Looking back, Fr. Philip Luebbert, 63, had always known that God was calling him to the priesthood, but health problems and indecision amidst a rapidly changing Church delayed his ordination until the age of 60.
Fr. Luebbert remembers being attracted to the priesthood as a small boy. “Taught by nuns at a Catholic grade school in Independence, Missouri, I wanted to be like the priests I saw celebrating Mass each day,” he told Catholic Digest. By the eighth grade, he had applied and been accepted at a high-school seminary. After high school he went on to a college seminary in northwestern Missouri.
“However, after two years, at age 19, most of my friends dropped out, and I felt unsure of my vocation. I transferred to a Catholic all-men’s college in Atchison, Kansas, and graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.”
Once again, he felt drawn to the priesthood and was sponsored to attend seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He had completed two of the four required years when heath problems and uncertainty sent him back out into the world to try to discern what direction God had in mind for his life.
Over the next 33 years, Fr. Luebbert worked at a variety of jobs in retail industry, but he never quite shook the feeling that God might still be calling him to the priesthood. In his mid-40s, he began d applying at several dioceses, only to be turned down for the next ten years because of his older age. His spiritual advisor, Fr. Alexander Luetkemeyer, OSB, from Conception Abbey, suggested, “Before you give up the search, I think you should write to the pope.” Taking the elderly priest’s advice, he wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II describing his long, concerted efforts to find a bishop who would allow him to continue his formation and become a priest. “I expressed my disappointment because all I had tried to do was simply follow my vocation, and still I met with negative results… I asked his holiness if he could find a way for me to follow my vocation.”
To Fr. Luebbert’s surprise, two weeks later he received a reply from the apostolic nuncio in Washington, DC, telling him that the pope couldn’t help him directly since he had a competent bishop, but he promised to pray for him. It is easy to imagine that the Holy Father’s prayers had a huge effect, because only a short time after receiving this letter everything started to fall into place for Fr. Luebbert’s eventual sponsorship to seminary.
Though a long journey, he finally returned to seminary at the age of 56. He was fortunate to discover that Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut accepted middle-aged and older seminarians as well as young ones. “The day I found out I was going to be sent to Holy Apostles, my life seemed to go from a level two to a level nine in one day (on a scale of one to 10),” he says.
Fr. Luebbert was ordained to the priesthood in 2010 and is parochial administrator of two parishes in western Missouri.
Where can someone with an older priestly vocation turn?
“I think there are a lot of older single men out there with vocations to priesthood…. The biggest problem I encountered is that nearly every vocations office I tried preferred only young candidates,” says Fr. Luebbert.
Things changed for him when he was put in touch with Holy Apostles Seminary. Founded in 1956 by a Franciscan priest named Fr. Eusebe M. Menard, one of the main goals of the seminary is to help older qualified candidates to the priesthood when the normal route is not open. President-rector of Holy Apostles, Very Rev. Douglas L. Mosey, CSB, told Catholic Digest, “In 1957, one of the major doors that was difficult to open was the age barrier. In the United States in the 1950s, there were many more candidates for the priesthood than there were openings in most major dioceses.”
Consequently, when there was such a large pool of young men just out high school who wanted to be priests, it didn’t make sense to choose men over the age of 35 because their term of service would be much shorter. Fr. Menard didn’t feel this was fair, so he started Holy Apostles Seminary to assist older qualified men who wanted to be priests. Holy Apostles was a place where the necessary prerequisites could be fulfilled, such as two years of philosophy that are required before a man is ready for the major seminary. “Once they proved themselves, Fr. Menard would be able to present the candidate to a bishop, saying, ‘Don’t just pay attention to his age, look at the qualities of his character and his proven track record,’” says Rev. Mosey. The same is true for today.
Finding a sponsor for late vocations
Currently, the majority of dioceses have an age limit of either 39 or 49, but what happens if an exceptionally qualified person of 55 wants to become a priest? “Most dioceses will make an exception to the rule for a man who is over 50 who has some rather outstanding quality to recommend him,” explains Rev. Mosey. He has to be well formed humanly, intellectually, spiritually, and pastorally. If the a man is outstanding in one or two of those four areas, the bishop might agree to accept him and fill in his seminary formation what is lacking in the other areas.
For example, in 2012, a Holy Apostles’ graduate who was in his early 70s was ordained for an archdiocese; this man was quite strong in all four areas. For 20 years, his wife was an invalid and he was her primary caregiver while continuing his job as a high-school principal. He took his wife everywhere he went, and both of them were a great part of their parish community. He also was able to financially contribute to his education.
If a candidate can afford to contribute to the cost of his formation, this will increase his chances of being sponsored by a bishop. “Not just because the bishop is hard up for money—which most are—but because it shows past success and is a good indicator of future achievement,” says Rev. Mosey.
In contrast, if the candidate is 55 and needs work in all four areas, his chances of being accepted are slim. For the bishop to sponsor a candidate, it costs approximately $25,000 a year for room, board, and seminary. A seminarian will spend a minimum of four years in seminary— and possibly five or six years if he has not previously completed the two-year philosophy requirement.
“I get a lot of calls from people who are either mediocre or poor in those areas and have little or no money. These men want be priests, but they have no idea of the demands and qualifications needed to be one. The church does not need priests who celebrate the Mass and do little else,” says Rev. Mosey.
Advantages of Older Priestly Vocations
Dr. Ronda Chervin, professor of philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, compiled and edited a book about late vocations titled Last Call: Twelve Men Who Dared to Answer. She told Catholic Digest that one of the advantages of second-career vocations is that, “parishioners will better relate to a priest who has a background more similar to their own.” Fr. Luebbert agrees, saying, “The late vocation priest generally has better communication skills since he is more mature. He’s also more sympathetic to the problems of the laity simply because he experienced many of them himself as a layman.”
From his experience as a vocation director, Rev. Mosey says, “Older vocations are always a blessing; they add something that is particularly theirs through life experience.” He also thinks that widowers make some of the best priests.
Where should someone with a late vocation begin?
For starters, it’s crucial to get a strong recommendation from your parish pastor. Secondly, an interested candidate should get in touch with his diocesan vocation director. “By and large, it is best for a man to serve in his diocese. If the vocation director rejects him, I tell them to call me, and we will look at why,” says Rev. Mosey. “The point is that we need excellent priests, and the younger they are the better, but the most important thing is that they are excellent.”
–Lori Hadacek Chaplin
Seminaries serving older vocations:
- Blessed John XXIII National Seminary (blessedjohnxxiii.edu) in Weston, Massachusetts, serves candidates between the ages of 30 and 60.
- Holy Apostles College and Seminary (holyapostles.edu) in Cromwell, Connecticut, serves 73 seminarians; 20 percent are over 50 years old; 60 percent are over 35.
- Sacred Heart School of Theology (shst.edu) is located in Hales Corners, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The average age of the seminarians is 43 years old.