Is the priest at home? The personal maturity and mental health of the priest. Brendan O’Rourke
By: Brendan S. O’Rourke, C.Ss.R., D.Min(This article was first published in the book “Priesthood Today”, edited by Eamonn Conway. Brendan O’Rourke is a Redemptorist priest and psychotherapist. It is published here with the consent of the author).
Underpinning these thoughts on the mental health and personal maturity of the priest is the conviction (psychology) that at the very centre of the human being is the desire for, and thrust towards relationship, and the belief (theological) that this desire and thrust is a reflection of the relational core of the mystery of God, which we call Trinity.
The more our surroundings facilitate and promote connection and relationship the greater is our potential for growing into maturity. When circumstances frustrate our connecting, and undermine our trust, the journey towards maturity and emotional balance is made more difficult, and sometimes impossible.
The mature priest is not necessarily a well-rounded personality. He’s far from perfect. But he is able to love, to befriend, to be befriended, and minister effectively. In developing a solid sense of self which allows him to be available for friendship and closeness to people the priest is establishing a firm foundation for all he does.
Many priests were warned of the dangers of closeness. Many recount stories of formation which praised independence and caution. At best the intent may have been to alert the priest to the power he possessed, on the one hand, and the responsibility to use that in the service of the needs of the other, especially people who were vulnerable. The negative side of this training, even apart from its delaying the human development of many priests, was that it did not recognize the damage that is caused by relating to people in an impersonal, disconnected manner. Super-independence is not a virtue. It damages the self and others. It is not human. It is not manly. It is immature. It weakens all aspects of priestly ministry.
One of the lies of super-independence is that the priest doesn’t need others. This is a dangerous denial of his deepest self. It violates “the human condition of interrelatedness.” It impedes the priest from a healthy awareness of his own feelings, his need for friendship, for support, and contexts of mutual honest sharing. Super-independence leads to isolation and priests who live isolated lives, tend to meet their needs in unhealthy, manipulative ways.
To achieve closeness a priest needs some level of trust in self and others. He needs some positive sense of who he is. If deep down, sometimes beyond consciousness, he suspects that he is faulty, bad, or seriously defective, or, if, for example, he deeply doubts his capacity to be really human, or, again if he’s unsure or afraid of himself sexually, or if his needs and feelings are foreign territory for him, or even judged as shameful or sinful, then, in his encounters and ministry he is likely to put up a shield, a mask, a false self. He will do this to avoid being rejected, disliked, or disapproved of by others.
The journey from the false self to the real self may be part of the journey towards maturity for many priests, moving from a service of (rather impersonal) duty, to one of genuine care, compassion, and justice.
Unless priests work at being in relationship with themselves and others their ministry will suffer. The Word of God needs to resonate in their whole selves. They need to preach with their whole selves. They don’t need to be perfect but they do need to be real.
Being real and mature will mean that the priest does not have all the answers. This is a struggle for men who have been trained to be problem solvers. It is a journey into humility, into an awareness of the complexity of life, into vulnerability and weakness, and into letting go of black and white thinking. It is a journey into awareness of and gradual acceptance of one’s sexual orientation. This maturity calls priests into equal relations with men and women. If usually requires a deep listening to the reality of the experiences of men and women, starting from the freedom of realizing that his job is to learn and not know in advance.
Claudia Black summarizes rules for unhealthy relationships as, don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. The journey to maturity for priests often involves a growing awareness that these are the rules they have lived by.
In the journey towards maturity, which is a lifelong path, priests often discover that there are other patterns in their lives which block relatedness. One common one is that of operating mostly on an intellectual level. The priest who does this will function on the level of ideas and facts, but will not be available for the give and take of relationship. He will not be vulnerable. He won’t share his hopes or fears. He will hide. Another way of hiding is the priest who uses his role to keep a distance from others. He would be uncomfortable not being in charge and having the cover of “father.” Other priests can avoid the immediacy of relationship by using humour as a way of avoiding being down to earth and facing reality. Some priests use the topic of Rome as a way of not engaging personally, others use the past, others talk church all the time, while others talk politics. Clearly these issues are worthy of conversation but are commonly focused on in a way that blocks the priest from a real engagement with another.
