There’s nothing that brings more joy to Father John Johnson than to be with the people he serves in his priesthood.
The longtime pastor and educator continues to serve in retirement at St. Justin Martyr Parish in Sunset Hills. He remains active through celebrating the sacraments, leading a Scripture study group, preparing homilies and providing spiritual direction.
“It’s the people,” Father Johnson said. “Being around people when they’re happy and joyful. That’s the Church — it’s the people.”
An annual special collection held at Masses on Easter benefits priests in retirement, regardless of where they live and whether they remain active in sacramental ministries. Of the 77 retired diocesan priests, 20 are in residence at parishes. Other retired priests live in private residences, independent senior housing or at Regina Cleri, and they help parishes in the archdiocese with celebrating the sacraments.
Father Johnson, 82, came to St. Justin Martyr eight years ago as a retired priest in residence. When he retired, he knew he wanted to remain close to the people he served, including celebrating Masses with the school community, where he has the opportunity to share the beauty of the Catholic faith with young people. At a recent all-school Mass, the priest shared in his homily that we’re given new life after death, if we remain close to Jesus.
“Jesus has made it possible; He’s given up everything on this cross,” he told the children. “If you stay close to Jesus, we will wake up with the saints in heaven. Isn’t that beautiful? That’s wonderful news, isn’t that? That’s what we celebrate every time we come to Mass — His death and glorious resurrection.”
Ordained in 1966, Father Johnson served at several parishes as an associate pastor before being appointed to teach theology at the former John F. Kennedy High School in west St. Louis County in 1971, where he served for nine years. He was a longtime pastor at several parishes in the archdiocese, including Ste. Genevieve Parish in Ste. Genevieve from 1991-97, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Downtown from 1997-2002, and St. James the Greater in the Dogtown neighborhood of south St. Louis from 2002 until his retirement in 2014.
His calling to the priesthood traces back to his First Communion, where he began feeling a stronger interest in the faith and the Church. “I felt like I could do all of the things that a priest does,” he recalled.
In addition to his priestly formation, Father Johnson became certified as a spiritual director through a three-year program at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois. He currently sees 15 people every month for spiritual direction and described the positive effects the experience has had upon his priesthood.
“It helps me develop my own spiritual life,” he said. “It affects you as a priest to hear the people” and how they’re growing in their relationship with the Lord. “You can’t get more intimate than that.”
Of course, retirement comes with some perks. Not having the responsibilities of a pastor gives him some extra time for activities such as getting in some exercise several days a week at the local YMCA, as well as more time for reading. Since most of his interest is centered on theology and Catholic spirituality, Father Johnson regularly donates his books to the parish library for others to enjoy.
Preparing for the Sunday homily also is a big deal to Father Johnson. A weekly Scripture study with parishioners helps him dive deeper into the Sunday Scriptures. He also finds it rewarding to spend time in church praying before the Blessed Sacrament before he celebrates Mass.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said. “It’s important to be spiritually prepared before celebrating the Mass.”
>> Collection for Retired Priests
WHAT: Donations to the annual Collection for Retired Priests provide these priests with vital support, including physician services, hospitalization, vision care, nursing home and disability costs as well as day-to-day needs.
WHO: 77 retired priests; 20 are in parishes, with 15 in assisted living or skilled nursing care. Others are at Regina Cleri, other independent senior housing facilities or in private residences.
WHEN: Easter weekend (April 16-17) or anytime online
CONTRIBUTE: Online at www.archstl.org/retiredpriests or at parishes. Or text 4PRIESTS to (314) 648-2391.
Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski called the collection an opportunity for the local Church to “provide support and care for the priests who devote their lives to the Lord, their parishes, and the communities of this archdiocese.
“Through their ministry and decades of service, our priests have been there when you, your family and your fellow parishioners have sought their guidance,” he wrote in a letter about the collection. “They are there to celebrate the happiest moments of your life as well as provide comfort in times of need. But in retirement, it is they who count on you for prayers and support.”