The way to a happy, holy and healthy life

How do we define happiness, or holiness, or healthiness? There are at least as many definitions as there are readers of this magazine. Is every lottery winner happy? Is every neighbor healthy? Is every parishioner holy? Certainly not. Measuring these attributes in any individual is difficult at best. Explaining happiness might be as simple as: “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Few of us would disagree, and happiness, like healthiness and holiness, is contagious. Notwithstanding the many definitions, we can agree that being happy, holy and healthy are important goals for the good of every priest. But how are these often elusive attributes achieved?


It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to know that happiness is a state of mind; it is part of our psyche. We are each endowed with this characteristic. The trick is to discover it within ourselves, and then give it away. The priest — indeed, anyone — who can give or share his happiness with others receives that same happiness back in spades many times over. We all know that special feeling when we take the opportunity to help someone and see the happiness and gratitude written all over the other person’s face. In a like manner, we, too, are beaming with happiness. Throughout the sacred Scriptures the terms “joy” and “peace” connote and even emphasize happiness. Indeed, a happy life reflects the peace and joys of Christ.

Every priest discovers that happiness (joy and peace) isn’t realized by pursuing what he wants, but rather in pursuing what God wants. They also recognize how happiness is manifested through their service to God and to man. Albert Schweitzer said: “The one thing I know: The only ones who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

A priest adequately can’t explain the attendant happiness and joy that comes from baptizing a newborn; confirming a group of RCIA participants at the Easter Vigil; counseling and marrying a young couple; blessing a 60th wedding anniversary; leading the Stations of the Cross with a packed church; hearing first confessions; and, most notable of all, changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and then giving that most precious gift to parishioners every day. The person on the receiving end of these special gifts is most often overwhelmed with joy and happiness. Can the world offer anything similar? No, they are gifts from God delivered through his priests.

Father Michael Plona smiles as he blesses the congregation with holy water while celebrating his first Mass on June 25, 2017, at Our Lady of Loretto Church in Hempstead, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Following the Beatitudes

As a man of God, a priest does not lay up earthly treasures. He avoids everything that gets between him and his Creator — everything that gets between him and heaven. This need to be detached from earthly goods and worldly demands in order to attain happiness is emphasized by Jesus when he taught the beatitudes (see Mt 5). The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “The beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness. This desire is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it” (No. 1718).

In these simple sentences, these beatitudes, Christ gives us road signs to happiness both now and in eternity. Perhaps they should be posted on our bathroom mirror or near the refrigerator handle. Blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit. ... Blessed (happy) are the meek. ... Blessed (happy) are the merciful. ...” The secular universe tells us that we find happiness in worldly trappings and allurements. Jesus, during his homily on the beatitudes, goes against such rationale, explaining that giving up our possessions and turning to God is the road to happiness both now and in eternity. Not everyone can do this.

The rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel was attached to earthly goods. To gain heaven, he needed to sell what he had, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Jesus. He couldn’t do it and “went away sad, for he had many possessions” (19:22). A priest, on the other hand, has little and wants little; having been graced by God at ordination, he can happily follow Jesus unencumbered by possessions.

Christ through the beatitudes turns the world on its ear, and our society can’t stand it. We are all pressured to put ourselves before others, to sit in the front row, grab every earthly honor we can get. Our society claims that being meek is for saps, for losers, that forgiveness and mercy are passé. How often have we heard that nice guys finish last? Our risen Lord tells us just the opposite. He rejects this secular wisdom, which is underscored by Satan. Instead, Jesus teaches us to be meek and humble, to give up the front-row seat and put God and neighbor before self, and to forgive those who have offended us. Such acts lead to happiness.

Emulating Christ

A priest sets the example of putting God first, and laypeople follow the example of their priest. The stature, the importance of priests being role models, was best defined by Pope St. John Paul II: “The world looks to the priest, because it looks to Jesus! No one can see Christ: but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!”

