Posted February 26, 2003
Keeping Priests Healthy
By Father Eugene Hemrick
Seven close priest friends of mine have become victims of the sort of burnout that triggers serious medical problems over the past four to five years.
One of them I'll call John. From the moment he entered the seminary, he was considered the perfect candidate for the priesthood. He led his class in grades, played sports well, was liked and was deeply spiritual.
After ordination, he enjoyed one success after another. Parishioners loved his thoughtful homilies. He never forgot a name, and he was forever being asked to be the celebrant at weddings and baptisms even though they were in other parishes than the one he served.
As his popularity grew, he received numerous invitations for talks and dinners; his bishop was forever asking him to assist with diocesan affairs.
In many ways, Father John's schedule resembled the schedules of senators, CEOs and bishops. He was forever on the go.
Just when everything was going exceedingly well, he suddenly awoke one morning and found he couldn't meet the day. Not only did he feel he didn't have the strength to carry on, but a number of fears he never had before began to grip him.
He began to worry about enduring the meetings and small tasks he once took in stride. Thoughts of losing his beloved mother or of something terrible happening to his brothers and sisters terrified him. Worst of all, the things he thought important lost their meaning, and he began to have terrible dreams. All he wanted to do was to go to sleep, hoping things would be better when he awoke.
His greatest fear came true when friends convinced him to commit himself to a hospital. He was beyond being able to help himself.
The story of Father John is not an isolated incident. Many good priests I have known, and bishops I might add, are burning out because they are too good at being a priest, which causes them to go at a torrid pace.
This alarming trend of priests burning out or who wish to retire before retirement age is a loud wake-up call prompting us to re-examine parish life before it snuffs out more of the life in our priests. It is time to stop the merry-go-round and to reflect on the dizzying effect it has on us.
Presently, we know that the majority of viable parishes around the country are growing in size and are increasing expectations for service, while at the same time priests are becoming fewer. We know that most priests who are responsible for running a parish are older than in the past and that a fair amount of them are administering two or three parishes.
We know that these trends will intensify, and as they do the probability is great of seeing more Father Johns burn out.
If we are going to keep our priests mentally, physically and spiritually healthy, I believe the time has come for a new parish policy regarding a priest's capacities. A new clearsightedness needs to be established about the responsibilities a priest fulfills and how much he can realistically extend himself.
This clearsightedness not only applies to parishioners understanding their priests, but also to priests better understanding themselves. Priests and parishioners need to reflect on how the hectic pace of the business world conditions the church to follow its lead. We need to study -- and pray about -- the means of replacing a frantic way of life with the more humane life our faith stands for.