May 14th was my 21st anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. May 28th is the same anniversary for my colleague, co-author and classmate, Fr. Ken Brighenti.
As I mentioned in my homily on EWTN last week (Friday, May 15th) priests NEED post-ordination ongoing formation. Daily prayer, regular confession and annual retreat are but the very minimum required by canon law. But why be content with being on life-support when you could be fully alive? Priests need IN ADDITION TO daily prayer, regular confession and annual retreat:
1. regular SPIRITUAL DIRECTION (monthly if possible; every three months at least)
2. annual workshops, conferences, seminars
3. good FRIENDSHIPS (clergy & laity)
4. healthy recreation, i.e., DAYS OFF and VACATION
Priesthood is about DOING priestly things (teaching doctrine; celebrating sacraments; shepherding a community) and about BEING a priest.
Elderly & retired and physically disabled priests are still ontologically priests AND they still exercise their priesthood by OFFERING SACRIFICE. Even when a priest is too old, too sick and/or too feeble to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, he can and must offer his internal suffering as a sacrificial oblation to save souls. Too many priests have fallen into the secular humanist trap of only seeing priestly ACTIVITY as important.
Ontologically, tu es sacerdos in aeternam
This means that priests can still offer sacrifice even when the world considers them redundant or obsolete.
Many GOOD and doctrinally orthodox priests ignore their right and need for a day off and/or for vacation. "I'm too busy doing my priestly work," they say. Even Our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, had down time. He took time to take nap. He went to the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus to unwind and relax. He went to the home of Zaccheus for a good meal. He worked, He prayed, He sacrificed and He suffered. But He also took time to be by Himself and time to be with His friends. HE WAS NOT A WORKAHOLIC.
I see many good priests start out zealous and full of vim and vigor. Then if they fall into the trap of not making and taking time for their ONGOING SPIRITUAL, THEOLOGICAL and PASTORAL FORMATION, they are 99.9% likely to become angry, bitter, cantankerous and impossible to live with. No parochial vicar wants to live with them and no parishioner wants to talk to them. They become angry men because they resent the time they could have had with their family while still alive. Now that their parents and siblings are dead, they are bitter that their 'duties' kept them away.
I found in 21 years of priesthood, that people WANT their priests to spend some quality time with their family and friends because it makes us BETTER PRIESTS in the long run. Sure, every diocese and parish has had its share of goldbrickers, i.e., the occasional priest who does as little work as possible. He is never in the rectory, he never visits the sick, he can never be reached, he is rarely in his clerical garb since he is spending most of his time doing secular things. These FEW miscreants tempt some of us to overcompensate and become obsessed with spending ALL our time in the parish. The pastor's sanity requires him to get away now and then. His getting away will also bring some peace to his curate and staff and even his parishioners need a break from the same style of sermons day after day and week after week.
Priesthood is not a job or a career, but a vocation, hence, one never takes a day off from BEING a priest. But a pastor, parochial vicar, bishop, deacon, etc., can and must take a regular day off and some regular vacation time from the PLACE where they live and work. When on my day off or on vacation, I still pray and offer Mass and still wear my collar but since I am away from the parish, OTHER people may ask me for a blessing, for confession, for advice, etc. One time, while on my day off and doing some Christmas shopping, a police officer riding a horse stopped me and asked to go to confession. While on the subway in Washington, DC, I have been asked to bless a rosary or medal. While having a meal in a restaurant, a waiter, waitress or patron have asked for some catechetical or spiritual advice. That was being a priest in my estimation. Having people see that we priests are NORMAL, that we are not all pedophiles, that we are human like them and must be on our best behavior 24/7 because it is the right thing to do, is helpful.
