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Posted Jan 26, 2003

Three Important Recommendations by Priests to Bishops

Taken from focus group interviewed conducted by
the National Federation of Priests' Councils


Recommendation 1

Separate priests' work-space from living space

The priests, both young and old, were clear that offices and living quarters must be separated. Priests are only human, they told us, and even if you can live with being on-call 24 hours a day, you need a place that's private, where you can count on a measure of peace and quiet.

A 36 year-old priest voiced clearly:

Get the rectory away from the church buildings. Live away from the office. If this is not possible, the pastor has to strictly enforce privacy. In my first placement I walked downstairs in my pajamas early one morning and found five people from the parish at the kitchen table having breakfast. I was also once accosted by a Right-to-Life man right in my own kitchen early one morning. Either architecturally design the space for privacy or enforce some boundaries so that the living space can be protected.

A 49 year-old priest thinks priests need "down time":

Living above the store, so to speak is very unhealthy. Our bishop does not believe in priests living in their own homes, and when guys do live on their own somewhere else, if he finds out he gets very upset. Part of it is, I think, that he just has this old-fashioned theology that the priest needs to bde available 100 percent of the time. I don't agree with that. I think priests need "down time" and separate space. I think it is extremely unhealthy to live right in your rectory. I think we should be allowed to live in homes separate from the rectory building itself, whether it is on the same grounds or down the street somewhere. It's a big issue today, especially in the context of overwork and everything, so that the person has a good place to go to relax and rest.

Recommendation 2

Combat loneliness by fostering priestly fraternity, especially in living situations

Closely aligned with concerns about living space is the issue of loneliness. Priests often live alone. The people they spend the most time with are those who look to them for leadership parishioners, lay ministers, and staff. The image of priestly camaraderie which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s no longer exists today: there are fewer priests and the image of the priesthood has changed.

An older priest in a focus group expressed his concerns:

We've lost fraternity among our clergy, so we don't feel comfortable just stopping in and visiting one another as we used to. So there is an aloofness and loneliness that comes. And as you get a little bit older, my age, a lot of the guys that I was friends with in the seminary are dead, and my close friends have all moved away or died. So you begin to be more or less by yourself, as you get a little older . . .You get out into a parish and most of the people you're friends with are lay people. And there is a difference between having friends among the lay people and friends among the priesthood, where you can really share yourself. And we have not had, in more recent years, as many assemblies of clergy as we used to, where we get together and have some social life together.

A 32 year-old priest:

One of the things that I think causes loneliness is isolation, where, certainly in an urban environment, there is no reason for priests to be living alone in a parish. Groups of guys should be living together. Not that everyone has to have a sense of community or some kind of obligation to a group, but when you have a group, it seems to me, it is healthier living. My God, if nothing else, when you have someone who hasn't left his room in two days, when you're living with a couple of people, they would pick that up. And especially in an urban area, there is simply no reason for guys to be living alone.

A 64 year-old priest:

Priests have to live together. Even though in a rural diocese it might be a 15-mile commute to work. Now they feel the effects of not being in communion with one another in a supportive way. But even that living together has to be structured so that it's supportive. You can live in isolation in the rectory too.

Recommendation 3:

Provide clear guidelines for healthy limit-setting by priests

A 40 year-old priest sees the need for structured change:

They give us all these recommendations to balance your life, rest, and whatever else, but that's lip service. There's got to be a systemic, structured change, and I think only the bishops can initiate the discussion to look at what those changes need to be, whether it's in promoting laity or cutting back on duties, or promoting vocations. They've got to deal with that openly. That would be the key thing that I would say about overwork. Too many priests are too dedicated, and they're going to overwork no matter what. They just don't have the ability to say no, because they're too willing to give. They see the work and they go do it.

A 40 year-old priest recognizes how difficult it is to take time for himself:

I think, as priests, we're almost called to be workaholics. You can be made to feel guilty if you don't work 17 hours a day almost; you feel you should be in your office. If you're not so much that somebody else is looking at you saying, "Why aren't you in your office?" But it's that self-infliction, you know. "Why aren't you there? You should be down in your office instead of working in your room or taking a half hour break," or something like that. Or, even taking that hour for a quiet hour for prayer. You want to do it, and yet people aren't going to think I'm working just because I'm up here praying. Well, really it's nobody's business. But you kind of inflict that on yourself. So I think the recommendation needs to be made somewhere on the idea that we need to be able to say it's okay to take time. It's okay to take an hour off and get out of the rectory. It's okay to do some things for yourself.

These thoughtful recommendations, direct from the hearts of priests, tell the truth about pressures in their lives. We hope that bishops and seminary rectors take them seriously. Priests often told us that they do not feel they are being heard today, and we promised to do what we could.