July 21, 2006

‘This is my life’: Golden jubilee priests are still serving in the archdiocese

By Sean Gallagher

Everything old is new again.

When retired Father John Luerman and Father Joseph Riedman, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, were ordained 50 years ago on May 3, 1956, priests who were entering their twilight years didn’t really retire.

They may not have had a formal ministry assignment, but they often lived in parish rectories and helped out where they could.

In the years following the Second Vatican Council, it became customary for priests past a certain age to be granted permission to retire. Today in the archdiocese, the ordinary retirement age for priests is 70. (See a list of future golden jubilarians and those from the recent past)

Following retirement, some priests would move to warmer climates or a vacation home elsewhere that they had built or purchased earlier in life.

More recently, the previous tradition has re-emerged as older priests have continued to serve in vital ways in the archdiocese.

At 77, Father Riedman remains the pastor of one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese. And Father Luerman, although without a formal ministry assignment, has provided critical sacramental assistance at dozens of archdiocesan parishes for many years.

Part of this change may be due to the dwindling number of priests in the archdiocese. But both priests said that they would have chosen to continue to serve even if there were an excess of priests.

“This is my life,” said Father Luerman. “If I didn’t say Mass and preach and hear confessions, I would be bored to death. I’d go crazy.”

One of the reasons that Father Riedman has declined to retire is that he simply enjoys parish ministry.

When asked what impact he has had on the parishes he led over the years, Father Riedman instead spoke about the effect those parishes have had on him.

“I think those parishes had an impact on me because I enjoyed my ministry in all those places,” he said. “They kept me happy.”

According to those with whom he served, he kept them happy as well. He also helped them to be holy.

Judy Koch, a pastoral associate at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, was hired in 1986 by Father Riedman to be the parish’s director of religious education.

She said that the priest helped her grow closer to Christ “in more ways that I probably even know.”

“His example of servant leadership, his ability to affirm others and bring talents out in other people—that’s something that I hopefully do with our parishioners,” Koch said.

Father Riedman has also had an impact on several priests of the archdiocese who served under him as associate pastors or who lived in residence with him.

Father Bernard Cox, pastor of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Danville, was a newly ordained priest when he was assigned to serve with Father Riedman at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish.

“He showed me what the true meaning of being a priest was—being there for the people at any time and in any situation, that you are indeed called to serve,” Father Cox said. “And that’s the way he has functioned in his priesthood for 50 years. I certainly look up to him and respect him a lot.”

During many of his years in parish ministry, Father Luerman led small, rural faith communities that didn’t have associate pastors.

But the impact he had on the people he ministered to was great.

Lorena Gromer was a catechist at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Cambridge City for all 21 years that Father Luerman served there.

“My life of faith increased tenfold,” she said. “His sermons were excellent. It was something as simple as when you’re washing the dishes, you can be praying while you’re doing that and offering it up as service to the Lord.”

James Sweet, also a member of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish, recalled how he took up golf when Father Luerman came to the parish in 1980, playing 18 holes with him nearly every Sunday after Mass. His golf dates with the priest continue to this day.

“Father Luerman says he goes on the golf course because that’s where the sinners are, and he’s trying to convert them,” Sweet said jokingly.

But more seriously, Sweet alluded to the sacramental identity that Father Luerman and all other priests share—that they are ordained to be a special sign of Christ in the world.

“If Christ was on earth and he wanted to speak to the masses, he’d be like Father John,” Sweet said. “You never lose sight that he is a man of God.”

Although he spends two months in the winter in Florida, Father Luerman lives most of the year in his home in Richmond. But on weekends, he usually isn’t there.

Instead, he often can be found at an archdiocesan parish, frequently celebrating Mass for a pastor who needs to be away.

He is used to getting requests for help.

“When the [priests] you don’t really know that well call, they say, ‘John, this is so-and-so,’ and I laugh and I say, ‘When do you want me?’ ” he said.

The calls, though, aren’t a source of irritation for the retired priest. He’s happy to help out.

“You see the shortage, and you know they need help,” he said. “And when the young guys call, I’m just glad that they can get away and re-energize.”

For the foreseeable future, both priests want to serve the faithful of the archdiocese. Although they both have completed 50 years of priestly ministry, they’re looking forward to the years ahead.

When asked about the future, Father Riedman quickly replied, “I’m glad that it’s still unknown.” †


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