The priest is always “on stage” whether he desires such notoriety or not. He need not be an actor, as phoniness is always recognized. If he frowns, if he is arrogant, others will turn away. If he teaches and practices love, forgiveness, gentleness and mercy, and finds good in everyone, then he is prone to happiness, because these are the traits of Jesus. If he is happy, his parishioners will flock to him because they know such happiness is a gift from God, and they want that gift.

R.H. Fisher, in his book “The Beatitudes,” published in 1912, wrote: “Serene and happy lives the man who has learned to think well of his friends and of the world he lives in, who is not looking for faults or delighting in the mistakes or offenses of his fellows, whose mind instinctively takes a generous and gentle view, and whose heart is forever overflowing in the little tenderness which makes life gracious and beautiful. The source of happiness to others, that man is happy.”

Such is the goal for the priest — indeed, for us all.

Deacon James Sheridan (now an ordained priest) of the Archdiocese of New York prays before Mass on March 10, 2016, at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz


Like happiness, holiness is a little elusive in terms of definition. Often the word “perfect” is used to describe “holy.” The Catechism reads: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (No. 2013).

Well, none of us is as perfect as God, and no priest or any Christian would say otherwise. There are, however, virtues of holiness to which we all can subscribe. Known as heroic virtues, they are the attributes of every saint. In the inquiries that accompany each cause for canonization, the focus early on is to determine if the candidate lived a life of heroic virtue — that is, did he or she habitually practice the theological and cardinal virtues, the Church’s principles of righteous behavior? Did the saint candidate exhibit these qualities of holiness? Eventually, when the individual is given the title “venerable,” the pope confirms that the candidate did possess those qualities. The priest can measure his own aspirations for holiness by this same criterion, these same virtues.

Because the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are infused in each of us, they are not habits developed over time; they are not traits that come and go, but they are part of our soul.

Theological Virtues

Exemplifying the virtue of faith is the story of the centurion who completely trusted Jesus to cure his servant. We repeat words similar to his at every Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Mt 8:8). If we, laity and clergy alike, don’t humbly practice (not just contemplate) that kind of faith, then holiness will allude us. The priest especially can’t be lukewarm: “But my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him” (Heb 10:38).

Hope, the second theological virtue, is like faith in that it can’t be seen. A work colleague once asked: “If you put a pound of hope in one sack and a pound of dirt in another, which would weigh the most?” Clearly he was not attuned to the love of God; he didn’t know about St. Monica praying and hoping for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine, for more than 30 years; he forgot that in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and your team losing, there is still hope. As long as there is life, there is hope. The priest believes this and often professes it at the bedside of the sick or those marginalized by society.

Charity is the attribute of loving God and others as ourselves. Benedictine writer Dom Hubert van Zeller wrote, “To be nice to people merely because we happen to like them is not enough; we must set our affection higher up the scale and be nice to them for the love of God.”

If we have charity, we have love. As St. Peter said, “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). The priest, without exception, recognizes how charity is at the center of all the virtues.

Cardinal Virtues

Theological virtues are keys to holiness, as are the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Prudence is the good use of judgment. Proverbs 16:16 says: “How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding [prudence] is preferable to silver.”

Prudence is essential for a priest in his everyday dealing with numerous agencies and people inside and outside the parish. Justice, the third of the cardinal virtues, is as basic as always applying the Golden Rule. It is a virtue where everyone is given his due and is well described in the story of Susanna in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The two elders accusing Susanna of a sinful and shameful act were the ones guilty and found out by Daniel. “Thus was innocent blood spared that day” (13:62). Justice was served.

In order to live the Gospel of Jesus and avoid the lure of Satan, the priest develops the fortitude, the courage, necessary to face difficult situations, all the while being open to the Holy Spirit’s direction. It sometimes isn’t easy to speak up, to take the high road, to willingly give up everything for Jesus. It isn’t easy to stand up for what is correct rather than what is popular. He who can do this is on the road to holiness. The Scriptures speak to fortitude or boldness: “And [pray] also for me, that speech may be given me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains, so that I may have the courage to speak as I must” (Eph 6:19-20).

