Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Priests and Rest

I am not unsympathetic to priests who complain about not being able to get away from the demands of parish life. One part of me is amazed that so many members of the typical parish seem to be so needy that the pastor has to spend an inordinate amount of time tending to a small minority. Occasionally, a blogging priest will write a "day in the life" post, and it does make it appear that they are on-the-go through most of the typical day. If, of course, those days are truly typical.

The other side of the coin is that sometimes the pastor is not available. When our daughter Erin was born, we feared the possibility of a congenital heart defect, so we made arrangements with the Lutheran hospital chaplain to have her baptized immediately after her birth. "Good luck," he told us, "finding a Catholic priest on a Friday night." I have first-hand knowledge of a parish pro-life coordinator who wanted to get the pastor's permission to participate in the red-letter campaign from this past spring. Phone calls and personal trips to the rectory were fruitless. Even notes from the secretary to the pastor did not produce results. The pastor could not spare one minute to return a phone call from a parishioner trying to conduct parish business!

Fr. Peter Daly is a Maryland priest who writes a column syndicated by the Catholic News Service. He recently wrote that he finally had his first day off in four months. That sounds really bad, especially in light of this past Sunday's Gospel, in which Christ directed his disciples to take a day of rest. On a human level, these moments of rest and recuperation are necessary, and priests are certainly human. But what does a day off mean to a priest? Is it the same as a day of rest? What it seems to imply is a day in which Fr. Smith is just Mr. Smith. I find that troubling.

In the same column, Fr. Daly noted the results of a 2002 survey in which 18% of parish priests said they worked more than 80 hours a week, with the average at 63 hours. That's a lot of time on the job, but I have to wonder what is included as work. Is everything that they do as a priest included? If that is the case, then every hour of every week should be included, because the ordained man is a priest forever. Fr. Smith is always Fr. Smith, he never becomes just Mr. Smith (I'm not considering the possibility of laicization here).

A lay person like me might spend 45 hours a week working on the job. Is that to be compared against the 63 hour average for the parish priest? That's the time that I spend making a living as an engineer. That's not the sum total of my vocation, however. As a father, I have to spend time parenting my children. Do I get to include the time that I spend counseling, educating, entertaining, feeding, and transporting my kids? What about the long, boring meetings that I have to attend for school and extra-curricular activities? It's part of my vocational identity that the priest doesn't have to attend to. As a husband, I have spend time with my wife for the strength of our marriage and the good of the children and the community. Every minute of every day, I am a father and a husband. It would be unseemly for me to take a day off from being married.

But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there's more! I am also a believing member of the laity. I devote time to my full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy. I catechize and volunteer and attend more meetings. I study and pray and try to discern and follow the will of God for my life. That all takes time, and I think that most priests think of Sunday as a "work day" because they celebrate multiple masses and deliver their big homily of the week.

I started this post by noting that I am not unsympathetic to over-worked priests, and I'm not. They need their periods of rest, and a chance to get away from the demands of a needy public. But when they speak of their duties (and privileges!) as a priest in the same way that I might speak of my responsibilities as an engineer, separate from my responsibilities as a father, husband, and lay person, then I think that maybe they've lost sight of what their vocation to the priesthood really means.

Our pastors should be able to get away from the parish more often than once every four months, but it saddens me to think that some of them might be counting or rationing the hours that they give to the sheep of their flock.

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