“The purpose of establishing boundaries is to promote the well-being of the priest and that of the people to whom he ministers, in the hope of creating a safe and predictable environment. Boundaries help to establish clear roles and expectations; they also serve to protect and preserve the integrity of relationships.”
If someone asks to speak with the priest, in order to give them his full attention, he needs to choose a time when he is not distracted, rushed or too tired. He needs to listen in a place that is conducive to listening. Boundary setting respects what works best for him, and for the other person. In the way he puts aside time to be available for the other he increases the likelihood of prioritizing the needs of the other, while also attending to his own needs.
It is important that the priest does not do for the other person what they can do for themselves. That would be to take too much responsibility. If he finds himself doing this he needs to wonder why and to talk to someone about it. On the other hand, he needs also not to be under-involved. There is always the requirement to be attentive, to communicate understanding and empathy, even if he determines early on that this situation is beyond him and requires referral. Boundaries are respected when he recognizes that someone needs expertise he doesn’t have. The priest respects boundaries also by having ready a list of trustworthy professionals he can refer people to. Some priests fall into the trap of using referrals as a way of avoiding even an initial listening to people. This is not good ministry and is an abuse of boundaries.
There is sensitivity needed when it comes to physical expressions of support or affection. The question that needs to be uppermost for the priest is: whose need is being met? The priest is entitled to, and needs, to have a variety of ways of meeting his need for support and affection in healthy ways. If he is not attending to this, he is likely to seek to meet those needs inappropriately.
A weakness in the training of many priests, and in their current ministry, is not having a supervisor whom they can talk over their ministry with. Most in the helping professions would not dare to function solo. They know how complex relationships can be and how helpful and necessary it is to have a safe, confidential, context in which to process our experiences.
Fr. John Heagle gives a fine rule of thumb for good boundaries in our work with people. He writes: “In our day to day pastoral contacts with people, approach each encounter as if we want our closest associates and friends – those who respect and trust us most – to know exactly how we are conducting ourselves.”
In ministry the priest is saying: “I am here for you.” In order for that to be true the priest needs to attend to his own needs – not in a selfish way. A simple and crucial prerequisite is adequate sleep and rest! Workaholism is an addiction that is often seen as a virtue. It is destructive for the life of the priest and his ministry. Priests need to be very aware of this and take responsibility for achieving a healthy balance in their lives. Luisa M. Saffiotti speaks of the fact that “…increasingly priests are faced with more and more work demands. For many a 70 hour week is not so exceptional. This leaves them fatigued and often lacking in the energy or enthusiasm for creative responses to the world’s pain.” Part of good boundary-setting is learning the skill of saying no! The priest needs to say no to whatever will result in his not really being able to say “I am here for you.” Many bishops and priests (together with the faithful) are struggling with declining numbers of priests and asking questions of some emerging responses, e.g. the clustering of parishes. Some pose the question: “Are we becoming sacramental robots and losing any real sense of relatedness and community?” This concern is crucial for establishing solid boundaries in ministry. The fewer the priests the less personal contact with people. And so the priest runs the risk of becoming a depersonalized functionary rather than servant of the faith community.
An on-going struggle for many priests is to maintain a sense of balance in how they live their lives. While some may under-work, many struggle with becoming overly busy and living unhealthy lives, with the inevitable weakening of their ministry. Maturity asks of us to give energy and attention to balance in our lives. Balance is achieved when I give enough time to the important aspects of life.
Some questions for reflection to assess one’s balance in life:
Do I eat regularly and healthily?
Do I make time for exercise?
Do I attend to my medical and dental care?
Do I get enough sleep?
Do I take time away from phones and emails and texts?
Do I make time for entertainment, sport, film or theatre?
Do I regularly make a list of things I’m grateful for in life?
