The Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (The Gift of the Priestly Vocation), promulgated Dec. 8, 2016, by the Congregation for the Clergy, states that “the formation of priests means following a singular ‘journey of discipleship,’ which begins at baptism, is perfected through the other sacraments of Christian initiation, comes to be appreciated as the center of one’s life at the beginning of seminary formation and continues throughout the whole of life.”
The Ratio goes on to explain that both initial and ongoing formation must be seen as a singular process that integrates the four specific dimensions of formation (human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral) as developed by Pope St. John Paul II in his landmark formation document Pastores Dabo Vobis. Finally, the Ratio states that “the entire journey of formation must never be reduced to a single aspect to the detriment of others, but it must always be an integrated journey of the disciple called to priesthood.”
Pope Benedict XVI would stress this reality whenever he appointed a new bishop, telling them with quiet intensity, “Take care of my priests!” And during his pontificate, Pope Francis has “offered a rich magisterium and a constant personal example regarding the ministry and life of priests” (Ratio, No. 1).
These exhortations form a clear message: Priest wellness is a priority for happiness in priestly vocation and for ministry effectiveness. Willingness to embrace the challenge to maintain balance and cultivate wellness across all four dimensions of formation will have a deep and lasting effect on priestly life.
Priestly Life and Stressors
Each day, priests confront the stressors present in ministry and life, for example: fewer resources (personnel and practical/financial); increased pressure to maintain facilities and vibrant ministries; more time demands; greater need for clear and decisive leadership in the parish community; shrinking budgets; aging donors; the reality that most priests are covering/leading more than one parish community; and the increasing reality that, in many dioceses, priests are being asked to do more with less.
Priests also live with the realities of the continued changes and transitions in lifestyle, for example: fewer brothers in the presbyterate for socialization or to live with; fewer ministry partners from religious communities to assist in parish life (catechesis, religious education, social ministries, etc.); not enough funds to have a cook and housekeeper in the rectory; greater challenge to find coverage for retreats, vacations and days off; finding the time to participate in the decision-making and care of elderly parents; wearing multiple ministry hats and/or having multiple ministry sites under their leadership.
Popular blogger Ali Schultz (onbeing.org), reflecting on the rhythm of adult life, writes, “We work hard, we choose work (ministry) over life, we take on responsibilities that may or may not be ours to take on, we suffer from psychic and emotional weight — things such as guilt, worry, fear and anxiety. Mired in struggle, directing dramas and, perhaps, wondering if that’s all there is. Is it?”
Priests know that there is more than this. In sacramental ministry, priests have been called by our loving and merciful God to serve and to lead, to teach and to preach, to witness love and mercy and accountability as they confect the Eucharist in persona Christi.
In his book “Bounce: Living the Resilient Life” (Oxford University Press, $23.95), Robert Wicks writes that “in recognizing and overcoming resistances to growth and change, we are able to appreciate that the most important person in improving our situation is ourselves.”
Achieving a healthy ministry-life balance (wellness) eventually comes down to personal responsibility and discipline. Priests must make the right choices, and their choices must be influenced by several things, including: their prayerful response to the call to holy priesthood; their attitudes about themselves, those whom they have been called to serve and our institutional Church; and their devotion to the source of their strength — namely, the Eucharist. Behaviors that flow from the practice of devotions and cultivation of priestly spirituality help priests to counter stress and the external pressures that distract from all forms of self-care and nurturing.
Establishing healthy practices can help avoid compassion fatigue. While the parish community may push priests to meet all their needs all the time, when priests are balanced and refreshed, they are much better able to manage stress, serve with creativity and joy, and be effective spiritual and sacramental leaders.
Here are 10 practices that can make a difference and lead to balance and wellness, offered from the perspective of one cleric speaking to another.
1. Prayer and Holy Mass Daily
When we are frustrated by stress and balance issues, pray. When we are upset at our ministry situation, pray. When we are frustrated with our parishioners, pray. Prayer is a critical practice when it comes to ministry-life balance. It is the original, calming practice that Jesus taught and that connects us to God. Prayer calms, refocuses and provides the spiritual strength we need to find balance in our days. Make quality time for holy Mass, for Eucharistic adoration, for praying the holy Rosary and for devotions. Place all stress and struggles before Christ and Our Lady, in the Eucharist and on the cross.
2. Spiritual and Emotional Support
We cannot maintain balance without regular and substantial support across these core areas:
◗ Spiritual direction, regularly and with an experienced director.