Temperance seems like an odd quality to look for in identifying or pursuing priestly holiness. It means moderation and self-control. It keeps ambition in check; it balances pride and humility; it regulates our excessive desire for things unworthy of us; and it moderates anger and those impulses that seek pleasure, including unreasonable amounts of food and drink.

Reaching for Perfection

While following the theological and cardinal virtues is noble because they are exercises in holiness, the desire for perfection remains. How do we achieve perfection? Blessed John Henry Newman wrote about this goal in his book “Meditations and Devotions”: “If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say — first — do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thought to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.”

Pope Francis reiterated Newman, saying to a crowd at St. Peter’s Square in 2013: “Holiness does not mean performing extraordinary things but carrying out daily things in an extraordinary way — that is, with love, joy and faith.”

Words of Inspiration
— St. Francis de Sales

To grow in holiness


Fathers Tom Otto, Adam Cesarek and Michael Pica of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., rode their bicycles across the diocese, a trek of 350 miles, in April 2017 to inspire prayers for vocations. CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Peoria’s Office of Priestly Vocations

As he got older, the great Mickey Mantle, Hall of Fame outfielder for the Yankees, allegedly said, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

In order to become both happy and holy, the priest must take care of himself. The word “must” is used because so many people count on the priest (whether they recognize it or not). Parishioners want their priest around for a long time; his presence gives them a sense of hope and constancy. His service to his Savior and Holy Mother Church are meant to be long and fruitful. But how does he stay healthy in a busy, often stress-filled lifestyle? If there are hundreds of books on how to be happy, there are thousands on how to be healthy. The great American writer Mark Twain said about such publications, “Be careful of reading health books, you might die of a misprint.” Indeed, we can go overboard on all the different diets and exercise manuals.

Too Much Work

Becoming a workaholic leads to stress — or worse. A few years ago, a military officer reported to a new peacetime assignment unaccompanied, meaning he had no family with him. He immediately began to work from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. He created a situation where both his immediate and extended staff, the military members who accompanied him, started working the same hours; no one dared leave before the boss. The subordinates considered getting the general a dog so that he had some reason to go home. Much of the work done outside normal hours either could have waited or couldn’t be effectively completed until the next day when the civilian specialists were available. Morale sunk. People wanted transfers. The general, under the weight of the stress he created, had a heart attack.

Now, a parish priest doesn’t have a large staff of people, but he sets the tone of the work habits for those around him. Trying to do everything, becoming a micromanager, is a bad idea, as any of those books not necessarily recommended by Mark Twain will tell you.

Discovering balance in everything we do in our daily living is the key to healthiness: finding time for ourselves, exercising, getting enough rest, eating right. One thing every overworked parish pastor can do is to distribute some of his workload among not only his staff, if he has one, but among the many talented parishioners willing to be of assistance.

The priest shouldn’t isolate himself, either from members of his flock or his fellow priests. There is comfort in fraternity, in sharing our joys and sorrows with others in similar vocations. Talking with another priest who knows where you are coming from and who has the same experiences is a great way to reduce stress.

Father Christopher Sullivan and a camper play soccer in July 2017 during the Quo Vadis Camp at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y. Seventy-six teens from the Dioceses of Rockville Centre and Brooklyn attended the camp. CNS photo/ Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

God’s Creation

All this points to a healthful mental well-being. Diet, rest, regular medical checkups are other keys to maintaining a healthy life. It’s important to get away on vacations, retreats and take days off in order to stay refreshed. Developing good habits include daily routines that give stability to a priest’s lifestyle: find a hobby; work in your garden; take an early morning walk; spend half an hour at the gym; set specific times to answer emails; go to bed at a regular time; turn of the cellphone and get off Facebook for an hour a day.

God gave us our body; it is his lifetime gift to us, a gift to relish and take care of. “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good” (CCC, No. 2288).

In pursuing ways to do our best during this earthly pilgrimage, nothing trumps that special bond between the priest and Our Savior, Jesus Christ. Prayer and the Eucharist are forever the cornerstones. You are God’s creation, endowed with the special gift of the priesthood; you are a model for others. It is an awesome responsibility to God, to yourself and others, that you are happy, holy and healthy.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and is a longtime contributor to OSV publications.