A priest forever: a peek into the lives of retired clergy

North Texas Catholic
(Apr 21, 2020) Feature

Fr. Dennis Smith celebrates the 45th anniversary of his ordination as a priest with a Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Keller, Sunday, February 2, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)

Fr. Dennis Smith celebrates the 45th anniversary of his ordination as a priest with a Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Keller, Sunday, February 2, 2020. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)

During the Eucharistic prayers of the Easter Sunday Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish a few years ago, Father Dennis Smith felt lightheaded. “You have to finish the consecration,” he told himself — and soon collapsed behind the altar. Upon awaking, Fr. Smith tried to finish praying.

“I was apparently very insistent,” he recalled.  “And my sister… said, ‘Let him finish… otherwise he’s going to stress out.’”

After the Eucharistic prayer, the paramedics whisked him into the sacristy of the Keller church.  

Fr. Smith had suffered what his cardiologist later described as a “heart event.”

“As if the resurrection isn’t dramatic enough,” laughed Fr. Smith. “I don’t want to upstage the risen Christ!” After heart surgery, he soon returned to his usual routine: celebrating Mass and taking care of his dogs.

Fr. Smith retired in 2015 — two years prior to his heart event. He is one of about a dozen retired priests who keep celebrating the sacraments faithfully, wherever and whenever they are needed — not letting their health, age, or retired status stop them from glorifying God. 

The North Texas Catholic recently spoke with three retired priests of the diocese who continue to live their vocations wholeheartedly.

Caring for God's Creatures

When the weather is cool, you might find Fr. Smith on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s baseball field playing with his rescue dogs. Paco and Bandit aren’t good at fetch, but they sure can run. At home, Fr. Smith referees high-speed dog chases around the house.

During his heart surgery, Fr. Smith boarded his dogs. “I don’t like to board them… because there’s no one there overnight.”  His dogs are accustomed to sleeping in his bed.

“But I’m going to have to start thinking about [boarding them],” Fr. Smith said, shaking his head slowly, “because realistically the time is coming when I’m going to probably have to go into the hospital again.”

For now, Fr. Smith is on a heart-healthy diet and takes medications. He doesn’t travel anymore and has gone blind in his left eye, but this hasn’t kept him away from the sacraments. On February 2, 2020, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Fr. Smith celebrated his 45th priestly anniversary Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.

“I don’t care to be eulogized because I’m not dead yet,” he said during his homily, “and as far as canonized, well, I still have such a long, long way to go on the road to sanctity. To verify that, ask either one of my two sisters.”

He then spoke of bearing the light of Christ, moving his hand as if conducting a choir, saying, “Old Simeon, inspired by the Holy Spirit… sings with joy, ‘Now my eyes have seen your salvation, Lord. This is the light of revelation to the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.’” 

The anniversary reception in the school gym was standing room only. Several tables displayed photographs of Fr. Smith’s life, including pictures of first communions, weddings, and even a white-water rafting vacation with friends. Fr. Smith sat at a long table with his sisters and closest friends, grinning and greeting everyone who walked by. His eldest sister, Cecelia Gilbreath, told the NTC, “I came to keep him in line. And I failed!” 

His younger sister, Vicki Nejtek, shook her head, adding, “He is always the light bearer — the peacemaker.”

Jake Squibbs’s family has known Fr. Smith for many years. “He is truly a gift to God’s people… He lives his life exactly as he speaks… And we love his singing!”

At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Fr. Smith hears confessions, gives parish retreats, celebrates funeral Masses, and frequently celebrates the Roman Catholic Mass. He even occasionally celebrates Mass at home with his “congregation of two”— his dogs, of course.

He also celebrates the Byzantine Catholic Divine Liturgy, which is almost identical to the liturgy celebrated in Greek Orthodox Churches. Fr. Smith converted to Catholicism from Greek Orthodoxy and his spirituality is enriched by both the Eastern and Western rites. According to Fr. Smith, Eastern Catholicism emphasizes the mystery of God, while Roman Catholicism seeks to define and clarify.  Eastern Catholic Churches are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. 

“It means having the best of both worlds,” he said.  Fr. Smith celebrates Divine Liturgy at St. Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic Parish in Irving when their pastor is away. Parishioners of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton “have visited at various times when I was serving the liturgy,” Fr. Smith said, “and they have all been both enlightened and edified.”

What is the difference between active priesthood and retirement?

“I don’t have to go to staff meetings,” Fr. Smith said. He has more time to pray. “Not simply saying my prayers,” he explained, “but really praying.”

An Artist for Christ

Monsignor Ray Mullan is a man of the arts. One wall of his sitting room is lined with bookshelves, five of them devoted to the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, a British satirist known for wordplay.

