A Priest in Full
How to keep your sanity and even grow your spirituality during Lent
In Ash Wednesday’s Gospel, Jesus has some helpful guidance for how priests can experience Lent as an opportunity for sane spiritual growth rather than a draining, interminable fire drill. He tells his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father” (Mt 6:1).
Whatever Lent is about, it is not about me. For a reasonably sane and spiritually rich 40 days, priests need to keep their eyes focused on the prize of we. Unfortunately, when priests meet the demands of packed parish calendars and parishioners’ needs with their own limited resources, Lent can all too quickly become “all about me and my limits.” What is supposed to be a season of spiritual growth instead becomes a debilitating ordeal of spiritual, mental and physical entropy.
As an antidote, I recently sought the advice of veteran parish priests to augment what I know about leading healthy, life-filled and life-giving organizations. Our shared perspective clusters around three themes:
• Collaborate and delegate.
• Plan and prioritize.
• Be mindful and grateful.
Collaborate and Delegate
Clergy and laity alike should focus on “leading like Jesus” — but that’s especially incumbent on men who are ordained to serve in persona Christi. The first thing to remember in striving to be Jesus-like leaders is that we are called to be God-centered, not self-centered. And the second thing to realize is that Jesus never tried to present his leadership as a one-man show.
Yes, of course, Jesus has a unique and central role to play in salvation history as Son of God, Redeemer and Savior. But from the beginning of his public ministry, he was all about developing disciples. And near the end, he told his apostles: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these” (Jn 14:12). The Master Delegator sets the bar high.
Often it can seem quicker and easier to do things ourselves rather than to try to develop the capacity of others. But that’s a trap, one that’s most likely to snap shut when people and systems are stressed by the kinds of pressure inherent in observing Lent. In contrast, pastors who maintain their enthusiasm and energy are those who come to their leadership role with a heart hungry to collaborate and to grow the capacity of ministers in their parishes. It is, after all, the prime responsibility of the pastor to build up the Body of Christ — the People of God — in his own parish.
While recognizing that there are many things only a priest can do, a parish leader’s bias should always be toward delegation. Think long and hard about where people can help and who can do the helping. If the chore is not reserved for the priesthood and yet no one comes to mind when you wonder who can help, ask yourself who might best fill the vacuum and invite them to learn.
“This is not just to make things easier or more convenient for you,” says one veteran pastor. “This is precisely how you, as a shepherd leader, help people fulfill their baptismal call to become, in the words of Pope Francis, missionary disciples.” Of course, if you are not swayed by this retired pastor’s perspective, there’s always Jesus’ own concrete example: recall that he did not carry his cross alone.
Plan and Prioritize
One retired monsignor recalls pastoring a parish of over 4,000 families. He loved his leadership role, but it required a lot of advanced planning. “We planned for Advent in the summer, and we planned for Lent during Advent,” he recalls.
He approached the leadership process as Jesus did, focusing on developing all the talent and using all of the gifts of those around him. For example, he relied on his group of permanent deacons to handle Lenten adoration and Stations of the Cross. “You are going to be doing it every year, so it’s worth the time to plan and build a good foundation,” he says.
Several months in advance, he would start by developing an extensive list of things that needed to be done, and then write out “scripts” that covered all the various tasks needed in each case. He would constantly ask himself who else might be able to do these things. Where he had experienced hands, he included in their responsibilities the need to train others. The process could extend to several levels. A deacon, for example, might be assigned to train altar servers for a particular liturgy — but also to enlist more experienced altar servers to help as mentors.
With turnover every year, the pastor strived to build enduring systems of ongoing development with everyone working from his detailed scripts. Over the years, he made the scripts more comprehensive. As the system became more robust, he found more time to address emerging needs. For example, he was better able to integrate various ethnic elements that reflected groups that had been part of the parish for decades and added other elements to recognize the ethnicity of new members.
At one point, he felt organized enough to add a pre-Holy Week catechetical program to explain all the Holy Week liturgies and the sacramentals used in them. He was also honest about the unique value and challenges of particular liturgical celebrations. “The Easter Vigil Mass is the most beautiful of the year, but it’s also the longest, so I would tell people it’s probably not the best one to bring children to,” he recalls.
