As the newly appointed archdiocesan liaison to retired and ill diocesan priests, Father Warren Cooper has treated the last several months as an ecclesiastical time machine, traveling back in history to a time before the Second Vatican Council, when the revered priests of his youth celebrated Mass facing the tabernacle and used Latin as their liturgical language.
Father Cooper, who was named to the new position several months ago by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, eats lunch regularly with retired priests – there are about 65 right now – and their conversation usually centers on the stories of their young priesthood.
“The archbishop has given me the most fabulous ministry that I know of – to serve those who have served so well,” said Father Cooper, the former pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Marrero.
Treasure trove of info
Usually, when Father Cooper treats a retired priest to lunch, he asks questions about the past and particularly about some of the pastors he
“One of the fantastic things is I’m learning so many things about the archdiocese,” Father Cooper said. “Msgr. Prendergast and Msgr. Gillespie were two of my heroes. I get a chance to know the story behind the story.”
At the urging of Father Patrick Williams, the director of clergy for the archdiocese, Father Cooper has been appointed to chair a committee that will look at how the archdiocese can better serve and utilize the gifts of retired priests. The committee includes four retired priests – Father Francis Carabello, Father Charles Caluda, Msgr. Ray Hebert and Msgr. Allen Roy.
“We’re trying to find ways to help them stay engaged in the presbyterate but also find ways to utilize their gifts and try to coordinate that,” Father Williams said. “We want to be able to meet their needs and we want to find out how they can contribute to the archdiocese.”
While there currently are about 65 retired diocesan priests, that number is expected to “almost double in the next five to 10 years,” said Father Rodney Bourg, chairman of the archdiocesan Priestly Life and Ministry Committee. Since the archdiocese does not have a specific retirement fund for retired priests, a major funding source is the annual collection for retired diocesan priests that will be held April 28-29, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday.
“It’s important because this collection helps defray much of the retirement costs for retired priests,” Father Bourg said. “The Catholic community is very, very generous when it comes to our priests, and this is one of those situations where we really need to reach out to them.”
Even in retirement, most priests continue to offer their services by celebrating Masses, weddings and funerals at parishes across the archdiocese.
“Without their services we’d be in really bad shape,” Father Bourg said. “We have a lot of large one-man parishes, and if we didn’t have retired priests, we couldn’t have as many Masses. We’d have much more difficulty with the celebration of the sacraments.”
Several retired priests live independently at St. John Vianney Villa in Marrero, which has eight spacious apartments. Some retired priests live in their own homes or apartments, and the archdiocese also has a few apartments available at Chateau de Notre Dame and other places.
Staying in shape
Father Raul Lobo, 75, is living an active lifestyle at St. John Vianney Villa, rising daily at 5 a.m. to work out for two hours at the West Jefferson Medical Center’s fitness center. He does that six days a week.
“It costs a dollar a day, but I’m saving the archdiocese money because I take no medicines or extra vitamins,” Father Lobo said. “Feel my grip! This is keeping me very active.”
Father Lobo, who also teaches yoga meditation, celebrated Mass during Holy Week at St. Anthony in Gretna and on Easter Sunday at St. Joseph in Gretna.
At St. John Vianney Villa, retired priests gather every Tuesday morning to concelebrate Mass and share breakfast with each other. Last week, Msgr. John Tomasovich, who lives in his own home, said retirement has been filled with blessings.
“I told (former) Archbishop (Alfred) Hughes the other day, ‘Now I am doing the things that the seminary prepared me to do as a priest,’” Msgr. Tomasovich said, smiling. “I can go hear confessions. I can talk to people about their problems. I don’t have any administration to do or have to fix things or write reports. That’s all been waived. After all these years, I’m free to be a priest!”
“What has struck me is how the archdiocese is really taking care of us in our retirement,” said Msgr. Roy, the former Holy Spirit pastor who has moved to St. John Vianney. “They make sure we have a social worker who is assigned to us. Your grass is cut, and someone comes in to clean one day a week.”
Seeking more involvement
Father Cooper says the retirement committee will seek ways to bring the retired priests together more often beyond an annual luncheon held in their honor.
“Retirement is like a new awakening,” Father Cooper said. “Most of them are still involved in sacramental work, and they look forward to it. But they don’t have to go to this meeting or that meeting.”
And that, after all, could be the best thing this side of heaven.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.