◗ Choosing a confessor and seeing him regularly for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and ceasing all grave sin.
◗ Ministry supervision: finding a mentor or supervisor, someone you can bring the challenges to and ask for feedback/advice/suggestions.
◗ If addictions or mood disturbance are part of our story, then attending self-help meetings and/or seeing a counselor regularly are crucial to maintaining emotional wellness.
3. Care for Our Bodies
God has given us one body for this life. Caring for it allows us to be fully present in our ministry and to care for others. Getting a yearly physical, taking all medications as prescribed, managing any chronic disease and following up on any specialty appointments are critical to maintaining optimal physical health. Maintaining good nutrition and eating healthfully is also important. Exercise has great rejuvenating effects and is critical to well-being. When we feel stressed and out of balance, exercise and good nutrition rebalance. We need to feed our brain and our gut with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, protein, rich greens, antioxidants and GMO/pesticide-free whole grains.
4. Simplify Our Lives
Jesus and his disciples lived simply. Jesus had access to all the riches of heaven, but he chose to live simply and called on his disciples to do the same. Pope Francis exhorts us today to do the same. Figure out what is most important to you in life and hold it dearly. Let the rest go.
5. Come to Terms with Our Relationships with Money
Our desire to accumulate and spend can spur us to work extreme hours in order to accumulate money. We must develop a habit of budgeting our money and living within our means. If we can appreciate the need for and the benefits of money while watching our expenses and not allowing the desire to accumulate money to become our dominant value, then we can more easily make the choice to spend our time on sacramental ministry without the distraction of money.
6. Designate a Quiet Space in Our Rectory for Rest
It is important to have a space in the rectory to which we can retreat when feeling stressed. This particularly is essential when our parish community includes a large staff and the rectory can become busy and loud. The space doesn’t have to be large, but it does need to be for us a place of quiet prayer, reflection and sanctuary.
7. Invite the Holy Spirit into Each Activity
We are at our best when we invite God’s Holy Spirit into each activity of our lives. When we are given the grace to do this, then ministry becomes integrated with our spiritual life. Think of ministry and family/friend contact as a spiritual time, not as a distraction. That way, each movement toward others can be a spiritual experience. Thinking of the routines of life as spiritual practices can make these moments sacred and can allow us to be more fully present with all whom we encounter, rather than viewing routines like parish administration as obligations one has to get through.
8. Go on Retreats and Vacations
Rest is important enough that we should also set aside significant periods of time dedicated to it. Our bodies, minds and spirits need to lie fallow, like farmland, in order to be refreshed. Taking a week or two of vacation can help do that. Retreats are a potent time for spiritual renewal, intense prayer and renewal of devotions. These are important opportunities for rest and grace, and we should make the most of them.
9. Spend Regular Time with Family, Friends and Other Priests
Having good times with family and friends can balance our ministry and sacramental responsibilities. Meals are important times to connect with family. Having dinner with other priests or friends/family can be difficult for priests who have evening meetings, so we need to find other times for fun with our brother priests, family members and friends. Whenever possible, try to come home for dinner before returning to the parish for meetings. Network within your vicariate and meet monthly with a group of priests for faith sharing. Try to participate in a monthly clergy gathering. They make a great difference. The perspective and support we gain from relationships can make such a difference when we are stressed, overwhelmed and trying to balance ministry and life.
10. Take a Break Each Evening before Bed
There is an old saying, “Don’t go to bed angry.” We should add, “Don’t go to bed right after the last ministry or sacramental activity.”
Give yourself permission to put a limit on evening ministry and sacramental activity.
There is an old and wise saying: “This is enough for today. That’s what the good Lord made tomorrow for.” Make those words your evening mantra, and be sure to end each day with a good examen and night prayer.
Striving for wellness and maintaining balance across all four dimensions of lifelong formation (again: human, intellectual, pastoral and spiritual) will produce many fruits. A precise application of these practices will make a difference.
You will probably not be perfect in following them, but when you stick with them reasonably often, you will find them most helpful.
|Resources on Wellness
by Robert J. Wicks (Oxford University Press, $23.95)
American author Annie Dillard said, “How you spend your days is how you spend your life.”
If we embrace wellness practices each day of our lives, we will find that those practices and the disciplines that flow from them will bring us more balance, and we will feel more often that we are well and whole.
Take the risk, because there is great joy in the priesthood, and God wants a joyous presbyterate!
DEACON STEVEN DEMARTINO is the director of Priest Wellness for the Archdiocese of New York. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.