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What’s the deal with the whole 78 years and you have to retire as a bishop?

HEAR YE! HEAR YE! The Court is now in session. Prepare to hear the sentence.

Question: What’s the deal with the whole 78 years and you have to retire as a bishop? Who is the one who ultimately decides whether they have to retire or not? Is this also the case for all priests?

Answer: Paragraph 1 of Canon 401 of the Codex Iuris Canonici (the 1983 Code of Canon Law) when translated into English reads:

A diocesan bishop who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.

Canon 411 makes that canon applicable to coadjutor and auxiliary bishops as well. 

The canon characterizes this as a “request.” However, by tradition, this request is obligatory, and the letter of resignation is to be posted on the bishop’s 75th birthday. The canon makes clear that the pope is the one who decides when to accept any resignation. The bishop continues in office until the pope notifies him that his resignation is accepted.

Note that the bishop does not resign from being bishop. Rather, he resigns from holding an office – diocesan, auxiliary or coadjutor. He retains all of his rights and duties which pertain to his orders (bishop) and gives up the rights and duties associated with his office.

The retirement of priests (and deacons) is a matter of their local hierarchy. Diocesan priests and deacons are subject to the rule in their diocese. Religious priests and deacons must conform to the rules of their religious order. Usually, the rule sets a minimum age for retirement – in my diocese that age is 70 for priests and unspecified for deacons. Again, retirement means leaving an office while retaining the sacramental duties and rights consistent with their ordination. 

Any of these retirement ages may be waived in case of serious illness or disability. Many priest and deacons continue to serve in office far beyond the minimum retirement age. Retired bishops are sometimes asked to accept other offices, usually on a temporary basis.