success stories

Posted July 16, 2004

Reflections on the Humanity of the Priesthood

Taken from On One Who Serves
United States Catholic Bishops Conference, Washington, D.C.

The social sciences have offered insights and analyses concerning behavioral dimensions which have come to be realized as common to all. As a human person, the priest desires to live on forever. He needs to be recognized, and appreciates the warmth of being loved. Like any other human being, the priest wants to be accepted. He wants to belong, to be and to feel needed. He, like other men, passes through various discernible stages in life’s growth. He has the need for some recognition of his efforts and respect for his person. Like others he searches for intimacy with his God, and struggles to integrate his life in the presence of the Lord.

It is important to recognize these ordinary needs. They help in understanding much of the frustration, tension, and conflict experienced by priests. If the priest does not understand that they are calling for fulfillment within him, his attitudes will be troubled and poorly developed. He will experience anxieties which he does not comprehend. He may well confuse some of his natural yearnings with moral shortcomings.

Social sciences have likewise helped us in recognizing identifiable stages of development in adult life. Until recently, the adult years were examined in terms of problems; now thre are resons to understand adult life from the perspective of predictable patterns and continuing changes. Specifically, between the ages of 35 to 45, “midway upon the journey of our life” the priest, as do all men and women, undergoes profound developmental changes. This time period has been alternately called middle-age crisis, mid-life transition, and middle-escence. The difficulties of this growth phase may show varied symptoms such as indecisiveness, worry, anxiety, depression, compensatory behaviors, and/or chemical dependencies. The priest may show a decrease of motivation and a lowering of commitment to his ministry. Somewhere in the late 30's priests become involved in a kind of “stock-taking” and start asking themselves: What am I doing here in this parish (ministry)? What have I done with my life? Do I want to spend so much time in administration? Maybe I should get into something more “pastoral”? What is it I really want? What about me? Have I really faced my own death? Do I have any regrets? If so, what can I do differently now?

To characterize mid-life as a time of crisis is somewhat misleading because the word crisis in our culture is taken to imply weakness or the inability to deal with stress. In the developmental model of the human person, crisis means a turning point, the facing of critical alternatives with an opportunity for growth. If the priest refuses to deal with the mid-life transition, a sense of staleness and tedium permeates his personal life and ministry. It is likely that the crisis will rise again around age 50. It may be the jolt needed for the renewal of purpose. If the priest confronts himself in this mid-life transition and accepts the responsibility of renewed meaning and purpose, his personal and ministerial life becomes richer, more alive and more satisfying. He experiences a deepened appreciation of his self-worth as he grows in the value of social caring.

Intrinsic to fostering the personal development of the priest is an understanding of the relationship of freedom and growth. Freedom is part of the definition of person. If an expanded and realistic experience of life and ministry is the remedy for incomplete growth, a more genuine experience of freedom is inherent to desired growth. It is that experience of freedom exhibited by Mary who ran toward life, accepted life eagerly, and refused to be ruled by fate. Nowhere in the history of literature is there a decision freer, more responsible, more contemptuous of necessity than Mary’s “Yes, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say.” In realizing the call to freedom and the demand of personal growth, the priest has the example and hope of the “highly favored daughter.” She is a prototype, and what was asked of the priest: freedom and decision — the kind of decisiveness and responsibility which can break the paralysis that grips people whose lives are dominated in any way.

The priest is aware that “there is no opposition between the community growth and individual fulfillment. We reach full personhood in the community of the Lord’s people by sharing an awareness of God’s personal presence and glory.” As the priest evaluates his ministry, the following might be among the questions to be considered as a barometer of effectiveness. Do I experience personal meaning and satisfaction in my life despite limitations and frustrations? Can I respond to others in a trustworthy way? Do I value authenticity over achievement? To what extent do I accept responsibility for my decisions? My actions? My moods? The direction of my life? Am I alive in the present, while knowing the past and looking forward to the future? How well do I accept my limitations? Do I have a zest for life, work, and relaxation? Do I take seriously the responsibility of maintaining good physical health? Can I relate with other men and women as persons of equal worth? Do I have a confidential relationship with someone else? Do I have a sense of the ridiculous, a sense of humor? Am I willing to be vulnerable enough to allow the Other and others to enter and affect my life? Can I find my operating definition of redemption in the experience of my life? More questions can and need to be asked. But these are significant for those who appreciate the relationship of ministry and personal growth.