Seminarians from the International Seminary of St. Pius X in Switzerland play soccer during their downtime. Newscom

The Value of Taking a Break

In order to recharge, priests need to take time for themselves

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Many who have seen the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai” recall Colonel Saito, the Japanese camp commander, telling the British prisoners that they would “rest today and work tomorrow, because all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Certainly a Catholic priest’s life is filled with work, never dull and there is little time for play. You would be hard-pressed to find many priests, like the British prisoners, with time on their hands.
 

Always on Duty

A priest is always on duty, and there is little time for self. He is not necessarily a workaholic in the sense that he desires to be in his office night and day or looks for reasons to be at work; he would willingly take some time off, or at least attempt to keep an ordinary schedule, but, often, doing so is impossible. The spiritual needs of parishioners don’t end simply because it is 5 o’clock, the middle of the night or Thanksgiving Day. A pastor doesn’t hand over his duties to another priest or to a parish 24-hour command post at the end of the day.

Pope St. John Paul II (who was 78 when this photo was taken) was well known to have taken time away from his public ministry in order to seek rest and relaxation. Newscom

No doubt there are times when the priest would like to follow the lead of Pope St. John XXIII (r. 1958-63), who allegedly said at the end of a tough, exhausting day: “God, it’s your Church now; I’m going to bed.” Serving the people of God, bringing together those who are often strangers and keeping them together in one faith is a full-time endeavor. Often, just when a pastor thinks he is all caught up and has a moment, he remembers that the Sunday homily has to be prepared, a baptism is coming up and there is housework to do. Not mentioned is the fact that most parish priests routinely pull double duty — that is, they are assigned to shepherd a second parish or community.

Being busy is not limited to a parish but seems to follow the priest wherever the Church places him. In a missionary setting, in the diocese, in a university, any specialty assignment likely encompasses unique duties and times when the stress of finding a way to meet expectations is excessive. Like a parish pastor, many priests in special assignments have added responsibilities involving helping out at weekend Mass, in hospitals, prison ministries and ministering in other Catholic environments.

None of this is meant to imply that a priest is somehow a slave. He is busy, he is in demand, but the Church wants him to have time for rest. The key is being able to use such time to relax and find activities that are stimulating and rewarding so that one does not become Colonel Saito’s “dull boy.”
 

Daily Schedule (or Not)

A wise priest might plan to get up every day at a regular time, pray, have breakfast and head to daily Mass. But often the plan goes astray even before he gets out of bed, and daily Massgoers sometimes wonder why Father is late. After a while, the interruptions are accepted as part of the vocation. When a priest is 35 years old, he can absorb most every situation or interruption and bounce right back; at age 70, the absorption still takes place, but the bouncing back is more difficult. Many people, regardless of occupation or workload, claim that having a manageable, fixed schedule that includes time for rest and relaxation contributes to their success and well-being. The dilemma for a member of the Catholic priesthood is that there are no two days alike. Often the only fixed, repetitive events of the day are reading the Liturgy of the Hours and celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The emphasis is not on “only,” because these are among the sacred duties of every priest.

A schedule or plan of the day, whatever the occupation, should include a period to relax and recharge. The priest does not grow weary of prayer or of offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass, but the details of the day (“the devil is in the details”) can bog him down. Finding time for ourselves in any job is essential to our mental welfare and will serve us both while we are involved in a full-time, daily occupation and into retirement — or for the clergy, into their “senior priest” years. Being a priest is not easy, but God does not demand that he turn into a workaholic or toil and strain to the point of being unable to cope.

Jesus often tried to get away to a place where he and his apostles could spend time in prayer. St. Mark, for example, writes that the apostles were tired as they returned to Jesus after being on the road for a month evangelizing, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out devils. “He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ … So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place” (Mk 6:31-32). But the respite never took place because they were followed by a great crowd, and Jesus first ended up teaching and then feeding 5,000 people. The need for time to rest is obvious in this Gospel, but God’s work has no set schedule. In a similar way, the average priest has a life filled with constant activity and little downtime.

