Every year priests make a retreat. They pray each day. Read material about the spiritual life. Why are not more considered and seen as holy, spiritual men? Men of God?
Could the answer lie in the fact that there are key issues which have not been addressed? Faced up to? Some would call them part of the “Mysteries of Life.” They are issues which are frightening and threatening, that most people prefer to ignore and not face. They are avoided, though, only to have them come back to haunt a person.
To cheat on them, giving them only halfhearted attention, brings future conflicts and problems. They are so profound and such a part of human existence that no one can escape them. They have to be addressed. Identified. Recognized. Purified. Evangelized. Surrendered to the Lord.
Our ordination did not remove us from the human condition, from Original Sin. It should have equipped us, though, with instruments to better face it. We are not exempt from the same struggles that every human being has to endure. How well we handle these issues will determine our sanctity.
1) My Work — Zeal is a wonderful virtue in a pastoral agent. Being workaholic, however, is a distraction and flight from deeper reflection and prayer. Interesting how St. Thomas Aquinas classifies working too much and not taking time to pray as part of the sin of sloth! Accomplishing victories for the Kingdom is the sign of a saint. Running around without reflecting can be a red flag that a person does not want to think about what is going on in his life.
It is remarkable how so many mystics and contemplatives spent hours and hours in prayer, then went forth to accomplish tremendous deeds. Labora et ora. Work without meditation is frenzied foolishness, building upon sand. In the silence of meditation, great deeds are born. The Bible tells us that there is a time for peace and a time for war, a time for building up and a time for tearing down (Ecclesiastes). A good priest needs to learn that there is a time for work and zeal, and a time for being quiet and let the Lord work on him.
2) Possessing Things — We laugh about Linus and his security blanket. Don’t we all like to have certain things around us to insure our comfort? Feel anxious and uneasy when they are not available? There is a bumper sticker that says that I do not have all that I love, but that I love everything that I have. Some people will fight to keep those things!
Could this include the parish where I am now? Do I begin to think of it as mine? Of me as its owner and master? Would I consider a change without a struggle? Or resistance? Have I become so attached that any criticism of the parish becomes a personal attack against me? Am I a servant ready to provide assistance — or someone who wants to be attended to? How do I react if the bishop or any other authority tries to intervene or interfere in any matter of the parish?
3) Seeking Pleasure — Pleasure is a gift from the Lord, the spice of life which makes our existence a bit more enjoyable. Life would be so dull and dreary without pleasures’ delights. Yet there are people who have made the whole purpose of their existence the pursuit of pleasure, the reason for being alive. Cruise ships are filled with people buying the illusion of a week of happiness.
There can be that extra drink when no one is looking. Or a lustful glance. Eating out of boredom and not hunger. Cheating a little bit and hedging our bets, thinking that no one will be hurt. Pleasure, like fire, is useful when contained. Out of its boundaries, it can be harmful and destructive. Can I really leave it, or do I always take it? Who is in control in my life?
4) Freedom — Any red-blooded American has to watch out for this temptation: I have a right to do whatever I want, whenever I wish. No limits. No boundaries. Liberty to do whatever I desire. Go wherever I want. No restraints. Do I think that I have a right to do whatever I crave?
Could the current sexual crisis be linked to this concept of freedom? Surveys say that 25 million people watch from one to ten hours of pornography a week on the Internet. Any clerics among that number?
Saying no to oneself is never easy, but then again, didn’t Jesus say something about denying ourselves, taking up our cross and then being able to follow Him? To be free is to be free from certain enslavements in order to be free to assume duties and responsibilities, not free to do whatever pleases us. Seems as though Lucifer’s pride was rooted in a type of freedom to believe and serve as he saw fit. Most religious will tell you that, as they age, the toughest vow to live is obedience. And when the bishop is younger than I am, with less pastoral experience, fewer skills and less practice?
5) Money — Have I become obsessed that there will not be enough for my old age? Do anything to get my hands on extra cash? Angry because I have a poorer parish that cannot take care of me in the same life style that priests in richer places enjoy? How much do I need to live a decent, human life? Do I spend my money foolishly, imprudently, by gambling? Expensive vacations? Rich lifestyle? Is my car the best model in the parish?
A temptation is to say that the money is mine. I earned it. I can do whatever I want to with it. Nonetheless, is there really any money that came to me that was not earned because of my priestly church status?
