CARING PRIESTS
By Bob Traupman
For Priests Only -- October 1997 (II - 7)
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     The deaths of both Mother Teresa and Princess Diana have inspired me by their commitment to caring.   I have been really humbled, especially by Diana. Mother Teresa was a living saint; Princess Diana was one of us.

     Sometimes we priests get burnt out.   We find ourselves not having the ability to care as we once did.   Sadly, we fall into a pattern of no longer being able to find a place in our heart for people who come to us in our rectory office or whom we visit at a hospital bedside.   We become cynical and irritable, shutting ourselves off from the people we care about or who are entrusted to our care.

     The only way we can care for others is to care for ourselves, to take care of our own needs.   Most especially, we need to find time to place ourselves in the presence of God and to let Jesus renew our hearts, a little each day. If we don't take time to pray, that is to keep our relationship with God and our redeemer Jesus in good working order, we just won't have anything to give.

     The point is that when we find that we are too tired, too stressed out, too distracted to pray, we get ourselves more and more into a rut of not being able to give.   No matter how busy we are, we just cannot be too busy to pray because we suffer the consequences.

     Jesus says "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart, for my yoke is easy and my burden light."   We don't have to take the burden of the world on our own shoulders. Jesus knows how to do that.   When we yoke with him in prayer, our burden will be easier and lighter.

     A vibrant, daily prayer life is essential for the diocesan priest.   We simply cannot be effective leaders of prayer and ministers of caring if we do not enter into substantial prayer ourselves.

     Things pile up over months and years of not reflecting on our lives.   We should take a "nightly inventory" of what is going on with us and take a few minutes to resolve what needs to be resolved and to give to God the things that we just cannot handle.   Yes, things pile up and, sooner or later, take their toll on us in a heart attack or a nervous breakdown.

     Believe me, I know.   I was an intense workaholic in the early days of my priesthood.   I wasn't praying regularly. I wasn't taking time to build new relationships in the new city I was in.   In a few years, I suffered a nervous breakdown, then another and another.   It took me fifteen years to restore my balance, a good many of them trying to restore -- or build for the first time -- a substantial prayer life.

     I worked in the chancery those days and worked very hard to establish my bishop's goal of having good liturgy in every parish.   My work was effective, but I was told some years later that I was very uncaring with my brother priests.   These were the people to whom I was selected to minister.   I became cynical about -- and angry at -- priests in my diocese.   I regretted with tears when I saw my arrogance for the first time and it took a long time for all of that to drain away.   Now, I wish to minister to my brother priests. 140 paid subscriptions to For Priests Only is a joyful testimony that I can do that.   The difference is that, today, a substantial prayer life in-forms and in-fuses my writing.

     Many of us priests are overworked. Some have two or three jobs to oversee.   It is easy to fall into a pattern of not caring for ourselves. The natural thing to do is to shut ourselves off from people; we may find that we just do not have the energy to open our heart for people to come there and be refreshed and healed.   In other words, the beautiful work of shepherding to which we aspired at ordination may be replaced by a life-stance of cynicism or uncaring, though we may not recognize that because we have shut our hearts to protect ourselves.

     There are many people out there on the margins of the Church who have been hurt by priests who were uncaring, though many of these priests themselves would be hurt if they realized this.

     I have realized through many years of going to A.A. that there were a high number of people who were bitter and angry at the Church for one uncaring word some priest uttered to them.

     We need to realize our power; we need to realize that one uncaring word from a priest can have a devastating affect upon someone who comes to us hurting and wounded and who does not get the compassionate reception they deserve.

     We need to be very gentle with people. And I know sometimes I am not up to that.   These days, I try to craft my words in gentle and caring language.   Even a simple "I'm sorry" can convey that message when we don't know what else to say to someone who has lost their child or is on chemotherapy.

     You see, we have to choose to be caring.   We have to decide to be caring with all our might because many are the situations in which we are not up to being caring, but are expected to be so.   We need to acquire caring as a discipline so that it is there for us when we need it, even though we feel we can't do it right then.

     Yes, it is possible, probably necessary, for us priests to acquire caring and compassion as a discipline, even though it is really an art.

     Mother Teresa surely had the discipline of caring; otherwise, she surely would not have been able to do the incredible work she was doing. And Princess Diana too.   Her life was not all in good order, but she stepped out of herself to be with Aids patients and lepers. What wonderful inspiration they are for us.   Since Diana's life was not all in good order, and yet she expended herself, she can be a wonderful example for us.   I know she has been for me, in death, if not in life.

     Perhaps we need to let go of our expectations of ourselves.   A story of my ministry to an elderly gentleman illustrates this.   It's about the most wonderful gentle man that I have ever met who lived down the hall from me.   He was in the hospital recently and I had all I could do to drag myself down there to visit him.   I visited him several times and his friend told me that he was very appreciative of my visits, though I was saying to myself that there was so much more that I wanted to do.   You see, I had expectations on what I should be doing, when what I did was quite sufficient.

     We do that a lot to ourselves.   We are our own worst critics.   We drive ourselves more and more into workaholic activity because we feel shame and guilt for what we could not -- or did not -- do.   We need to stop this nonsense and just make the determination to do what we can, instead of what we expect of ourselves.

     Yes, shame and guilt are not foreign to the priesthood.   That is why a nightly inventory is so important.   We need to let go of stuff, a little at a time, lest the burden of shame and guilt become so huge that it caves in on top of us.

     We need also to make an annual retreat for this reason.   To accept and receive the good we have done in the past year and to jettison what has burdened us.   Daily and periodic reflection is essential to leading an effective diocesan priestly life.

     Most of all, we need to stay close to Jesus.   I sometimes imagine that Jesus and I are in a squad car, spending many nights on city streets.   He is more than my superior officer.   He is my elder brother.   I learn so much from him. And am honored to be that close to him.   After all, this is Jesus' priesthood we share.

     We priests share in Jesus' Cross.   Sometimes that is helping our people to bear the burden of their cross; sometimes it is bearing the weight of our own crosses.   At any rate, we daily share in the Cross of Jesus.   And sometimes we share it alone.   We diocesan priests are not very good at sharing our burdens.   Our conversation often revolves around sports and other nonessential stuff.   We often do not get around to sharing matters of the heart.   Diocesan priests need to learn to do this.

     And how often do we take advantage of the sacrament of penance to seek healing of our own hearts?   The sacrament of penance is a beautiful sacrament that is meant for healing and ongoing growth.   It is another way to move our life forward and to let go of those things that hinder us from being the caring priests we so much desire to be.   Let us learn from the women. Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.


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Copyright © October 1997 Bob Traupman.  All rights reserved.