I was recently at a gathering of priests in which the topic was vocations. One person stood up and said that statistics say that the majority of priests are extremely happy with their lives, but that they perceive that their fellow priests are not happy. Over the last few months, I have found myself reflecting on that statement often in my private prayer and have come to the conclusion that I do believe that my brother priests are happy in their ministry, but I had to admit to myself that I did not always feel that way. There was a time in my priesthood in which I thought a lot of the priests I knew were not happy in their ministry.
With prayer and thought, I was able to pinpoint the moment when I began to see my brother priests in a different light. I was participating in the Catholic Leadership Institute’s “Good Leaders Good Shepherds” program with 30 other diocesan brothers. On the first day the instructor had us each stand one at a time and introduce ourselves. In addition to saying our name we were suppose to also name our three most positive qualities. I stood up and said, “My name is Father Tom and I am smart, organized and loyal.” All the priest in the room seemed to agree that the three adjectives that I used described me pretty well.
After we went around the room, the instructor told us that we were going to do the exercise again but this time, we were going to state the negative expressions of those strengths — not the opposite but the negative. This time when I stood up I said, “My name is Father Tom and I am a know-it-all, a control-freak, and a follower.”
Once again, all the priests in the room agreed that the adjectives I had chosen described me pretty well. It was at this moment that I had a great insight. My insight was that sometimes the negative qualities that I see in others are actually strengths that I am choosing in a negative light. This helped me change my views of some of my brother priests (not to mention my parishioners and others). Finding the good in others became so much easier to find.
Finding the good in others has always been especially important to me for I am a strong believer in what psychologists call “Positive Sentiment Override.” Simply stated the more positive feelings that you have toward someone the more likely it is that you will be able to tolerate behaviors that you find annoying in them. Some psychologists call it emotional banking for thinking positive thoughts about someone is like putting emotional money in the bank that you can withdraw when your relationship with that person gets rough.
I first came across the idea of positive sentiment override when learning to deal with a staff member who complained all the time about everything and who I thought that the pastor should fire. At the same time, I was reading books on marriage and conflict resolutions trying to improve my marriage preparation program. Taking the idea of positive sentiment override, I began to say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the staff person whom I was having difficulty with and in that prayer I would thank God for three specific things about that person. Slowly and overtime I noticed that our relationship changed and that when that staff person did finally find another job I was sad to see her go.
Seeing my brothers in a positive light was the first step in my journey to loving my brother priests better. The second was becoming a positive influence for my brother priests. Sometimes the only person that understands what we, as priests, are going through is a brother priest and so I found myself often sharing the negative and challenging aspects of ministry with my spiritual director, mentor, and priest friends.
God graced me with the idea one day that I should not only be sharing the negative and challenging things about ministry with my brother priests but also the positive and rewarding things as well. In doing so, I began to realize that my brother priests were often doing the same thing that I had been doing and only sharing with me the negative in their lives and surprisingly my sharing the positive with them, somehow gave them permission to share their positive moments with me.
Finally, over the last few years, I have tried to spend more time with my brother priests. I know this is not always easy because of the many different direction our lives are pulled but I have found the time spent with my brother priests as priceless. Every morning, I wake up knowing that I get to be a priest and I cannot wait to get the day started. I have never regretted my decision to say “yes” to God and I know that many of my brother priests feel the same way.
Father Pastorius is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.