Year for Priests: A modest suggestion for the priesthood

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

On June 19, at a vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI formally opened what he has proclaimed as the Year for Priests.

The purpose of the year, the pope has noted, is to encourage among priests a deeper prayer life and a renewed effort toward the “spiritual perfection” on which, says the pope, “the effectiveness of their ministry primarily depends.”

Let me say something about how the priesthood rolls out on the ground level and then make a modest suggestion.

The pope has timed the year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of parish priests. But the life of the Curé of Ars, who spent several hours each day in the confessional in a rural town in France, bears little resemblance to the (mythical) “average day” of the priest in America right now.

Yesterday (as I write) was a Thursday, which is theoretically my “day off.” (A wonderful hospital chaplain generously takes the parish Mass on Thursday morning, so that the pastor can “get away,” which lately rarely happens.) This, in fact, was how yesterday went. It started at 8 a.m. at a board meeting of our local Catholic hospital, where the discussion is always spirited (and often lengthy). The hospital is building a quarter-billon-dollar addition, so there are financial issues surrounding that. It is also in the process of merging with a secular hospital, so there are ethical dimensions to address.

Finishing the meeting at 10, I drove to our parish office to draft a report on parish consolidation. The five Catholic parishes in our area this year are merging into three because of population shifts and the scarcity of priests. Lots of questions are on the table — new staffing patterns, revised Mass schedules, shared religious ed. programs, sale of vacated properties — and we have the next few months to figure it all out.

As I was writing that report, I was at the same time fielding phone calls: final arrangements for weddings (11 of them over the next few weeks) and baptisms (four this weekend); the ever-present calls from people with certain needs (the lonely woman who calls frequently simply to ask if it’s “all right if I call you tomorrow”; the man beset by scruples who calls most days, and many nights, to ask if I will “place your hands on my head, put the scapular around my neck and sprinkle me with holy water”). The challenge is to remember that “God is in the interruptions” and that a priest, like Christ, must always be kind.

Then it was off to the hospital and a local nursing home to visit parishioners, back to the parish for a wedding rehearsal, a 20-minute respite to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a supper-sandwich wolfed down at a local deli before repairing to the rectory desk to write a funeral homily. Soon it was 10 p.m. and time to fall asleep while watching the television news.

I’m not saying that the life of the priest is all work and no play; if you let it be that, you’ll soon be in trouble. Next Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m going to Baltimore with two high school classmates who are also fellow inveterate Red Sox fans to see Boston play two games against the Orioles. (Tickets at Fenway Park are nearly impossible, but at Camden Yards you can walk in off the street.)

What I am saying is that a monastic spirituality, with a large dose of quiet built in, just doesn’t work for today’s parish priest. Instead, how about this as a practical alternative: 10 minutes a day, early in the morning before the craziness begins, 10 minutes to talk things over with God, to measure progress on our journey to heaven. Let’s do it just for a year — the Year for Priests. It could even become a habit.

Father Doyle, a priest of the diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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20 Responses

  1. Well said and thank you Fr.

    Fr Val Zdilla
    Bozeman MT

  2. Thanks, Ken, for reminding us to take just a few minutes on who we must be focused each day.

    Fr. Tom Willis
    St Augustine, FL

  3. I appreciate the article and the sentiment that “we’re not in the world of St John Vianney”, and am all for praying 20 minutes more a day, but I must say…maybe there is a better answer here? Instead of fielding all the phone calls you mention, kindly pass some on to a trained pastoral associate or deacon (and I know not every parish has them, not are they perfectly trained, but it seems like a reasonable goal)? Do priests *need* to be on the hospital board (maybe, but maybe not)? I just think that especially for people in a priestly role, and frankly for everyone, 20 minutes of prayer in bare minimum. And it is good for our Church to craft a culture where praying more (dare I say 40 minutes a day, in addition to a daily mass when scheduled?) is valued as a norm.

  4. I agree with IC on this one and that everything activity mentioned on Fr. Doyle’s list are important parts of ministry to others, but it still seems to me that the most important relationship a priest has is the one with God. Prayer can’t just be something that we fit in when we can, but needs to be part of our daily schedule. There are certainly times when we have to allow it to be interrupted, but it should not be the norm.

