July 2018: Priests and their Pastoral Ministry

by Fr Chris Chatteris SJ

Pope’s Prayer Intention for July 2018

Priests and their Pastoral Ministry. That priests, who experience fatigue and loneliness in their pastoral work, may find help and comfort in their intimacy with the Lord and in their friendship with their brother priests.

It is very possible to be lonely in the middle of a crowd. A priest can be lonely in the midst of his congregation, even at a moment of great celebration. This may seem strange, but it happens. Why? Firstly, there is the simple fact that he is both single and singular. Because he is celibate, this makes him different, unusual. Whatever the compensations of the pastoral life, he will still feel, from time to time, the loss of the tenderness and intimacy of the married life and the deep satisfactions of creating a home and a family.

Those who are married will tell him of course, that the grass may seem greener on their side of the fence but marriage also has its challenges and it is even possible to be married and very lonely. Indeed, loneliness is part of the human condition and it may well be important for us to experience it from time to time if we are to grow in our appreciation of the ‘milk of human kindness’. But such reassurances do not necessarily help a man who, when the people have gone home after the Sunday Masses, can feel acutely cut off, empty, alone and wondering what on earth he is about.

There was a time when diocesan clergy lived together in the presbytery as a small community. The way of life was not quite that of a religious, but, to use St Basil the Great’s powerful phrase, they were able to wash one another’s feet, in other words to support one another in daily, practical ways. Today, with the numbers of diocesan clergy on the low side, it is unusual for diocesan priests to live together. Sometimes I have pointed this out to the seminarians in my charge and have been rather taken aback by the response of some who say they would welcome being alone in a parish because this would mean they were fully in charge. The implication is that control is an adequate compensation of loneliness.

Young men holding such opinions have much to learn. Firstly that they will need the support of their fellow priests, whether they live with them or not. And as one gets older the more one needs the network of community. So, if they are running a parish by themselves they will have to make serious efforts to cultivate good relationships with their fellow clergy if they wish to experience the support of the presbyterium.

The fact is that community living isn’t just about praying, breaking bread together and socialising. Community becomes terribly real the moment I fall ill or have a car accident. If I live by myself in splendid isolation, persuading myself that I need no one, what will happen when this illusion is shattered by the reality of my human fragility? To whom will I turn?

‘I am a rock; I am an island. And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries’, wrote Simon and Garfunkel. The problem is that the human person simply isn’t like that. We are flesh and blood; we have feelings and moods; our souls cry out for one another. It is not good for us to be alone. Modern culture might exalt rugged individualism but in fact modern society itself would be impossible without the extraordinary level of cooperation and community that underpins this way of life. When I do something as routine as drive a car, I put my life into the hands of thousands of fellow drivers whom I rely on to keep me safe by driving with care and consideration.

Secondly, seminarians have to learn that the single, celibate life accepted for the sake of the Gospel (whether one is a diocesan priest or a religious) is not possible without personal prayer. Unless they can develop a deep and intimate prayer-life which puts them daily in contact with the loving Lord of the Gospel, their life and ministry will end up seeming empty, meaningless and disproportionately tiring. Their work will be a burden and exhausting; the deep fatigue will reflect a deep spiritual and emotional vacuum within them. Like Jesus, who was as busy as any parish priest, a priest has to learn to find time to be alone with God. In practice this normally means early in the morning before the day begins, like the Lord himself. Leaving it until later normally means that it never happens.

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