6) Spiritual Growth — There are even some who say there’s no use being a fanatic. I get my daily Mass and breviary taken care each day. No need to find extra time for private prayer. It seems so useless. Nothing productive happens. What did I accomplish by setting aside that extra 15-30 minutes a day? I feel so much better being like Martha stirring about than like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet.
Like a hamster on a spinning wheel, this type of person spends lots of energy going nowhere fast. Like those big powerful German tanks that ran out of gas in World War II. They went nowhere. A priest who is not filled with the Holy Spirit through private prayer will not only be gloomy and upset, but ineffective and empty. Lack of a spiritual life makes one try to find an outlet in activity which is never truly satisfying. St. Augustine said that he could find peace and rest only when he rested in the Lord.
7) Getting Recognition — Most men hate to feel irrelevant, useless. Of no value. Not listened to because they have nothing to offer. How many priests have become bitter because they feel that the bishop or priest/pastoral council do not listen and take his advice on diocesan or parish affairs?
It is hard not to be on the starting team. Called upon only when others cannot make it. St. John the Baptist rejoiced that Christ would increase and he, John, would decrease. Am I pleased when a neighboring priest is praised and congratulated? Am I willing to work silently in the desert, far from the bright lights? To accept and do the simple, humble work that gets no applause or attention?
8) Desire to Be Liked and Loved — How many politicians and public authorities have kept silent and not spoken up when an unpopular cause appears? Pretended they have nothing to do with the issue. Washed their hands like Pilate.
To be obnoxious and intolerant for no good reason is not useful. To be disliked because we annoy some people’s consciences by taking a stand for what is right is noble and prophetic. Helping the poor, promoting immigration reform, taking care of the needs of the sick and the underprivileged are issues which are not popular or fashionable with a number of people. Even considered to be only political or economic questions. To stick one’s neck out into the fray does not always earn us warm embraces. To stand out, taking a position, can be lonely.
It might almost be a maxim that, if a priest spent a whole lifetime without ever being criticized, his life and work would be a great failure. Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated Him first.
Minus and Plus 60
9) My Health — This one can be divided into two age groups: those under 60 years and those over 60.
For the younger clergy, it is easy to take one’s well-being and vitality for granted. You feel good. You work long and hard and find extra energy for special projects. No need to worry about what you eat or how much you drink, about resting enough, about taking a good vacation or getting enough sleep. At this stage of life, one does not yet grasp that this phase is a passing one. A precious gift can be squandered, leaving us underproductive in later years without the wisdom and insights useful for helping others that could have been gained. Sins of omission means not doing what one should or could do.
For those over 60, the aches and pains begin. Pills. Surgeries. More and more time spent in doctors’ offices. Illnesses and sicknesses, though, can create a self-centered individual. Every choice and deed is passed through the filter of how will this affect one’s well-being?
The fear of growing old and having to abandon former activities takes hold. The danger is becoming immersed in oneself. One no longer turns outward to those who need help, but gets lost in his own inner world. All conversations revolve around the last doctor’s visit or the medicine one is taking! Life suddenly focuses on the past, when one had good health. The chance to incorporate the suffering and pains of one’s current situation into the Mystical Body is lost, that opportunity to save souls by completing what was lacking in the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
10) Death — Am I a person of the Resurrection, of an afterlife, or will I do anything to prolong my biological life? Do I ask for every possible procedure whether there is a hope for a cure or not. There are people whose preoccupation with their coming death stops them from living now. They become nonfunctional.
Today no longer has value or usefulness. They have stopped before their time. An approaching death is only a moment of dread, not to be thought of.
Or is it a reminder of how I wish to live for the Lord every precious moment I still have? A pastor can be a model for his flock even as he prepares his own final moments, an inspiration of how to step into eternity with joy and grace.
Key issues which are looked into and faced up to bring us a greater inner freedom and peace. There is no way we can become truly Christian and holy without going through these questions (and many more). Frequenting the Sacraments, reciting daily prayers, reading the Bible, doing good works (for the wrong reasons?) are a start, but not enough to get us to where we need to be.
Examining key issues will do away with and remove our “sacred cows” and cherished positions. These can be threatening to the status quo. They demand our attention, yet woe to the person who ignores or flees from facing up to them. TP
Father Kirchner, C.Ss.R., was ordained a Redemptorist priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in Moral Theology in Rome, taught (and is looking to teach courses) in parishes, and is currently working and living at Liguori, Mo.