  5. To Fr.Kenneth Doyle from Brussels, belgium
    Thank you Father

  6. Gee, I’m glad you don’t also have a school to deal with like my pastor. Every activity you mentioned except the Hospital project is on his plate, too and many more. I’m glad you’re going to the baseball games. He takes time for the beach. And, he jogs or takes a long walk every day – exercise helps the psyche. Eating at the deli won’t help either … try cooking at home. Simple meals at home are better than sandwiches on the run. It helps to be creative with your prayer time – I used to sit in the car in my parking structure and pray the Liturgy of the Hours before going in to the office.

    The Holy Father knows that a disciple’s life is demanding. Look at him – he never expected to be elected at 78 but a deep prayer life and interior stillness goes a long way to remembering you’re not alone.

  7. BTW, reading the Holy Father’s homily at First Vespers for the close of the Pauline Year:

    May Our Lady, whom St. Jean Marie Vianney so loved and made his parishioners love, help every priest to revive the gift of God which is in him by virtue of his Holy Ordination, so that he may grow in holiness and be ready to bear witness, to the point of martyrdom if need be, to the beauty of his total and definitive consecration to Christ and to the Church

    I’m sure martyrdom by meeting is as good a witness as the stake.

  8. I didn’t see any time alloted for praying the liturgy of the hours. It seems to me (and to Canon Law) that the liturgy of the hours should be part of every priest’s life and for the hinge hours a part of a permanent deacon’s life. When I was in college and complained to my professors about all the work that was required, I was asked “What are you doing between midnight and 6:00 a.m.?” Shouldn’t there always be time for prayer?

  9. I got the biggest kick out of reading Father’s post because just based on what his daily activities are I was wondering if he was from the Albany Diocese! Small world, Father. Hello from Troy, NY! I for one appreciate your hard work and don’t think you should give up any activities … just take care of yourself! — Adrianne

  10. I totally understand Father’s schedule, but I thought the point of the Jubilee year was to encourage us to perhaps do a little more than 10 minutes a day, to make a greater resolve to deepen our intimacy and identity with Jesus Christ – not necessarily St. John Vianney, though he is a good guide.

    Fr. Lorig

  11. Father Doyle’s description is very factual. His typical day is much like most priests in the USA, i.e., very busy. He also shows what most of us seek to be, faithful sons of the church who adapt our lives to accommodate the pastoral needs of our people. We try to help as many of our parishioners as possible and we try to balance the spiritual and the managerial responsibilities of being pastor. What I am concerned about, however, is the growing acceptability of the so-called inevitability that this current model of parish priesthood is etched in stone. Squeezing ten minutes of quality prayer is not adequate or sufficient.

    Father Doyle’s heart is indeed in the right place. His love for the Church and for his people is evident and most laudable. God bless him. What I fear, though, is that many of my colleagues, newly ordained to veteran pastors, are caught in the same trap. Protestant Ministers must balance their pastoral duties with their familial obligations, and they do it. They must take care of their wives and children and take care of their parishioners as well. In order to do that, they must take care of themselves, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Catholic priests are no different in that we MUST take care of ourselves in order to be capable of taking care of our own people.

    Priesthood is more than ordained ministry, however. Ministry is service and certainly, the priesthood is about serving God, His Church and His people. And priesthood is about sacrifice and as Fr. Doyle shows, many priests are willing and committed to doing everything they can for their people not matter how inconvenient or difficult it may be. Like loving husbands and fathers, good priests will get up in the middle of the night to anoint someone; will give up part or all of their day off for a parishioner in a crisis; will rearrange their hectic schedule to accommodate someone in desperate need; etc.

    Priesthood is about service and sacrifice but also about SANCTITY. We absolutely need to cultivate and pursue a vigorous spiritual life for ourselves BEFORE we can ever hope to adequately help our people. Vatican II spoke of the universal call to holiness and that applies to priests as much as to the monks; to laity and to religious; to deacons as well as bishops.

    America has divinized FUNCTIONALISM. As long as I am DOING priestly things, then I must be a good priest. While we know that good priests are not lazy priests; that good priests are indeed BUSY priests, at the same time, we must acknowledge that our people NEED “HOLY” priests. Holiness comes not from DOING but from BEING. Pelagius was condemned by St. Augustine for thinking that human effort alone can save you. Divine grace is what is necessary, not a plate that is too full.

