Deacon Gene Saienga and Father Michael O’Connor. OSV file photo/Jim Olvera

Incorporating Priestly Mindfulness

What it means to purposefully live in the present moment

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In the world of psychotherapy, there is an emphasis on using a mindfulness approach in

conjunction with other modalities of treatment. Mindfulness, very simply, is to live in the present moment purposefully. This approach is a little more involved, but this definition is a good place to begin.

As I have used this approach with clients and tried to incorporate it in my own life, I have begun to wonder how it can be used in the practice of our faith. Our parishioners come on Saturday evening, Sunday morning or Sunday evening having had a week of rushing around, trying to get from one place to another, doing the “tasks of life,” and never really slowing down or taking a moment to breathe. Even working out, going to the gym, etc., are calendared as one more thing. An important part of mindfulness is that to teach it is to also practice it. So, before we can teach the people in the pew, we need to look at ourselves. We, as priests, are just as guilty as others of what I’m talking about here, and for some of us maybe even worse.

We come to the Eucharist and are expected to be attentive and let our minds and hearts absorb the sacred mystery. We all have to ask ourselves, how many times have we been talking with people before Mass (which is vitally important to shepherd the community), but realize we have five minutes before Mass begins and need to rush to the sacristy, throw on the vestments and hurry to the back so the opening hymn can begin. Personally, some days I finally become focused about the time the responsorial psalm is sung, and if it is my third liturgy of the day, it can even be later.

Mindful Approach

How can a mindful approach be incorporated into our lives as priests? I would propose some of the following practices:

1. A solid daily prayer life and the daily practice of mindfulness. Saying morning and evening prayer purposefully. We all use the excuse “I am too busy.” My challenge to myself is this: You have it on your phone! Pray the Rosary slowly, feel the beads, immerse yourself in the mystery. Walk from the rectory to the church (or from the car) slowly with an awareness of feet hitting the pavement. Mindfulness is developing an awareness of what I am doing right now. Sometimes it is just being aware of the breath. The research shows that to develop this mindset, it must be done daily. Since we are all unique, find your own way, but do it!

2. When I was first ordained, an older priest told me to say each Mass as if it was my first. So how do we pray the Mass mindfully and purposefully?

a. It starts in the sacristy. The vesting prayers in the old liturgy served a purpose to remind the priest what he was about to do. Without getting into the liturgical wars, a mindful practice would be putting the vestments on purposefully and prayerfully. To cover ourselves with the alb to remind ourselves of our foundational call of baptism; to kiss the stole and put in on to remind ourselves of our call to serve, and the chasuble to remind ourselves that the mystery about to be done is not about us, but about God. We must grow small, so he can shine, à la John the Baptist.

b. To be aware of our words and actions, especially our pace. I am always mildly amused that it seems whoever can say Mass the fastest wins a medal — like many of the road races I used to run. We have created an environment in which our people expect the same. Here is where we need to lead in the liturgy. Purposefully signing ourselves and being aware of our hands and gestures (not rigidly but with purpose), placing the bread and wine on the altar slowly and mindfully saying the words of institution, etc. Using incense and allowing it to enfold the gifts and altar, to enfold the people, and, at a funeral, to wrap the casket in our love as we say our final goodbye. Recently, I took a weekend off and attended Mass at a parish. With this article in the back of my mind, I watched the presider hold up the broken Host, never looked at it, said the words, “Behold the Lamb of God … ” and hurried on. I know how judgmental it sounds, but this is the perfect example of celebrating mindlessly, not mindfully.

c. To say each Mass as our first. People notice when we rush and are inattentive. In the days of a shortage of priests, many people in the pew are afraid to ask us to be better because they are afraid any complaint will mean they will be without a priest. We owe them more than a perfunctory Mass; we owe God more than a quick hello. Being stewards of the mysteries (the motto of the seminary I attended) means to take care of them with our willingness to experience God with his people.

Flow of Grace

When I sit with a client and teach them how to use mindfulness to deal with anger, depression or anxiety, I feel I am giving them the skills to change their approach to living, their cognitive schemes and their overall approach to life. Hopefully, it will allow them to function better in their everyday lives. As priests, this approach can deepen our spirituality. Think of how the anointing of the sick could be done and the effect it could have on the family when we take our time and allow the grace to flow through the ritual. How much more powerful will the Sacrament of Reconciliation be if we are mindfully present to the person who is confessing, and how powerfully we ourselves will be aware of the awesome mercy of God.

Once we start to practice, then we can teach God’s people.

FATHER THOMAS KONOPKA is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, a licensed clinical social worker in New York state and director of the Consultation Center of the Diocese of Albany.


A Mindful Catholic: Aware of the Present

Mindful CatholicDr. Gregory Bottaro explains how mindfulness can help the faithful become aware of the present moment in his book “The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment at a Time” (Beacon, $24.95). While praying, carrying out a daily routine or conversing with others, our minds impact how well one functions. Catholic mindfulness, he writes, is a way to trust God and bridge the gap to feel the sense of safety and peace God desires for all. The book offers exercises to assist Catholics from listening to a homily to meditating on the Rosary. He proposes that mindfulness can be used to treat pain, diffuse stress, and help with anxiety, irritability and impatience.

“The saints, too, had wandering minds. The saints, too, had constantly to recall their constantly wandering mind-child home. They became saints because they continued to go after the little wanderer, like the Good Shepherd.” — Peter Kreeft, “Prayer for Beginners” (Ignatius Press, $14.95)


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