Most priests, I imagine, would tell you that they are not reactive, that they are thoughtful in their day, that they pursue the most meaningful things, that they are developing themselves and the responsibilities to which they are assigned. That they have a more or less active prayer life, that they eat well, more or less, and that they have, more or less, meaningful relationships which are not ministry related. Furthermore, those priests are committed to care for their parish. They want to be present to their people, many of the priests do. They want to share the love of Jesus in the world.
But then the cell phone rings. And the daughter of one of the ladies on the parish council is having a marriage melt-down and they would like to see if you, Father, can intervene. And then the office phone rings and someone is mad that the bathroom in the church, Father, ran out of toilet paper this weekend and he was beside himself…and don’t you know, Father, what kind of medical condition he has. Never mind the fact, Father, that you were working on your weekend homily, which for Lent you said you were going to be more intentional about, rather than throwing your left-over time and left-over energy at it and hoping for something meaningful.
With respect to the reality that priests do need to care for their people, I would like to offer two considerations.
You must discern your mission.
When I was newly ordained, I had a very clear mission: don’t screw it up. This wasn’t the best mission that I could have had, but it was my implicit goal. There were so many puzzles to sort out, at the beginning: how to prepare a couple for a baptism, how to direct marriage preparation, how to say Mass, how to give a homily, learning about finances, different committees, meeting thousands of new people, moving my things into a new place, figuring out a hobby, figuring out how to get together with friends and who were my friends. And this list goes on, but suffice it to say that these puzzles are foundational to the life and ministry of a priest. And it is hard not to be reactionary at this point. Someone needs a place to stay for the night, and you haven’t dealt with that much.
But over the years, we learn and grow. And we start to get a handle on many of those early questions. But there still seems to be no shortage of problems in the world that beckon for the priest’s attention: the family of the deceased, the family with the difficult child, the maintenance problems, the personnel issue, the upcoming move, the political climate, the church climate, a pandemic, the homeless, and people who have our cell phone number.
Here is the issue: with all of those real issues, situations, dilemmas, and even evils pulling on us, it is tremendously difficult to discern our mission. And, for the sake of clarity: answering every phone call, responding to every emergency, being present in every situation to which we are invited, giving a response to every social media inquiry or jab, reading every major news story…none of those are missions from God. Please allow me to clarify here. I am not saying that you could not have a calling to have a unique role in any of these areas. I am saying that meaning does not fall into our laps.
We must listen and then take aim. “I am going to take action on everything that comes to me” is not a mission.
We have to aim. But what to aim at.
In order to find our mission and to take aim, priests need to spend significant amounts of time in uninterrupted solitude.
But wow, priests resist this one. You mean, what?!!! Uninterrupted??? Priests have come to believe that part of the essential role of the priest is to allow constant interruption. The staff often demands it, parishioners demand it, the homeless man demands it, social media demands it, the missing toilet paper demands it. And, oh, we have a litany of reasons why such a requirement is impossible. Again, let me clarify here that I don’t mean that there are parts of a priest’s day that should be open to interruption. I am criticizing the belief that EVERY part of the day and of every day should be open to interruption.
This is why we need to get out into solitude, to break the life-draining cycle of reaction: I am not quite sure what I need to be about, so I will respond to the problem in front of me. I keep responding to the problems and so I never have time to figure out what I should be about.
“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” Matthew 1:35
The great people of humanity, Jesus foremost, took significant periods of time in solitude. Still, we resist: I am too tired to get up early and go to a deserted place. Too much work, too much YouTube, too much texting, too many problems. And the cycle continues.
Clarity is only possible in solitude. So, build systems to handle the chaos, and then go back into solitude. You will become so much more effective and in tune with God’s grace.
You must take aim at your mission.
Lest the priest conclude that his mission is already hashed out for him. Just try sitting down with a parish council and coming up with a parish mission statement. It is tremendously difficult. In spite of the fact that we have divine revelation in the Sacred Scriptures, a comprehensive catechism, an expansive Code of Canon Law, innumerable diocesan policies, federal and state mandates. See, the problem is not that we need to find something to do. NO! The dilemma is that we cannot focus on everything. It is precisely because of the fact that there is so much information around our organization that we need distillation into a mission to aim at. And here is the rub of aiming: it fundamentally involves saying “No” to everything else. But weren’t we ordained to say “yes” to the bishop and “yes” to God and “yes” to the people and “yes” to the poor and “yes” to the people walking down the street? Weren’t we ordained to say “Yes!!!???”
Taking aim involves the realization that we are limited, that we get tired, that we don’t have all the human potentials that God has ever given, that we aren’t perfect. Taking aim means stripping out everything inessential. Taking aim means making a commitment to be focused on following the call. And the call is not to be everything, it is not to be everyone, it is not to be everywhere. Indeed we were called to say yes, but to say yes to the right things and to say “no” to a hell of a lot of other things.
Taking aim in our life and ministry means using the specific gifts that God has given us. It should be noted at this point that Nietzche rightly points out that humans frequently abrogate our call to greatness under the umbrella of “genius.” “Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius,” Nietzsche said. And as Angela Duckworth adds, “For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. . . . To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’” The thought process goes like this: look at that person over there. She is so talented. She performs her skill effortlessly. I could never be like that. And so we automatically dismiss any possibility that we could aim so high and achieve so much. We never consider the reality that genius takes years and decades of work, pursuits, and practice. So, add that in with the priest who is constantly responding to emergencies and notifications, and no wonder we are so mediocre.
And so, it begs the question, if there IS so much room for growth, and if we really could make amazing progress, then we priests could literally aim at anything. Notwithstanding various academic and personal objections, the response is: Obviously. But the matter here is not finding something to aim at but aiming itself. The point needs to be made here that as we make space to aim by saying no to all the unessential, we can use our time, energy, and resources to make significant progress in whatever we are properly aiming at. And much research has been done lately on the way that daily micro-improvements done consistently over time add up to genius. THAT is what the Church Fathers mean when they speak of virtue: not just doing or not doing the right thing, not just “be careful.” Anders Ericcson proposes that to become an expert at a complex skill it takes 10 years of deliberate practice following five steps: having a specific goal, expert coaching, consistently learning from feedback, learning in your discomfort zone, and being focused. Consider for just one split second, the illustration that EVEN THOUGH priests preach for thousands of hours over their lives, that they all too frequently do NOT improve. Well, they are practicing, but it is not “Deliberate Practice.” Growth is amazingly possible. But it takes intentional daily focus over years. So, if you are constantly reacting, you will hardly be able to grow.
Brothers, I sincerely hope that this information can help you in your ministry as priests or in whatever walk you find yourself. Growth is not easy, but it is truly worth it. And there is no limit to how much you can grow. And, to me, that sounds like a divine opportunity.
May God bless you. May you find your mission and then courageously take aim.