    I realize that my colleagues are motivated out of self-sacrificing love for the Church and for their parishioners. I applaud and commend them for that. But as the president of a national association of priests, I have also seen the down side. Too many good priests get burned out. Too many become disillusioned or disenchanted. Some sadly end up disappointed and turn to inappropriate distractions and a few even embrace self-destructive behavior (alcohol abuse, drugs, sex) Some just wind up being cranky and bitter to their people and to the poor priests who live or work with them.

    While Fr. Doyle is absolutely right that we do not live in the same era as did Saint John Vianney, nevertheless, the same grace which made him a saint is available to all of us today. While we admire and are awestruck by the sheer number of confessions the Cure of Ars heard in his lifetime, it was not their multitude which enabled him to become a saint. His holiness was not produced from the work he did, rather, his holiness empowered him to do what he did. It was his spiritual life that made him a saint because it was based, rooted and originated in a personal search for sanctity.

    John Vianney was no monk, so he did not practice a monastic spirituality. He was a parish priest. But the key word here is PRIEST. As a priest, he saw the necessity for him to cultivate a spiritual life for himself so he could in turn help his parishioners do the same. The Sacraments are sources of grace but are not ends in themselves. They are the means to an end. The Sacraments provide the needed graces so we can achieve the mission God has sent us to accomplish, namely, that we become holy.

    The only way someone can perform the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy is through the power of God’s grace. Habitual, Sanctifying grace precedes actual grace. Therefore, in this YEAR FOR PRIESTS, it is vital and urgent that all priests, but especially parish priests (young and old alike) realize that we ourselves must take care of our own spiritual needs while we take care of the spiritual needs of our people.

    If a priest does not take care of his physical health, he would not be able nor be around long enough to take care of his parishioners adequately. Similarly, if he neglects or cheats his spiritual health, he is not only hurting himself but his people in the long run. They need him to be at his best so he can give and do his best.

    ONGOING SPIRITUAL, THEOLOGICAL and PASTORAL FORMATION is not a luxury nor an option for today’s clergy. Vatican II, the Code of Canon Law and the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests MANDATE ongoing formation of the clergy. We priests MUST find and make time to pray each day. The obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is not the totality of our spiritual need, however. Praying the Office is a treasure but it is complemented by other forms and types of prayer.

    One of the objectives of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy is the fostering of ongoing spiritual, theological and pastoral formation in a fraternal setting. Besides finding time to unwind and relax (which is guaranteed by church law) through a weekly day off and annual vacation, every priest MUST make an annual retreat. The diocese usually helps by making them available or at least in disclosing where one can go. But retreats are not enough anymore than the Breviary is enough.

    Regular confession is good for everyone but even more so for us priests. Yet, most confessions are heard on Saturday afternoons. So, how does the parish priest go to confession when he himself must be in the confessional hearing his own parishioners confessions? DAYS or even AFTERNOONS OF RECOLLECTION help. The CCC local chapter meetings encourage a monthly gathering of local clergy to spend 2 to 3 hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament with time allotted for individual confession in addition to praying the Office in common, celebrating Exposition and Benediction, and listening to a spiritual conference. It is only a commitment of two or three hours most once a month. If a priest needs to have a cavity filled, does he not make time to go to the dentist? If his car needs to have its oil changed, tires rotated and vehicle inspected, does he not make time to get it done? Then why do so many priests find it impossible to make time for their spiritual needs? In the seminary, monthly spiritual direction was obligatory. Post-ordination, it is not optional, however. Like making regular visits to the doctor, monthly or at least quarterly direction is crucial for the priest. Annual workshops, conferences, and convocations help keep the priest theologically up to date and on his toes just as every good physician seeks to do as well.

    I am not saying that every priest must join the CCC or that the CCC is the only or is even the best way to fulfull our ongoing formation, but it is one valid means to do it. However it is done, it needs to be pursued. A priest’s spiritual health is not sustained by his parish duties, rather, he is able to perform his duties so well if he has first taken care of his own needs. Priestly fraternity also means we help each other so that no priest feels he is alone or that he must take care of himself alone. This is why associations of the clergy are highly recommended. Pooling our resources and helping one another should be the goal of every priestly organization.

