In the long history of the Catholic Church, the retirement of bishops and priests is something new. The canonical measure started being applied only some 50 years ago.
On October 1965, Christus Dominus, a decree of the ecumenical council Vatican II, invited bishops and parish priests to voluntarily renounce their canonical office “enixe rogantur” at age 75. It was only later, in 1983, that the new code of canon law ruled: “A diocesan bishop who has completed his seventy-fifth year is requested to offer his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who, taking all the circumstances into account, will make provision accordingly” (canon 401).
The same is required for parish priests: “A parish priest who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to offer his resignation from office to the diocesan bishop who, after considering all the circumstances of person and place, is to decide whether to accept or defer it" (canon 538 §3).
Canon law also states the resignation should be submitted in the case of ill health or any other grave motive. It is very important to note that this resignation does not take effect ipso iure (automatically), and in order to be valid a bishop’s resignation must be accepted by the Roman Pontiff, and a priest’s by the local bishop, after they have considered the circumstances. The new Code of Canon Law contains similar provisions concerning cardinals (canon 354), and coadjutor and auxiliary bishops (canon 411).
It must be noted that the Second Vatican Council did not confirm this age limit. The obligation came from Pope Paul VI in his 1966 motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae and was established by the new 1983 code.
During Vatican II, as secretary to Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, dean of the college of cardinals, I received confidential letters from bishops saying how painful it was to prepare their resignation. In my article two weeks ago, I recounted my discussion on the subject with my priest friends, Fathers Thomas Winning and Joseph Ratzinger, who were accompanying their cardinals. We were young, in our 30s then, and our opinions differed. Father Winning was in favour of the age limit, while Father Ratzinger said it depended on the state of health and mind. I was opposed to the idea of mandatory resignation.
A retired bishop is called “emeritus,” which is a nomen sine re (a name without substance) because no theologian or canonist has explained how emeriti bishops would continue a life without a mission. Theologians as well as canonists do not give a satisfactory explanation.
Without the power of jurisdiction and without his diocesan church, how can a bishop exercise his tria munera (three duties)? Without a mission and without a pontifical mandate, how can the emeritus bishop carry out his episcopal service?
The Church does not ask the bishop his personal preference for a priestly ministry – for instance to preach, to visit the sick, to celebrate funerals or weddings, and since he has no jurisdiction he must expressly obtain canonical delegation for these from the parish priest or the local bishop. Many retired prelates are looking for appropriate ways to still feel useful in serving the Church and are trying to be creative with new forms of apostolate.
A friend who is an emeritus bishop recounted how difficult it was for him to know that that very shortly, perhaps within a year, he would have to leave his episcopal residence. He does not belong to a religious order where he could enter the convent where he professed his religious vows, nor was he wealthy enough to buy a home. While his former diocese provides a pension sufficient for his daily expenses, to be alone is difficult for him. To ask his brother to live with him is impossible as his brother is ill and a widower. He also rejected the idea of living with family friends. Should he search for a home for retired priests? “Dio mio, aiutami” (“My God, help me”) is his frequent prayer.
Preparing his homily for his farewell Mass was torture for this bishop. He did not want a laudation for his 22 years of service in his diocese, but he did not want to let his emotions be seen. No tears should manifest his pain at having to leave his beloved cathedral. Life after retirement for a bishop or priest is a way of the Cross.