By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
I’ll always remember what I heard a particularly weary priest say in an open forum of his colleagues 20 years ago.
“Some days, after visiting the hospital at night to anoint a parishioner, I drag myself to bed at 2 a.m.,” he said, “and then, just when I fall asleep, the phone rings at 3 a.m. to go back to the hospital to anoint someone else. Some days, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.”
No vocation, of course, is immune from its struggles and its heroic, necessary sacrifices, which are offered up and made possible only through prayer and decisions of the will.
There’s the mother who stays up all night comforting a colicky child.
There’s the father of four who works two and three jobs to make ends meet and pay for his kids’ clothes and Catholic school tuition.
There’s the police officer whose life is at risk even in instances of what we falsely assume to be “routine” traffic stops.
There’s the teacher who spends seven hours on her feet every day – inspiring her students and sometimes herding cats – who is up with her red pen well past midnight, only because she cares for children. Certainly, it’s not for the paycheck.
What struck a chord for me last week at the annual Priests’ Convocation was how priests share the bond of sacrifice. The theme of the three-day gathering – really a mini-retreat with a lot of socializing – was “priestly wellness.”
What do priests do when they are too weary to see straight?
The common response was that if they relied on their own strength, they would have had no chance to survive, much less be effective in their ministry.
Father Patrick Carr, who was ordained in 2016, was a CPA in a previous life, so he knew all about the stresses of working long hours.
“Well, here’s the difference,” said Father Carr, parochial vicar at St. Peter Church in Covington. “When you’re diligent in dealing with numbers on a long day, you’re tired but you’re not drained because numbers can’t talk back. The only comparison would be if you have a client coming in and he owes a lot of money and you have to tell him he owes a lot of money. Then the human drama kicks in. That’s when you’re drained.”
Father Carr recently was called to the hospital to minister to a family who had just lost a child through miscarriage.
“It’s one of those difficult moments,” Father Carr said, “but you have to walk into that room with hope and with love and with a sense that you are bringing God to that person at that moment. You’re bringing healing, hope and compassion.”
How is that possible, day after day, especially when priests are human and are in the confessional, when they hear the struggles of the world but offer forgiveness of sins – and absolution – in Christ’s name?
“It’s like anything else – it becomes an act of the will,” Father Carr said. “It means you really have to go back to the source, and the source is spending an hour in prayer and reconnecting with the one who actually gave us this vocation. That right there gives us the energy and the spirit and the wisdom to continue on in our ministry even when we’re feeling tired.”
At 76, Father Richard Miles, the longtime pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Kenner, has a few years on Father Carr, but he echoed the words of his younger colleague.
“Well, you, know, I’m getting older, so I find that my strength for each day is very much dependent on my prayer life,” Father Miles said. “I’m going to the Lord and praying, and I recoup. I take a little time off during the day to rest and pray. (Prayer) is vital. You can’t go on without that communication with the Lord.”
“I like to think of certain things in my life as non-negotiable,” said Father José Lavastida, pastor of Blessed Seelos Parish. “So, some prayer, during the day at several times, is a non-negotiable.”
And, unlike a CPA’s numbers, God talks back – if you’re willing to listen.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.