By Fr David Stewart SJ
Every priest, at some point, will recognise this statement, usually uttered in all innocence: ‘Ah, but Sunday’s your busy day, isn’t it, Father?’ Rarely would this be said with any malice, although maybe with a little touch of gentle teasing. Priests work hard and wouldn’t complain; they feel sure that it’s part of their vocation, but some do work too hard and risk burning themselves out, even permanently damaging their health. The Pope is well aware of this and has selected, as his Intention for this month of July, Priests and their Pastoral Ministry. He asks us to pray with him ‘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’.
Several studies have, in recent years, revealed that loneliness is an increasing problem in our advanced cultures, even described as a ‘silent epidemic’. We are more connected, digitally, than ever before but despite that, or possibly because of it, we are increasingly lonely. Some studies have found that 18- to 24-year-olds are four times as likely to feel lonely all the time as those aged 70 and above. But we know also that many elders are afflicted by loneliness. Studies have shown also that chronic loneliness in older adults greatly damages their health, often leading to dementia or allowing it to take hold. Thirdly, loneliness among men is now acknowledged as a serious problem. A UK survey this year showed that eight million (35%) men feel lonely at least once a week and nearly three million (11%) feel it daily. Even more sad was the finding that over one in 20 men (7%) count themselves as having no friends; of the remainder, nearly one in 10 (8%) have no close friend. More than one in 10 men told the survey that they are lonely, but would not admit it to anyone. All of this is at least as likely to happen to our priests as to anyone else among the faithful.
Priests are not superhuman, either in terms of their capacity for work or in their need for companionship, indeed for intimacy. Voluntarily foregoing the closeness of their own families by marriage, and often separated in time and space from their own natural nuclear families, they try to be available to a wider family. The Pope’s Intention foregrounds the problems: that priests do experience fatigue and loneliness but also that they need intimacy with the Lord and friendship, not least among their brethren. In many areas, priests now work and live alone. Some may not see another priest for days, even weeks at a time. While there are always numerous lovely stories of how parishioners do befriend and support their priests, such as providing a welcoming table or hearth to a man otherwise living alone, there are many reports of the opposite: isolated men, wrapped up more and more in their work, struggling with personal prayer while trying to guide others in the interior life. Sadly, and not infrequently, we know of cases where this has led to addictive behaviours of various kinds, on occasion with awful outcomes and harm done to innocent people.
We humans are not meant to be alone or isolated. We are made for each other, we are made for community and it is in human community that we grow and flourish. This deep truth about ourselves applies just as much to the priests in community called Church; ordination confers no immunity from human vulnerability. The Church is the entire community of Christ’s followers; not the hierarchy, the bishops, or the priests although this key insight of the Second Vatican Council has still not take root fully, even fifty years on. The priest members of this community need the prayers and support of the rest of the members as much as any others so, praying with the Pope this month, we might all be reminded that they do experience fatigue and loneliness at times. Perhaps we might even encourage them to take time with their brother priests. With St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, we should also pray for all our priests, remembering as she did ‘the priest who baptised me; the priests who absolved me from my sins; the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me your Body and Blood in Holy Communion; the priests who taught and instructed me; all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way. O Jesus, keep them all close to your heart, and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity – Amen.’
Find a moment of quiet and recognise that you are held in God’s gaze; be still and let a prayerful silence take hold of you for a few moments. Bring to mind some of the priests you know, perhaps those whom St Thérèse suggested. Ask the Good Spirit to touch these men and to build up their intimacy with Jesus. Then recite this prayer:
In your immense kindness,
you called men of generous heart to be workers of your harvest.
I appreciate the examples of these men who are dedicated to the service of their communities, living examples of the values of the Gospel.
I pray especially for priests who are experiencing great difficulties, loneliness, fatigue and discouragement, that you may be their strength
and that every Christian may accompany their pastor during their time of need.
Challenges for the month:
- Pray, in your parish or worshipping community, for priests, especially those who are tired, lonely or discouraged.
- Ask the parish priest, or chaplain, if he is alright, if he needs any help, affirming your closeness to him and his mission.
- If you are a priest or religious, ask yourself if the Lord is truly your source of peace and hope. If necessary, seek out spiritual help and guidance.
Prayer to the Heart of Christ for your Parish Priest, Chaplain or Pastor:
Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose Heart constantly burns with love for us, hear our prayers today for our priests. We ask you to bless and keep close to your Loving Heart our Parish Priest Father ………. Inflame him with a love for you and for all people so that he may increasingly become a shepherd after your own Heart. Consecrate to your Heart all the priests of our diocese, both those still working in parishes and those who have retired. Through your great mercy bring our priests who have served us but have since died into the glory of heaven. Amen.
(Adapted from the Prayer for Priests composed for the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, Scotland).