Be Mindful and Grateful
We remind people that “leadership begins on the inside,” and that is especially true in stressful circumstances. Keeping our hearts and minds focused on what should properly matter to us can make all the difference. Priests, as Pope Francis likes to say, are called to serve — to serve God and to serve the Church, most especially conceived as the People of God. The best way to remember that — and be energized by it — is by fostering a life of constant prayer.
Remind yourself often that “I am not alone, the Lord is with me,” and that “the Lord will provide.” Mixing prayer with thoughts of gratitude is an especially powerful deterrent to the stresses of Lent. In Midwest winters, I begin each day with the obvious — thanking God for life, indoor plumbing and central heat. Surely you can extend your realm of gratitude beyond such basics. And you should, because research shows that gratitude is powerful medicine.
According to UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, regularly expressing gratitude actually changes the molecular structure of the brain. It improves physical and psychological health, increases mental strength, enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Gratitude helps you sleep better and improves your self-esteem. Self-medicating makes a lot of sense when your elixir of choice is gratitude.
Another priest, who for decades has given retreats for other priests, suggests that, during Lent, clergy reflect daily on a meditation about church doors by Father Romano Guardini (1885-1968), considered one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th century. The last part of it, from “The Essential Guardini: An Anthology of the Writings of Roman Guardini,” follows:
“Between the outer and the inner world are the doors of the church. They are the barriers between the marketplace and the sanctuary, between what belongs to the world at large and what has become consecrated to God. And the door warns the men and women who open it to go inside that they must leave behind the thoughts, wishes and cares which are out of place: their curiosity, their vanity, their worldly interests, their secular self. ‘Make yourself clean. The ground you tread is holy ground.’
“Do not rush through the doors. Let us take time to open our hearts to their meaning and pause a moment beforehand to make our entering-in a fully intended and recollected act.
“The doors have something else to say. Notice how as you cross the threshold you unconsciously lift your head and your eyes, and how as you survey the great interior space of the church there also takes place in you an inward expansion and enlargement. Its great width and height have an analogy to infinity and eternity. A church is a similitude of the heavenly dwelling place of God. Mountains are higher and the wide blue sky outside stretches immeasurably farther, but whereas outside space is unconfined and formless, the portion of space set aside for the church has been formed, fashioned and designed at every point with God in view. The long pillared aisles, the width and solidity of the walls, the high arched and vaulted roof bring home to us that this is God’s house and the seat of his hidden presence.
“It is the doors that admit us to this mysterious place. Lay aside, they say, all that cramps and narrows, all that sinks the mind. Open your heart, lift up your eyes. Let your soul be free, for this is God’s temple.”
My friend says he believes that if priests are able to absorb the profound meaning of church doors and meditate on their significance during the Lenten season, “it would move them more profoundly about something they take for granted and fill them with newfound inspiration.”
Inspiration isn’t always something that weary and worn priests find during Lent. But perhaps with an ongoing devotion to collaboration and delegation, a commitment to planning and disciplined prioritizing, and a determination to be mindful and grateful, a priest can stay sane and grow spiritually during the chaotic days of Lent.
OWEN PHELPS, Ph.D., is director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and editor of The Catholic Leader e-newsletter.
Another veteran priest approaches the Lenten season with a special commitment to discipline — reflected both in his own activities and on the parish calendar. “It’s a time when you should cull any activities that really aren’t necessary, that don’t contribute to the observance of Lent,” he advises. “You have to prioritize, and that means disciplining yourself, too.”
“My goal is always to talk less, but be more available to people,” he adds. As he talked less and culled more, he freed up time: “I was able to commit to giving people more time and commit to giving myself more time. It’s important not to let Lent become all about activities.” He also tries to focus on the themes raised in the Lenten liturgies. “They’re great. Get into them. Own them. Let them shape your world both as a disciple and a pastor,” he advises. — Owen Phelps