Friday, April 04, 2014

Priests Battle the Pouring Dark of Loneliness

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As a diocesan priest working in parish ministry for over 25 years, I have experienced rectory life with other priests for the first half and alone for the second.  Unlike priests of a religious community who live together, we diocesan priests live alone more quickly than ever.  I was ordained 14 years before becoming a pastor. Today, most priests are ordained 3 to 5 years then are appointed pastor, usually in a parish where they live alone.

Living alone is part of the diocesan priesthood but it also warrants an even more aggressive effort by every priest to seek, foster and promote sacerdotal fraternity.  When priests are alone too much, i.e., when they have no priest friends with whom they get together on a regular (monthly at least) basis,  they can succumb to unhealthy responses. Alcoholism, gambling and other addictive behavior can often tempt a priest who lives alone.  Even a strong daily prayer life is not enough. There are four pillars of priestly formation, both in the seminary and post-ordination. Spiritual, theological, pastoral and human formation and their corresponding ongoing formation are ESSENTIAL to healthy, well balanced clergy.  The Lone Ranger syndrome can creep in when priests feel alone and abandoned by their bishop and presbyterate.  Idiosyncrasies can get magnified and multiplied when a priest has no one to challenge and to support him as a peer.  I would often tell seminarians and younger clergy to make it a PRIORITY to engage in and participate in priestly FRATERNITY.  One of the goals of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (a national association of priests and deacons) is to promote such fraternity but in connection with the other pillars of ongoing formation as well.

Keeping up to date with latest Vatican and Papal documents and statements is as vital to a parish priest as a lawyer or physician who attends conferences and seminars.  Intellectual (theological) knowledge needs to be stimulated with discussion and information since we have a very sophisticated laity who read and hear about church pronouncements as soon as they are promulgated. Albeit they use the internet for their primary source, nevertheless, we live in a time where many souls get misinformed or they misinterpret current statements from popes and bishops.  Only a priest who is up to date on the latest magisterial decrees can address these issues coherently.

It is well known that priests who stop or who diminish their prayer life often have a vocation crisis and sometimes leave the active ministry. Daily and regular prayer are indispensable and yet most newly ordained spend four to six years in the seminary where daily prayer is in common and at specific times. When they get ordained and are assigned to a parish, some have difficulty making the transition to being totally responsible for their spiritual life. No more spiritual or formation directors.  Some clergy find being faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours and other devotions (rosary, etc.) as problematic due to their full schedule of parish ministry.

The "virgin martyr" syndrome is what I call it when a good and devout priest fools himself into thinking that DOING priestly work is the final end. BEING a priest is as important as DOING priestly work. This means that overextending yourself to the detriment of your health is not a prudent course for any ordained man.  If Father Joe works so hard he has no time for daily prayer, for monthly fraternity, for annual retreat, then he is cheating himself and his people.  Just as a general practitioner needs to be in good form to take care of his patients, priests need to be conscientious of their physical, mental and spiritual health and well being.  The romantic dream of a priest who works so hard that he collapses at Mass with a fatal heart attack just never happens. What does happen is that a priest can become odd, eccentric, or just weird because he no longer has healthy interaction with brother priests and with well rounded members of the laity.  He needs someone to encourage and someone to challenge him to take care of himself 100%.  Dying on the job prematurely does not provide for the spiritual needs of the parish.  Father needs his day off, his vacation as well as his retreat and monthly day of recollection (priestly fraternity) in addition to his daily routine of Mass, confessions, counseling, visiting the sick, teaching the faith, preparing homilies, et al.  Today, many pastors who live in solitary assignments spend a large amount of time in meetings and with mundane business like fixing the roof, getting a new boiler, making diocesan assessments, balancing the budget, etc.  The managerial responsibilities are legion but he can have the wise counsel of a good deacon and some competent laity to advise him as he shepherds the parish.

Burn out is one possibility. Other dangers include getting into inappropriate behavior, if not scandalous.  Other fellows can become angry and bitter as they see political shenanigans as sycophants get influential chancery positions while hard working pastors barely get a hello from the bishop at any diocesan function.  Discouragement encourages disdain and then guys become recluses, never attending any Chrism Mass, ordination or even priest funerals. The ostracization can be self imposed but it is detrimental to healthy priesthood.

Jesus sent His disciples out, "two by two" not one by one.  When priests live alone, they need to pursue some fraternity to maintain their balance. Spiritual needs are obvious and even a workaholic pastor knows he needs his annual retreat which is why it is mandated by canon law.  He also needs some regular contact and interaction with brother clergy, to pray, study and support one another.  Some dioceses have realized the importance of priestly fraternity so that three to five priests live in one rectory yet each has his own unique and separate assignment even at other parishes. During the day, Father works at the parish office but in the evening, he has dinner with other priests and lives in a common house.  This also assures that the priest has a decent and healthy diet where hot meals are provided at normal times.  Too often, priests have bad dietary habits eating fast food in a hurry or something quick at the end of a long day.  Good eating habits often are the first casualties for busy pastors and that can reduce Father's overall quality of ministry especially if he develops serious health problems.  Other places have kept the pastors in their respective rectories and parishes but have a few priests get together 3 or more days a week at a common and nearby rectory where hot meals are provided in common.  As some parishes cannot afford a full time cook with benefits, if three or more parishes split the bill, one full time cook can be hired and healthy suppers provided during the week.  This also affords time for fraternity among the brethren.

The CCC and other priestly associations provide monthly afternoons of recollection and annual seminars or conferences where priests and deacons can get together and spend some quality time in prayer, study and fraternity.  Because it is not mandatory, some priests may feel they do not need to make an effort to take precious time away from the parish for something like sacerdotal fraternity.  I think that is very, very wrong and dangerous.  Priests who live alone still NEED their brother priests.  They may not live with others in the same home but they need the fraternal support only provided by one's peers and colleagues.  Even if it is one phone call a week and one afternoon a month, priests need to make time to be with other priests.  When a priest becomes too solitary, he can be tempted with bad habits or he can get strange and somewhat unsociable.

Yes, there are some fellows who are more introverted and enjoy being by themselves.  Still, they NEED regular fraternal support and their brother clergy need THEM.  It is not just what I get out of it, rather, what I can offer and bring to the table. Many a discouraged priest can be spared the shame of leaving if just one or two peers give needed counsel and advice.  Everyone gets sick of ecclesiastical bureaucracy and politics but isolation is not an answer.  Unless one is a hermit, even diocesan parish priests need some communal dimension from time to time. Whether it is the Fraternity of Priests, Emmaus,  or the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, membership and participation in fraternal associations make a priest more balanced and even keeled.

When left alone too much and too long, Father's spiritual life may be exemplary but his emotional and social needs can be ignored and overlooked.  He may resort to some obsessive compulsive response or turn to something more nefarious.  Old, young, middle-aged, sick, retired, newly ordained and veterans; they all share in the same sacrament of Holy Orders.  Just as there is a real college of bishops, there is a solidarity in the community of priests which transcends generations and geographical borders.  In addition to the monthly chapter meetings and annual conferences, the CCC meets every five years with our Australian, British and Irish counterparts.  This international quinquennial gathering in Rome promotes ongoing priestly formation in a wonderful way.  The catholicity and universality of Holy Orders reminds us clergy that we are not lone rangers nor are we independent contractors. We are BROTHER priests who support each other in prayer and fraternally as well.

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