By Dr. Jim Langley
I became an altar boy at the tiny Holy Rosary chapel in Cascade when I was eight. As I got to know the priests, I became curious about their lives. Why did they always wear the same outfit with that uncomfortable-looking collar? What the heck did they do the other six days of the week? Why did they live in a “rectory” and not in a regular house?
As an adult, I still find the lives of priests intriguing. Our priests are men who heard a call to a radical way of living and responded to that call with a “yes.”
As a psychologist, I primarily work with priests, and I am constantly fascinated by how different their lives are yet how normal their struggles are. The research available on clergy mental health is quite mixed. Some research suggests priests’ mental health is in a state of crisis, while others state they are psychologically thriving. Research from Msgr. Stephen Rossetti suggests priests are happy in general but experience high stress, and their rates of mental health problems are probably like the general population.
Ordinary men, extraordinary vocations
I first realized that priests are imperfect and human when I was about ten. Our pastor pulled my mom aside one day and criticized her for how loud her kids were being at Mass. In hindsight, he was probably right (sitting still was not my forte), but the way he confronted her hurt my mom’s feelings. She was just trying to make it through Mass in a small chapel with four energetic kids. I do not remember the confrontation, but I do remember the next day when Fr. Dwayne came to our house to apologize with cookies. As an adult, I can see how walking into the living room where my whole extended family awaited would have been intimidating, but Fr. Dwayne joyfully apologized and remained, therefore, irrevocably in my family’s good graces from then on.
I am not a priest and therefore am no expert on the vocation, so I polled some priests I know to hear what they had to say about the good things about the priesthood, the hard things about the priesthood, and how laypeople can support them.
The sufferings and challenges of being a priest
One of the overarching themes that priests are wary of is being put on a pedestal by parishioners. However, they still desired love and respect as representatives of Christ. The dangers of clericalism are quite clear following the abuse scandal, but to be honorably received by their flock was so affirming to the vocations of these men who left ordinary life behind to follow Christ and serve us.
We cannot forget that priests have everyday human anxieties like us. They want people to like them, they worry about going bald, and they get stressed out by too many emails like anyone else. Being a priest does not mean escaping the human condition.
Here are a couple of unique challenges and sufferings that I regularly come across in my work with priests:
Discouragement: Just like married life is vastly different from dating, the priesthood is a world away from life in seminary. A seminarian spends years studying theology and receiving formation that prepares them for the spiritual realm of the priesthood. But seminarians are often not well prepared for the business and financial aspects of running a parish. In my poll, one priest commented that “preparing an awe-inspiring homily just isn’t the same as reviewing the parish budget, even if they are both important.”
Of course, we all must adjust to “adulting” as we get older. Still, in the life of a priest, he is often juggling so many things that it takes intentional dedication to stay grounded in the spiritual life that allows him to serve others.
Perhaps even more discouraging is the increasing godlessness of society. The priest’s mission to “go and make disciples of all nations” is exceedingly difficult in this post-Christian society. We all desire to succeed, and the feeling of failure threatens our sense of purpose and self-worth. It is no different for our priests. One priest told me what is particularly discouraging to him is that he feels like he is failing at a task God Himself told him to do! Of course, our priests are not failing; they provide a sacred refuge for the laity amid a sad and dangerous world.
What can you do about it?
Give your priests words of affirmation and appreciation. Priests often only hear feedback when they have made a mistake or when someone did not like something in their homily. In my poll, several priests shared that words of affirmation are helpful to hear because they are usually doing their best.
Non-Existence: In my mind, this suffering is unique to the priesthood and is an area where we, as laypeople, can do a lot to help. One priest said it sometimes feels like when he puts on his collar, he almost ceases to be human. He goes from being a guy people can relate to, to being “Father” who exists solely for the benefit of others. At first, this can feel good because priests feel the reverence that comes with putting on the collar. On the other hand, priests can feel unknown. One priest told me, “People express so much appreciation; they bake me cookies, but they don’t really know me.” Another priest I admire once told me that everyone respectfully calls him “Father,” but nobody calls him “Mike.”
We all naturally long for people to know us truly and authentically. The priesthood can be extremely lonely because priests are dedicated to serving others. Between late-night hospital visits, funerals, long confession lines, and pastoral care, priests can be so focused on serving others that they can be forgetful of themselves to a degree that leads to compassion fatigue and burnout.
What can you do about it?
Don’t take your priests for granted! Express gratitude for them and be understanding if they have to say no to you. They have the same human limitations as everyone.
In my poll, I asked priests what we can do to help take care of them. One priest said to skip the sweets around the holidays and maybe get him a nice, juicy steak. Another priest said: “keep the cookies coming!” My takeaway is to get to know your priests and ask what they might like. Even if they do not want you to call them by their first name, our efforts to get to know them help transform non-existence into solitude, which can be a profound blessing.
The joy of the priesthood
As challenging as it is to be a priest, it is essential to remember that they are privy to many unique blessings. Many of the men shared how freeing it is not to have to worry about some of the everyday stressors of a layperson’s life, like paying a mortgage and feeling like they must climb the corporate ladder.
On a deeper level, having bread and water transform into Jesus in their hands or extending God’s forgiveness to others in the confessional brings a joy incomparable to anything else in life.
The men who responded to my poll expressed a deep love for their vocations and those they serve. Many said that one of the best things we as laypeople can do to care for our priests is to take the Christian life seriously, allow God’s love to transform our hearts, and bear fruit in our lives.
Dr. Jim Langley is the cofounder of St. Raphael Counseling as well as Shepherd’s Renewal, a ministry dedicated to supporting the health, happiness, and continued holiness of priests.