Some of us try to take on everything ourselves, and that rarely works out. A Bible passage pointing out the error of such an attitude is Exodus 18:14-27. Moses sets himself up to hear all the complaints and settle every disagreement among the Israelites whom he had led out of Egypt. His father-in-law, Jethro, tells Moses that doing so was not a good idea. “You will surely wear yourself out.” Of course, he was right, and Moses backed away. At some point, we all have to let go and trust God.
 

One Life

A priest does not have two lives like the ordinary parishioner. In one life, a layperson normally goes off to work and performs a particular job for a set period of hours. Then, at some point, he or she goes home and experiences another life, such as with their family — a total diversion from their business or occupation. A complete change of pace is realized within the context of a whole new environment, including periods of relaxation. Not so with a priest. He doesn’t have a family waiting at home and has to learn how to cultivate his own change of pace. In finding a way to relax, many develop a hobby. Unless we somehow let it consume us, a hobby doesn’t distract us from “running the race before us,” it doesn’t deter our goal of becoming a saint. In fact, it helps shape and form us, cleric or layman, to better serve God; we are kept mentally and often physically alert and, moreover, refreshed.

Most Popular Hobbies
In its annual survey of ordination classes, the Center
for Applied Research in the Apostolate formerly
asked newly ordained priests what hobbies they
most enjoyed. Here are the top picks from the 2011
survey, the year CARA stopped asking about hobbies.

Listening to music – 73%
Reading – 67%
Movies – 62%
Football/soccer – 41%
Hiking – 33%
Cooking – 33%
Musical instruments – 33%
Running – 31%
Camping – 29%
Organized athletics – 27%
Basketball – 25%

 

Hobbies

Hobbies do not take us away from Jesus but away from the day-to-day challenges that, in themselves, can separate us from Christ. A diversion or hobby developed over time keeps us on an even keel, sharpens our mind and provides a sense of self-satisfaction. Most priests with hobbies perform them just as they perform their priestly duties — that is, with God at the center. They are not robbing God from his due praise, but glorifying him through another endeavor.

There are books galore on how a hobby can help avoid burnout and even help us grow as individuals. Franklin Roosevelt turned to his stamp collection; Pope St. John Paul II loved to walk in the mountains; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a prolific writer and an accomplished pianist. Many people in various professions and states of life have found hobbies as a way to refresh themselves. Going fishing, playing golf, learning a new language or musical instrument, hiking, woodworking, writing, there is no end to such a list of hobbies. One pastor of a small parish loves to cook and prepares dinner for one or two different parish families twice every month.
 

Senior Years

The sooner a new priest cultivates a hobby the better it will serve him. It often takes only a single visit with some of our senior priests — individuals who have given their lives to a priestly vocation — to recognize that a hobby was never an agenda item during their more active service years. These respected servants did not take the time to care for their mental well-being and, for many, their physical condition. They felt guilty about any distraction from their holy vocation or concluded that somehow leisure time was a pagan activity. In fact, a hobby, giving time to do something they enjoyed, something from which they experienced a personal sense of achievement, would have made them even more productive.
 

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A priest can spend 50 years serving the people of God, dedicated to a position of responsibility, a position that others seek out for the salvation of their souls. No vocation has a higher calling. The priest takes this calling to heart, but often in so doing neglects himself to the excess. Then, later in life, when he has time to slow down, he suddenly is faced with the gift of time, which he isn’t sure how to use. If he has developed a hobby, he can, in addition to his changed priestly duties, continue doing something not only self-satisfying but that he can share with others. He can teach someone else that second language he mastered, show a youngster how to fish, join with others playing music. He can continue to evangelize, continue to bring glory to God through the special, unique graces and gifts bestowed on him.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and is a longtime contributor to OSV publications.