Priests who leave the active ministry do so mostly because they have stopped praying, stopped going on annual retreat, have not gone to spiritual direction since seminary and many have not gone to confession regularly either. Many of them do not have any good priest friends. Jesus picked three of the twelve to be His CLOSE friends. Peter, James and John were often alone with Christ as well as being with Jesus when the other nine were around. John was His best friend, His beloved, and every priest needs a good, best friend to stand by him through thick and thin. Father Ken Brighenti is like St. John to me. We have been best friends since 1983 and we went to seminary together and were ordained the same year (but for different dioceses). He is like a brother to me. We vacation together and help each other and we don't take each other too seriously, either, which is good for our egos and our humility. Just as Jesus had James as well as his brother John, I got Father Dennis Dalessandro to complement Father Ken Brighenti. Fr. Dennis has been ordained five more years than I have but we have been in the same, similar and subsequent parishes for the past two decades (and we have been very good friends since 1989). Every priest should have a friend (classmate) from his seminary days, from his ordination and from the diocese where he can hang out and give/get fraternal support. Having someone in the same diocese is critical because of distance and the sharing of similar concerns. Having a seminary/ordination friend is important because of longevity and history. Then, as Jesus also had St. Peter, I have Father Bob Levis, my mentor and hero. I still call him "Father" since he knew me when I was 14 years old in high school seminary. He was one of three who supported me even when the rest abandoned me and I almost did not get ordained. He stood by me when two dioceses rejected me and he was the one who got me into the third diocese which I have never left since. He vested me at ordination and he asked me to preach his Golden Jubilee and last year his 60th, too.
I think every priest needs to maintain friendships with at least one classmate from the seminary, one diocesan brother and one older, more mature and wise mentor to guide him. These along with daily prayer, regular confession AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTION and annual retreat, seminar and workshop, are invaluable.
Having some good, morally sound lay friends is also indispensible. I have some very dear friends like Tom McKenna, Michael Drake, Tom Lang and a whole family (Christina & Keith Burkhart along with their adult children Kyle, Karly, and Chris) which have become a second family to me. With these wonderful lay friends and my wonderful clergy friends, I feel abundantly blessed by God and with my spiritual and theological ongoing formation (thanks to the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy) these friends are just as important to my being and becoming a better priest (Deo volente). When I hear of priests who have no clergy friends and who either never take time off or if when they do, they 'escape' by impersonating a layperson in every way possible, then I fear that they are headed toward a meltdown. PRAYER and FRATERNAL SUPPORT go hand in hand. We need both and both help one another. I recently made a new friend thanks to the internet: Andrew Rabel from Australia. While we all have 'associates' and 'colleagues', just like Our Lord, it is important to have real FRIENDS and for priests and deacons, we NEED clergy friends and we NEED lay friends. We need to aggressively pursue ongoing formation and we need to support one another.
As I have done every year for the past 21 years, I reconsecrated my priesthood to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Queen of the Clergy and Mother of Priests:
O Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, Mother of the Church, a priestly people, Mother of priests, ministers of your Son: accept the humble offering of myself, so that in my pastoral mission the infinite mercy of Eternal High Priest may be proclaimed: O "Mother of Mercy".
You who shared the "priestly obedience" of your Son, and who prepared for him a worthy receptacle by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, keep my priestly life in the ineffable mystery of your divine maternity, "Holy Mother of God".
Grant me strength in the dark hours of this life, support me in the exertions of my ministry, entrust me to Jesus, so that, in communion with you, I may fulfill the ministry with fidelity and love, O Mother of the Eternal Priest "Queen of Apostles and Help of Priests".
Make me faithful to the flock entrusted to me by the Good Shepherd, You silently accompanied Jesus on his mission to proclaim the Gospel to the poor.
May I always guide it with patience, sweetness firmness and love, caring for the sick, the weak, the poor and sinners, O "Mother, Help of the Christian People".
I consecrate and entrust myself to you, Mary, who shared in the work of redemption at the Cross of your Son, you who "are inseparably linked to the work of salvation".
Grant that in the exercise of my ministry I may always be aware of the "stupendous and penetrating dimension of your maternal presence" in every moment of my life, in prayer, and action, in joy and sorrow, in weariness and in rest, O "Mother of Trust".
Grant, Holy Mother, than in the celebration of the Mass, source and center of the priestly ministry, that I may live my closeness to Jesus in your maternal closeness to Him, so that as "we celebrate the Holy Mass you will be present with us" and introduce us to the redemptive mystery of your divine Son's offering "O Mediatrix of all grace flowing from this sacrifice to the Church and to all the faithful" O "Mother of Our Savior".
O Mary: I earnestly desire to place my person and my desire for holiness under your maternal protection and inspiration so that you may bring me to that "conformation with Christ, Head and Shepherd" which is necessary for the ministry of every parish priest.
Make me aware that "you are always close to priests" in your mission of servant of the One Mediator, Jesus Christ: O "Mother of Priests" Queen of the Clergy"Advocate, Co-Redemptorix and Mediatrix" of all graces.