hesse celebrates Mass at various parishes twice a week and on most weekends. The pace is even now picking up, though, as the church enters one of its busiest liturgical seasons, with additional reconciliation services.
“I don’t do weddings or funerals unless they are private or for my relatives,” he said. “I celebrate quite a few Masses and a few penance services.”
But Father Hesse’s ministry is also just one of presence — he particularly likes to visit pastors assigned to the farthest reaches of the archdiocese. He knows firsthand that visits from fellow priests are always welcomed by pastors isolated in a rural community with no other Catholic priests nearby.
“It’s a goal of mine during retirement that I visit other priests as I would have liked to be visited by them,” said Father Hesse. “I visit them because I think it’s important to support them. I was out there for quite a while, and I always enjoyed it when someone visited me. I felt supported.”
Father Hesse’s empathy for hard- working pastors is shared by 80-year- old Father George Seuferling, who now lives in Meriden.
He retired in 2001 as pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, but now he’s a substitute celebrant for Masses almost every weekend.
“I like to do it,” said Father Seuferling. “I was a pastor once, and I know how desperate you can get. And it’s a big part of my spirituality, preparing homilies.”
That’s not to say he’s not enjoying retirement. There’s a lot of fulfillment to be found in it, he said.
“Being retired has freed me up to be a priest,” he said. “I wasn’t trained to be a CEO, but a pastor has to do a lot of that. Now I can spend a lot of time in prayer and writing homilies, [and] work at the prison, the House of Prayer or campus ministry. I don’t have to do administration. It’s a whole new priesthood.”
He also celebrates Mass every six weeks at the Topeka women’s prison, and at the Catholic Campus Center at Washburn University, Topeka.
Sometimes it seems that very little changes.
Father Thomas Kearns, who now lives at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Kansas City, Kan., celebrates the same Mass schedule he’s had for his entire priesthood.
“I would say this is a very good time for my priesthood,” said Father Kearns, 76, whose last assignment as pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Paola ended six years ago.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he con- tinued. “I have good health and continue to enjoy celebrating the Mass. It’s simpler — I don’t have meetings or the responsibility of budgets or collecting money, so I can spend more time visiting people, especially parishioners and those in the hospitals.”
Like most retired priests, he doesn’t miss much of his former role, except the relationships he had with parishioners.
“It’s a really strong and beautiful relationship I feel I don’t have as a retired priest,” said Father Kearns. “I have good relationships, but it’s just different. To a degree, I miss [being a pastor], but not enough to go back to being a pastor.”
Without these retired yet active priests, some Catholics — those in prisons, nursing homes, hospitals and campus ministries — would have fewer opportunities to receive the sacraments.
Another priest filling an important niche is Father Robert Burger, 87, who now lives at Villa St. Francis in Olathe.
“My job is sacramental minister at the Villa,” he said. “I take care of all the [sacramental needs].”
Although his “parish” is a small one, he is greatly appreciated by his fellow residents. He helps them to grow spiritually and, in turn, experiences that growth himself.
“I think [spiritual growth] is my primary interest these days,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer God is going to give me life. I’m the second-oldest priest in the archdiocese.”
Even so, Father Burger understands that his ministry is an important one. His fellow retired priests agree.
“We fill a very important role,” said Father Kearns. “The pastors say that, and I know the archbishop feels that way. All of us who are retired, I think, feel fulfilled in our ministerial roles. All of us are doing things to various degrees. These are different ways of helping out that helps the church and makes us more fulfilled.”