By Fr. Thom Hennen
A few weeks ago a brother priest sent me a short article entitled “Five Ways to Make Your Priest Miserable.” It was tongue in cheek, of course, but very insightful as to some of the things people do in a parish (sometimes without realizing it) that can make ministry very taxing for their priests.
Here’s a brief synopsis: (1) Complain — especially about minutiae and anonymously; (2) Gossip – best masked as “prayer requests;” (3) Hoard your time, talent and treasure — after all, helping to make the parish better would rob you of the opportunity to complain; (4) Forget he is a person – priests are “Catholic machines” with no family, friends or outside interests, let alone the need to eat, sleep or relax (especially since they only work for a few hours on the weekend); and lastly, (5) Neglect praying for him — keep busy doing numbers1-4 and you won’t have the desire or time to pray for him anyway. The article concluded by stating that in doing these things not only would you make your priest miserable, but you would effectively discourage any young men from ever wanting to take his place.
As a counter to this, I would like to offer a few New Year’s resolutions, if you will, on how to help your priest be a better priest.
(1) Make sure your priest has what he needs — by no means should priests live extravagantly, but like anyone else they will be more effective in their work if some of their basic human needs are met. Priests do need to eat, but often with a full day at the office and evening meetings they do not have much time (or energy) to prepare something. Sadly, many priests (and I am not infrequently guilty of this myself) opt for the fast food solution. In the long term this makes for unhealthy priests and priests who look like they could stand to miss a few meals. Consider occasionally preparing a simple, healthy and freezable meal for your priest, or after a long evening meeting simply ask if he has had a chance to get supper.
As to the priest’s living situation, again, simplicity is fine, but often people figure that anything is good enough for Father. Having traveled the diocese extensively in the last two and a half years as vocations director, I have seen a lot of rectories. Most of them are more than adequate. But next time you’re in a rectory with 40-year-old carpet, broken-down furniture, plumbing problems and drafty windows, ask yourself: would you or your family live there? Is this a place where your priest can be refreshed and restored so that he can better serve the people, or is it a stressful and depressing environment?
(2) Be respectful of your priest’s time – priests love it when people make appointments (insofar as possible) rather than simply “dropping in.” That all-important matter you need to discuss with Father might be coming just as he got off the phone with an angry school parent and as he’s trying to rush to the hospital to anoint someone in the emergency room. If this is the case, no wonder he seems less than interested in what you have to say. Making appointments (or at least calling ahead) assures that the priest will have time to really sit down and listen to you and that he won’t be “blindsided.”
Also, contrary to popular opinion, priests do work more than a few hours on the weekend. A lot happens in a parish during the week, not to mention preparation time involved for homilies, talks, meetings, retreats, parish programs, etc., so don’t expect universal availability for things that are not emergencies.
(3) Keep the lines of communication open — you can raise concerns and disagree, but do so openly and charitably. Most priests are very open to listening to ideas, suggestions, complaints and concerns, but they are more willing to act on them if they know they are coming from someone who loves them and has the best interest of the parish in mind. All too often priests find out about a concern that could easily have been addressed only after the damage has been done. Priests are not mind readers, so share your mind.
(4) Encourage your priests — I’m not saying you need to be overly effusive in your praise (which can have the opposite effect of appearing disingenuous or conniving), but the occasional “thank you” or sincere compliment is most welcome and will go a long way to encourage future positive performance.
(5) Lastly, pray for your priests. Recognize that, like you, they are not perfect. They have their good days and their bad days. They are sinners trying to be saints. They need your prayers if they are to be holy priests after the heart of Jesus Christ.
In this New Year 2014 consider taking up one or more of these suggestions, or at least try to avoid those things that you know make life unnecessarily difficult for your priest. As a result the Church will be better served and maybe we’ll even encourage a few more to think about this beautiful life that is the priesthood.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at 563-888-4255, firstname.lastname@example.org.)