Now It is Evening: Thinking of Retirement for Priests in Nigeria

By Hyacinth Ichoku

The title of this paper derives from the familiar but beautiful tune composed by Herbert and  Woodward which we regularly sing at night to mark the close of the day’s toil. Now it is evening; time to cease from labour, Father, according to thy will and pleasure, Through the night-season, have thy faithful people Safe in thy keeping. We can write it large to reflect the wider context of retirement of priests: those servants who have labored from the morning of their vocation to the evening of their ministry.

These are men who have labored all the day. We are also thinking of those priests who for health reasons and physical challenges may be unable to continue to function effectively in the ministry. For them also, it’s time to seek cease from labor and seek shelter from the heat of the sun.

It’s time to hand over to the next generation while looking forward to the ultimate rest when the Lord calls. While they were young, they labored without counting the cost.

They never thought of a time when they will be bend and able toil no more. They never thought about when their limbs and joints will grow stiff and their muscles weaken; and when their minds will lose sharpness and their bodies weaken with age.

Then will be time to retire and cease from labor. But many never thought that time will come. They must give way from parish ministry and parish administration and perhaps be asked to leave outside that familiar priestly environment to which they have been welded overtime. That separation is a most difficult one. I recall the first time I made a presentation to priests of Awka diocese in 2012 on making provision for the retirement of priests.

In the midst of the discussions and debates, one priest stood up, feeling scandalized that we could be talking about retirement of priests then.

In his view, a priest has no other life apart from the church. Where will he retire to go? Such dispositions of the mind simply evoke the crises of identity of priests and religious as recently exposed by Chika Eze.

Many priests are today unable to envision their lives outside of the presbytery and the day-to-day pastoral work of a priest. These are priests who have been embedded in the clerical culture that promotes priests as being different not only in life but also in death. The presumption is that since priests are under the promise or vow of obedience that excuses them from thinking and planning for themselves.

They believe that it is the obligation of the church always to think and plan for them including providing for their retirement. It has been suggested that we need to be careful with such old clerical identities as the clerical state does not mean that priests are different from the rest of humanity.

A recognition that ordination does not remove the need to plan for retirement, and planning for the resources that will be available for one’s retirement.

Meaning of Retirement for a Priest Priests do not necessarily retire from priesthood since it is a

character rather than a profession. That is, they do not cease to be priests. They remain priests but cease from active priestly ministry. This is unlike retirement from other professions where the individual retires from one profession to pursue a different line of trade or profession. Resignation from pastoral office, therefore, does not imply resignation from the priesthood.

Retirement for diocesan priests means giving up a role in the parish or other regular assignments and administration. The implication is that one is not entitled any more to regular priestly stipend and may be required in some instances to also  find accommodation outside the presbytery. It creates an uncertain future for the priest when there is no other structure in place for sustenance.

In the African context, retirement for a priest is blurred by the cultural milieu where occupations are not rigidly classified. There are no strict division of labour as in the industrialized countries. This is because, in subsistence economies, as is still prevalent in much of Africa, individuals and families tend to spread economic risks across many sectors. A farmer may be a tailor or trader at the same time depending on the seasons of the year. A bricklayer may be a weaver at the same time.

This lack of a clear cut division in occupation or specialization implies that retirement is not encompassed by the African orientation to work. An individual may therefore keep working until he is no longer able to work either on account of ill-health or age.

And because saving is low or non-existent, the children take on the responsibility of caring for their aged parents. This family arrangement whereby the children become the guarantee of basic provisions at old age also in turn eliminates the urgency of saving and planning for old age among Africans. However, increasing

globalization is not only shrinking the idea of family and diminishing the responsibility of children

for their parents in old age but also increasing specialization and professionalization of occupations and therefore imposing the concept of retirement where there was none before. The idea of formal retirement of priests could, therefore, be said to have come with westernization and the establishment of paid formal work in African societies.

The lack of clear cut idea about retirement in African work and ethics, coupled with the idea of permanent priestly commitment, makes it difficult for the African k Catholic priest himself to think about and plan for the eventual retirement

Fr. Prof.  Hyacinth Ichoku is a Professor of Economics and VC, Veritas University, Abuja.