Experiencing the Grace of Retirement: Time

Originally Appeared in : Vol. 100 No. 03

I am relatively new at this retirement thing. And I am finding out that retirement is a work in progress.

I have had brother priests tell me that retirement was great, while others have counseled me otherwise. I am experiencing some of the truth of each opinion. Here is what I have discovered so far. One size does not fit all. Everyone, lay and clergy, has their own reason for retiring. Some have reached a certain age where retirement is mandatory, some have just gotten tired of the 9-to-5 routine.

Some enter this next stage of life with joyful expectation – “Now I can do what I have always wanted but did not have time.” Others enter with fear and trembling – what next? Some enter with a plan, others are willing to let the future unfold before them. But there seems to be general agreement on this: It takes some time to adjust to the new situation. What one was doing in their pre-retirement has a bearing on how folks see their retirement. If what you were doing for years was just a “job” from 9 to 5, then it may be easier to walk away from that. Your job did not define you. However, if you are a Catholic priest, what you do is not a job. You may be well ready to forgo meetings and the administration of a parish. But serving as a priest is more than a job, it is a vocation, it is who you are, as well as what you do.

The vocation of a parent comes to mind here. There is never a time when one stops being a parent and serving the needs of ones children, no matter what their age. And so, there is a mental wrestling match for a priest and other vocations, such as physicians, when it comes to retirement. After retirement, “Who am I?” “Have I lost my identity?” “Am I of use anymore?” “Do I matter?” Aging raises these issues for everyone. I actually have people ask me, “Are you still a priest?”.

Another frequently asked question is, “Are you busy?” I understand what is behind the question. Are you staying active enough? Engaging your mind so that TV doesn’t turn it into mush? Finding something that will maintain your interest so that petrification doesn’t set in? Finding an activity to keep you growing and alive? But being busy could also mean filling up time. Mindless activity, like “shop till you drop” is filling up time. One never retires from meditation and prayer, learned from a lifetime of practice. And that is not just filling up time.

I am originally from Valdosta, Georgia, and still have some family there. But I chose to retire in Houston County where I served for more than 28 years. This location has afforded me the opportunity and access to people who have become my spiritual family over the years.

How true it is that social contacts are important at every stage in our lives. This remains true in retirement. I am blessed with an abundance of social contacts in the area in which I served for almost three decades.

I am also fortunate that the priests who have replaced me at Sacred Heart are welcoming of my services when they are needed. I am able to maintain a limited ministry here. I am also blessed with good health so that I can provide sacramental coverage from time to time, in parishes where there is a need. If there is one area of ministry in which I find joy and meaning, it is preaching and presiding.

I am grateful that I still have the opportunity to serve in that ministry.

Retirement presents one with a new challenge and opportunity: Your schedule is of your own making. Or, to put it another way, do you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning? I must admit that even as a pastor my schedule was not always mapped out before me. You have to make choices about what and where to spend your time and energy. But, with retirement the entire day lies open before you. There is the chance to pursue some leisure activity – dinner and lunch with friends, movies that are of interest, a cup of coffee and the New York Times. The schedule is flexible, and that is a blessing.

In these early days of retirement I find that I am able to spend time with the sick and dying in a more relaxed man- ner. I am experiencing the grace of being present to people without feeling torn to get back to the office and tend to a myriad of other things. I am better able to be present in the here and now.

And so, I return to whence I started – retirement is a work in progress. When people ask, “How is retirement?”, it is not a question easily answered by one word or one sentence. Much of it is challenging and much is rewarding. I am thankful for the support of the diocese in this new stage of my life. And I look forward to what is to come. As the saying goes: For yesterday, I say thank you, for today I say amen, and for tomorrow, I say yes!

Monsignor Fred J. Nijem is retired and pastor emeritus of Sacred Heart Church, Warner Robins.

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