Do I try at times not to be in charge or the expert?
Am I vulnerable with myself, others, God?
Do I pray daily?
Do I spend time in nature?
Do I spend time with good books and music, regularly?
Am I open to not knowing?
Do I stay in touch with friends and family regularly?
Do I cherish people who give me honest feedback?
Do I take time to chat with others?
Do I accept that any given day things will remain undone?
Do I get regular supervision or peer support?
Do I have realistic expectations for myself and others, e.g. human, vulnerable, imperfect?
Am I learning to be mutual in my friendships (self-disclosing, empathic, able to give and receive challenge or feedback)?
Do I invest time and energy in updating myself professionally, emotionally, spiritually?
Am I learning to be more intimate with others – to get my human needs for appreciation, intimacy, touch, affection, and caring – met with a variety of people in healthy and appropriate ways?
Do I take holidays each year (an average of 4 weeks)?
Do I make an annual retreat?
Do I attend professional development training regularly?
Do I take a sabbatical (of at least 3 months) every ten years?
For balance in life we need to develop an awareness of our feelings and a skill in reading them. We are like an airport control tower whose radar is down. For many priests skill in befriending our feelings and learning from them was not part of seminary formation, nor was it part of their development as men. For healthy balance in life and ministry it is a crucial skill to develop. Otherwise a lot of unnecessary crashes will take place.
For balance in ministry it is also important that we not get caught in the trap of “only seeking confirmatory experiences” and avoiding whatever is unfamiliar or different. So, crucial to the maturing of the priest, is that he be open to experience in his ministry.
A missionary priest got that dreaded phone call telling him that his sister had days to live. He made arrangements and travelled home. He travelled home with dread in his heart. One might expect that his fear was that he wouldn’t make it in time. However, his fear was that he would make it in time. He was afraid that his sister would be still alive when he arrived because he knew himself. He knew that he was not able to deal with loss. He knew that he was frozen around loss. He was unable to feel or show love or grief. So, he hoped, for his sister’s sake, so as not to hurt her, that she would be dead.
Numbness, inability to access our feelings, and difficulty in acknowledging or communicating them are struggles many men experience. The returning missioner was at least aware that there was something frozen, a way of relating he could not access or demonstrate. Maturity in priesthood necessitates grief work, otherwise our ability to relate, to connect, to be present is greatly diminished.
The priest needs to grieve over his last parish in order to be ready to really engage in his next one. It is important to ritualize this ending in some way, to express it, to find a way to express gratitude to the parishioners, and to receive their gratitude in return. It is important to say goodbye, and to feel our goodbye. If there is just numbness, stoicism, or a heady response to goodbyes, the people being left are damaged. They are left with a sense that they did not really count in the life of the priest. If the reality of leaving is not felt by the priest – and leave-taking can often be a mixture of sadness, relief, excitement, new horizons – then the engagement in the new community can be weakened. We need to have said goodbye to be capable of saying hello to new relationships.
Maturity requires the priest to deal with his grief in the course of his ministry which may so often place him in positions of witnessing – and in some ways, be part of – the loss and tragedies of others. Often the priest has to face the trauma of being an early witness to sudden death through accidents, suicide, violence. The priest is often present with families torn by grief. The priest may have journeyed with people, old and young, and their partners, their children, or their parents, and witnessed the heartbreak and horror of sickness and death. Many priests demonstrate great heart and sensitivity in helping people cope with the sorrows of their lives. What is not always attended to so well by priests is their own grief and the price they pay for so often dealing with trauma and pain and loss. It is important for the priest to deal with the sometimes strong feelings he experiences in journeying with people. He needs to be able to talk through his own experience, his own pain, his own numbness, his own anger and frustration. These are best shared with a trusted other. Professionals debrief because it helps them to stay available in healthy ways. The priest needs to bring his own feelings and experiences into prayer but also into conversation with trusted others. Otherwise he risks numbing himself with alcohol, over-eating, compulsive television or computer use, by over-working, or becoming short-tempered.