    For some, it may require a paradigm shift from functionalism to ontologicalism. BEING a priest comes before DOING priestly things. Agere sequitur esse, we learned in seminary. Cultivating a healthy and robust spiritual, physical and emotional life will enable all priests to be able to best serve our people and for a sustained period as well.

    Relegating some of our managerial tasks to our brother deacons is one other significant help when possible. Since many of our permanent deacons have full time jobs in the secular workforce, they know a posteriori what it means to budget time and money, to balance resources and expenses. Some administrative duties can be shared or delegated to a parochial vicar or better yet, the parish deacon. Networking with the local parishes in one’s deanery is another. Sharing costs might mean hiring a full time custodian with benefits for two parishes whereas one parish could not do it alone.

    Bottom line is that no priest and no parish need feel it must survive by itself. Every priest must take care of his own spiritual, intellectual and pastoral needs BEFORE he can help his people take care of theirs. If we fraternally help each other as brother priests, then our people will be best served all the way around.

  12. Fr. John Trigilio’s posting was quite lengthy, but never mind, because he said it all. I am a lay person, but I totally agree with him. More than anyone else, or as much as everyone else, the Catholic priest has to find time daily, and in silence and solitude, be with the Lord… to be in His presence. And ten minutes daily is surely not enough for that. Before ministering to his parishioners’ needs, the priest has to minister to his spiritual needs first. God bless.

  13. This schedule sounds too busy…

    Of the activities described in the post, I thought that, after prayer, the most important ones were: visiting parishioners in hospitals and nursing homes (visit the sick), preparing a funeral homily (bury the dead), and fielding phone calls from people with certain needs (counsel the doubtful, console the sorrowful). It seems to me that those (as corporeal and spiritual works of mercy) are a core component of priestly ministry, and should not be delegated.

    They are also good for the priest himself and help him progress towards holiness, don’t they?

    The rest is more akin to management or administration and should surely be delegated to lay staff and volunteers whenever possible…

    At least, that’s my impression as a lay person who doesn’t know any better!

  14. It’s about balance, isn’t it? Spirit, Body, Mind, etc.? Even a monk’s life isn’t all prayer (Ora et labora). Certainly any parish priest can ID w/Doyle, at least on some days. But having some “built in” helps to find the balance are what keeps me going: breviary, health club, lunch with friends, support group, professional reading, spiritual director, homily prep all week, retreat, vacation time, etc. I don’t disagree w/ goal of spiritual perfection, but I seen it as more than just prayer/meditation; it’s a balanced life that defines spiritual perfection. And, lots of that happens, as Doyle suggest, “along the way”, is unplanned, spontaneous; that’s often where the Lord’s found, and where we are most the priests God calls us to be.

  15. Fr Corapi recounts the story of a priest telling Mother Teresa all the things he had to do in a day and he finished with “sometimes I’m even too busy to pray.” Mother Teresa was silent for a while and then she looked directly at the priest and said, “Father, if you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy.”

  16. Hi Ken,
    Nice to hear from you, wow, what a sch.
    Remember our poker games at Tek?
    I was with Howie, Czech, Feves at MCS 1958 then to Bernards, that finished me off. Say hi. Glen 678-432-2144

  17. Dear Father, I am so grateful for all that you busy priests do each day. Maybe on your day off you can create a mini-retreat and carve out several hours to spend with the Lord. I am praying and fasting for the entire clergy this year. God bless you and all your brother priests. No priests, no mass, that is why your are indespensible.

  18. The days are busy for lay people too. That is why I get up at 5:00 to pray Vigils and Lauds. Prayer is not one of the things you can shove into 10 minutes and expect to see much fruit.

  19. Hi Father Doyle, you maybe dont remember me I was in Kenwood Academy in 1975 .We went to the Father and daughter dinner dance together you signed my year book like this TO ONE OF MY FAVORITE PEOPLE. I am so happy to find you and to know that you are still a priest. I am married for 31 years I have two daugthers one is married and the other is going to get married in this year. I have great memories of you. WITH ALL MY LOVE Silvia.

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