Retired religious offer unique take on pope emeritus’ decision

DETROIT — Pope Benedict’s resigning his position as Roman pontiff for a life of prayer in a monastery is a step many vowed religious women and men can understand.

It’s similar to what happens with them.

As the years take their toll on a Felician sister, the answer is a change of assignment, explained Sr. Mary Janice Ziolkowski, CSSF.

“It’s not really retirement, but a reduced load,” she said, explaining that the change might mean a whole new career for a sister or just working part time instead or full time, or — as with Pope Emeritus Benedict — a ministry of prayer.

“Sisters who are not in any active ministry at all receive an assignment to prayer for some special intention. For example, it might be for peace in a certain part of the world,” Sr. Ziolkowski said.

Of course, all Felician sisters are united in prayer when they pray their Franciscan office together, no matter their ministerial assignment.

She cited the example of Sr. Mary Alexis Jachimowicz, who just died March 1: “She was a teacher, and then in later years worked in pastoral care at St. Barbara Parish in Dearborn. Then she lived in the convent, helping out as needed as long as she could, and then into the care center.”

But Sr. Jachimowicz was “busy praying,” even when she was no longer teaching or doing parish work, Sr. Ziolkowski said.

At 79, Sr. Ziolkowski has seen a number of assignments in her life as a Felician sister. After teaching in Catholic schools for 14 years, she served at Madonna University in Livonia as a teacher and then in administration.

She served 12 years on the congregation’s council in Livonia, then another 12 years on the Felicians’ general council in Rome.

Sr. Ziolkowski wrote a history of the Livonia Felicians back in the mid-1980s, and she is now at work on a history of Madonna University. She has also contributed to the Polish-American Encyclopedia, and done other writing as well.

Sr. Ziolkowski said she is confident Pope Benedict’s decision “was the result of his prayer and his union with God.”

She said she had admired him from before his election to the papacy, and that his writings had deepened her prayer life.

Capuchin friars do use the “R” word, but their idea of retirement is pretty much the same as that of the Felicians — a life of prayer in community.

Fr. Werner Wolf, OFM Cap., 80, a member of the Detroit-based Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, is now in his second retirement. He first retired in 2005, but the very next year was brought back to active ministry when he was assigned as superior of the Capuchin community at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary, Wis.

Prior to that, he had served in a variety of ministries since his ordination in 1958, including 11 years in Detroit as director of the Capuchins’ pre-novitiate program and vocations director.

Retiring again in 2011, he now leads a life of contemplative prayer at the Capuchins’ St. Fidelis Community, a friary for retired friars in Appleton, Wis.

“I’m trying to find out what it means to be a contemplative Capuchin senior friar in this culture and age, according to my time and energy,” Fr. Wolf said.

As some of the 20 friars at St. Fidelis have lost their hearing, no longer drive, or have other infirmities, he said his new life also involves serving his fellow friars in various ways — including as sacristan, celebrating Mass and leading prayers.

In the main, however, Fr. Wolf said his sees this stage of his life “as a time to settle in and praise God, developing a ministry of prayer and thanksgiving.”

He called St. Fidelis Community “a powerhouse of prayer for the brotherhood and the whole Church.”
His description of his “retirement” sounds a lot like that of the emeritus pope, who will enter a Vatican monastery to pursue a life of prayer.

Fr. Wolf praised Pope Benedict’s decision, saying, “I’m delighted, and I think he is setting a precedent for the future — retiring to a life of prayer and penance, and witnessing it.”

And Fr. Wolf went further, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if some limit on how long a Roman pontiff could serve is made mandatory in the future.