An area of grief that many men, and priests need to deal with is what Steve Biddulph calls the “hidden grief of ‘father-hunger’”. Biddulph writes: “Father hunger is the deep biological need for strong, humorous, hairy, wild, tender, sweaty, caring, intelligent, masculine input. For long satisfying hours spent learning to be confident and capable in the world, in the pleasure of doing and making, striving together and laughing at adversity, learning the joy of being a man from men who know these things and are willing to share them.”
Many men suffer from an alienation or distance from their fathers, whether they are living or dead. Some call this “the father-wound”. It is important for the maturing of a man to come to terms with his relationship with his father. Biddulph’s book, “Manhood”, outlines a process of discovering the energy of the father-son relationship and blessing.
Father Brian had worked on his relationship with his father over the years. His father had often commented that when he came to die he hoped that Brian would be at his death-bed to anoint him, hear his confession, and send him on his way. Father Brian was about to take a leave of absence from ministry. The words of his father troubled him. He was unsure whether his father wanted Brian-the-priest at his bedside or Brian-the-son. What if he wasn’t in ministry when his father came to die? Evidence of the growth in their relationship was proven when Brian wrote and asked his father would he want him at his bedside as son, if he was no longer in ministry at that time. Brian’s father wrote back: “If it is God’s will that you not be a priest when I come to die, I could ask for no better man to be there than you, my son.” Brian risked asking, did his father love him, and was deeply blessed by his father.
Dealing with unresolved issues around the father son relationship is particularly important for priests who are in leadership roles. Coming to terms with this relationship is a process of coming to terms with masculinity and authority.
As the priest works at relating well, with balance and solid boundaries, together with the on-going grief work that life requires, he will be found to be at home. At home in himself, and grounded in God and in God’s People.
“Handbook of Spirituality for Ministers”, Edited by Robert J. Wicks, Volume 1, 1995
“A Practical Guide to Priestly Wellness”, The National Federation of Presbyteral Councils (Canada), 2004
“The Priest as Servant Leader: Developing Values for Priestly Ministry”, The National Federation of Presbyteral Councils (Canada), 2008
“Manhood, An Action Plan for Changing Men’s Lives”, by Steve Biddulph, Hawthorn Press, 1999
“When Men Grieve: why men grieve differently and how you can help”, by Elizabeth Levang, Ph. D., Fairview Press, 1998
“The Care of Men”, Editors, Christie Cozad Neuger and James Newton Poling, Abingdon Press, 1997
“Mothers, Sons & Lovers: how a man’s relationship with his mother affects the rest of his life”, Michael Gurian, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1994
Brendan O’Rourke is a native of Wexford, a Redemptorist, a priest and a psychotherapist.
Brendan has worked in Ireland, the Philippine Islands, and the United States, in giving retreats, missions, teaching and counselling. Brendan is Vicar to the Redemptorist Provincial in Ireland
and is Rector of the Redemptorist Community, Esker, Athenry, Co. Galway.
Sheila Murphy, “Spirituality, Sexuality, Intimacy, and Ministry” in Handbook of Spirituality for Ministers, Ed. Robert J. Wicks, Volume 1, 1995
 Claudia Black, “Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel” Audio Cassette, 5779g
 “The Priest as Servant Leader:developing values for priestly ministry” Published by the Canadian National Federation of Presbyteral Councils, 2008
 Fr. John Heagle, “Priestly Ministry and Healthy Boundaries” in “Priestly Relationships: Freedom Through Boundaries” Published by the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, USA, 1997
 Luisa M. Saffiotti, Ph. D., “Forming Ministers for the 21st Century”, Human Development, Summer 2005
 Some of these questions are from the unpublished notes of Sr. Lynn Levo, CSJ, Ph. D.
 Raymond F. Dlugos, O.S.A., Atlanta NOCERCC Conference address
 Steve Biddulph, “Manhood: an action plan for changing men’s lives” Hawthorn Press, 1999