Father Steve comments on two related articles regarding the health of the clergy in today's society, examining the way in which their redefined roles are often conducive to the onset of medical problems and issues. On the other hand, Father Steve's review also highlights a priestly example of the "way forward."
The juxtaposition of two recent articles caught my attention. On August 1st, the New York Times printed an article by Paul Vitello
concerning the perilous state of health suffered by many members of the clergy. According to Vitello, incidents of depression, hypertension and obesity now skew higher among members of the clergy than the general population. The reasons for this are many, but in particular Vitello cites a study of the clergy (mostly Protestant ministers, but these same stats could easily be applied to Catholic priests) that indicates that many have “boundary issues,” a therapeutic category that denotes the tendency to be overtaken easily by the apparent urgency of other people’s needs. The point being that many of the clergy surveyed will place the concerns of the people they serve above their own, even if such generosity threatens their own health. Christians might cite this as a positive, an indication of the self- sacrifice they would expect of religious leaders. However, the negative impact is evident in the minds, bodies and souls of the leaders themselves.
But this is not the end of the story in terms of the health of the clergy. A startling contrast to Vitello’s article appeared in the August 5th edition of the Rhode Island Catholic
. Father Luke Willenberg participated in the Amica Ironman Triathalon on July 13th. The 70.3 mile course included a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13 mile run. Father Willenberg completed the event in 5.02 hours- no small feat, and from the looks of his picture in the article, if there was such a thing as “Priest’s Fitness” magazine, Father Willenberg would be on the cover. He noted in the article that his rigorous training, which includes not only the physical, but the intellectual, is all about “testing limits.” Father Willenberg provided this insight: “Nothing comes easy. When you make a sacrifice and it hurts, the satisfaction from reaching your goal is greater.” Spoken like a true athlete. But one could argue that this kind of insight should properly belong not only to an athlete, but also and especially to a priest, indeed to all vocations which have as their objective the representation of the way of Jesus Christ.
According to the the Vitello piece, Father Willenberg’s high level of fitness indicates that he is so far outside the norm in terms of the clergy that he might as well be ministering on Mars. At least in terms of the Catholic priesthood, we are at a demographic disadvantage in terms of health, as the number of priests aged 50 and over well exceeds the younger members of the presbyterate. Given this reality it would not be unusual that so many priests would suffer from all the maladies associated with mid life and old age. But another set of demographic criteria is likely a contributing factor to the ill health of many priests- the fact that there are fewer of us, while the Catholic population has increased, and this population has become not only more diverse, but more complicated in its needs. I must admit that I smiled when I read in the Vitello article about a Protestant minister, who faced the burden of a congregation that had grown from 25 members to 115 and was having difficulty negotiating their expectations. The Catholic parish in which I reside has some 2900 families and continues to grow, and in terms of a complex diocese that includes both urban and suburban populations, it would be considered average in size.
I remember speaking with one priest who commented in reference to a persistent cold that he had been walking around with for weeks that it wasn’t so much that his work in the parish caused him to get sick, but rather it prevented him from ever getting well. This is not good. A fact about the clergy that is not always appreciated is that their numbers make them a rare resource, and despite all our populist pretensions, a necessity to the life of the Church. We therefore can’t afford to have an unhealthy clergy. But the conditions are there for precisely this predicament. I know from experience that in many Catholic parishes expectations from the faithful have not shifted all that much from the heydays of the clerical culture when each parish would likely have the services of at least three priests if not more. A whole new culture of lay ministers has been employed to fill the gaps, but this has also engendered new layers of complicated expectations for the ordained in terms of leadership. Add to this the cultural preference for a religion that is meant to satisfy “felt needs” and a hair trigger for abandoning a community because it does not meet one’s personal expectations- in such an environment a priest who is not a “people pleaser" with a tendency towards “boundary issues” need not apply. Things have not gotten any easier and will likely not get easier. Does this mitigate an environment in which the clergy can take care of themselves? After all, this self-care is not about selfishness, but all about being healthy enough to serve, a fact that can be lost on both the clergy and the faithful alike.
Is there a way forward? Not without a shift in the tectonics of the Church’s internal culture. I am going to make a bold assertion that if our clergy are unhealthy, it is not just about the complexities and difficulties of ministry in the early 21st century, but because of choices. The primary maladies that afflict the clergy are not just about external factors but are closely connected with decisions made in terms of one’s lifestyle. Remember what they are: obesity, hypertension, and depression. All three are not always by necessity conditions that are the result of some kind of biological determinism, but are linked to decisions about what we eat, how much we exercise, and whether we allow ourselves sufficient rest. But if these conditions have become prevalent among the clergy, one might ask if there has been in failure to appreciate the importance of diet, exercise and recreation in terms of not only a healthy body and mind, but also one’s soul. In this regard the insight of Saint Thomas Aquinas in regards to the nature of the soul is helpful. The Angelic Doctor understood soul as containing the body, which I would interpret as the saint’s way of saying that matters of the soul are matters of the totality of a person. Body, mind and soul are integral to each other, and if one or all are underdeveloped or abused, expect the effects to manifest themselves not just spiritually, but physically as well.
Priests have to make a conscious and deliberate decision to remain physically fit, indeed see this fitness as integral to their mission, not only because of the strenuous level of expectations engendered by their way of life, but because it provides a witness that the culture desperately needs to see. Father Willenberg is right in his assessment that the metaphor that best describes the priestly vocation is athletic (rather than managerial or therapeutic). It is about accepting suffering, as an athlete does, so that a greater good might be accomplished. Priests should not simply appreciate this athletic metaphor in the abstract, but should embody it literally. As I noted in a previous blog post
in this site, a new spirituality of asceticism is possible that accepts physical conditioning as a creative means to prepare oneself for mission. In terms of the faithful and their expectations, they can rightly expect much from their priests, but they must make a decision in this regard- do they prefer their clergy to burn out quickly, or to cast the light of their vocation for many productive and healthy years. I think that in reality that most prefer the latter and priests would be healthier if this was our preference as well.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.