Msgr. Mullan practices that art himself; he has written (and memorized) lengthy humorous poems for his brother and sister-in-law and their children. He has also written several plays, most recently an Easter play in which the Apostles recall the events of Christ’s passion.

Msgr. Ray Mullan holds some of his writings at his house in Mansfield. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Msgr. Ray Mullan holds some of his writings at his house in Mansfield. (NTC/Ben Torres)

“But this is my pride and joy,” Msgr. Mullan said with a smile, leaning heavily on his cane to cross the room toward his electric keyboard. Every day, Msgr. Mullan plays music. He has even composed a liturgical setting for the Mass.

Msgr. Mullan says his retirement is “a gift from heaven.” During his active ministry (he’s been a priest for 57 years), he was often involved in three different ministries at the same time. “I am quite astonished at the energy I must have had back then,” he said. 

In his homeland of South Africa, he ministered to inmates and soldiers during a season of intense racism and fear. Here in Texas, he encourages parishioners to learn the language(s) of their neighbors. “The message from God [at Pentecost] was: Let language never be a source of division among you…we are Americans. We are not English, we are not Spanish.”

Upon moving to Texas, Msgr. Mullan was surprised at the size of the parishes. He was relieved to have fewer responsibilities than his previous assignments in South Africa but was still very busy. Eventually, his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire. The first three months, he stayed home, barely able to walk due to the strong tremors. After resting a few months, he “bloomed and blossomed.”

Parkinson’s is a progressive disease. The priest receives treatment to slow its progression and remains as active as he can, celebrating weekday Masses at St. Jude Parish in Mansfield at 12:10 p.m. and glorifying the Lord through music and writing.

“I see myself health-wise failing,” he said, his gaze turned downward. He later wrote in an email: “To ‘take up’ [the cross] means much more than just to endure the cross, it means to accept and embrace it.  And when we do, Jesus unites us to Himself, and in some wonderfully mysterious but real way, we participate in His great act of redeeming the world.”  

“I’ve been a happy person all my life,” he said. “No matter where I’ve been, God has blessed me with friends.”

He glanced upward toward heaven. “What have You got in store for me tomorrow?” he asked. Then he shrugged and smiled. “I guess I’ll find out in the morning.”

Running with Perseverance

Each evening, Father Bob Strittmatter records his voicemail answering message, detailing what is in store for him tomorrow. He states the date and time of recording, when and where he will celebrate Mass, and lists his appointments, from haircuts to running.

Other than allergy shots and occasional aspirin, “I don’t take any medicine,” said Fr. Strittmatter in his steady Texas twang. Instead, he jogs, runs, and walks three times a week — a practice he refers to as “physical therapy.” 

“And I lift weights,” he added. “I tell people that’s less expensive than going to the doctor.”

Fr. Bob Strittmatter often celebrates Mass at parishes when the pastor is on vacation or ill. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Fr. Bob Strittmatter often celebrates Mass at parishes when the pastor is on vacation or ill. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Fr. Strittmatter reports that he hasn’t often been sick — except for having polio as a child, a stomach tumor several years ago, and an ambiguous heart blockage that mysteriously disappeared. Fortunately, his stomach tumor wasn’t cancerous — a 1-in-20 chance, according to his doctor.

“The doctor told me there’s a higher power at work here,” Fr. Strittmatter recalled. A similar rarity occurred when his cardiologist scheduled Fr. Strittmatter for heart surgery. Testing had revealed a blockage, but when Fr. Strittmatter woke up after the operation, the doctor reported that everything was clear and no surgery was needed.

The priest, who was ordained in 1966, retired in June 2017.  

So why did he retire?  “I reached the age of retirement,” he said. “But by the same token, I’m enjoying my retirement.”
He fills his days with “a lot of prayer and study, and I still need some time to do the runnin’… I’m not bored by any means.”

Fr. Strittmatter keeps himself busy serving many parishes throughout the diocese. In the fall, he was scheduled to celebrate Mass at Our Mother of Mercy in Fort Worth, St. Francis Village in Crowley, and even St. Patrick Cathedral — sometimes all in one week. He can celebrate Mass in English and Spanish.

On days he isn’t scheduled to a parish, Fr. Strittmatter celebrates Mass at home in his kitchen as the sun rises. He only misses Mass when he is too sick or on a plane. “Receiving His body and blood every day — that’s real important,” Fr. Strittmatter said.

“I have a desire to celebrate Mass every day,” he continued. “The world certainly needs the benefits of Mass. Jesus died on the cross for everybody. The more prayer we offer, the more sacrifice made — it’s for the benefit of the whole world.”

Even when their health creates obstacles, he and the other priests of the diocese remain dedicated to their vocations. And they definitely still keep busy.

Fr. Strittmatter smiled and explained, “Retirement means there are no days off.”

“You’re a priest forever — into eternity,” said Msgr. Mullan.  “You never lose your priesthood.”

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