Toronto priests challenged to be “real” in their demanding ministry.

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I just got back from the annual “Priests Seminar” in Toronto. Every year the priests working in the Archdiocese of Toronto gather together for the “Priests’ Seminar”.  The seminar lasts 4 days and is held twice with half the priests attending the first week, the other half the second week. In total there are about 320 priests who participate.  The Archbishop and his auxiliary bishops also attend.

This year the topic was “Utilizing Personal and Spiritual Resources in the Service of more Effective Ministry.”  The presentations were by Fr. Ray Dlugos, an Augustinian Friar, CEO of the Southdown Institute in Aurora, Ontario.  Southdown is a residential treatment centre for Catholic clergy and religious dealing with mental health issues, addictions and “burn-out”.  

The focus of the seminar was the feeling that many priests have of not knowing how to handle all the many expectations that people have of them.  Priests sometimes feel like they are inadequate and often disappointing people around them.  [Certainly this is not exclusive to priests. Many women, who are also moms, and work outside the home experience similar feelings.] Fr. Ray and members of the team at Southdown presented 4 steps that priests can use in their ministry and their personal lives to deal with the situations in their lives that cause them anxiety and in Fr. Ray’s words “keep them up at night.”

The four steps were:

  1. Naming Reality without Denial or Illusion
  2. Engaging in Honest Self-Awareness
  3. Clarity about Mission, Vocation, and Call
  4. Implementing Life-Giving Choices

Naming the Reality.  This step is based on a psychological approach known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  CBT challenges that common belief that in life we react with feeling to events that happen to us. CBT teaches that before the feeling is experienced there is an “automatic thought” that happens in our minds that then leads to a feeling.  For example; a priest may notice that a couple is laughing during his homily. The priest may have the thought “they are laughing at me” and then feel angry or hurt.  It is very important in these situations that we be aware of the thoughts. Often these “automatic thoughts” reflect some “core beliefs” about ourselves that we learn early on in life such as “I am no good”, “I can’t do anything right”, “I am a loser” etc.  If priests are to learn better how to deal with difficult events in their lives they need to be honest about what thoughts and beliefs they trigger in them.

Self-Awareness. In turn we priests were invited to name the feelings that we experience in difficult events. Feelings are neutral. It is what we do with our feelings that sometimes complicate matters. Our feelings also can point to our basic needs in life that may or may not be met.  Awareness of our needs and how we behave to meet our needs is the next step.  This is when our “values” come into play.  There can sometimes be a conflict between what we perceive as our “need” and the “values” that we hold. It is then that moral judgements must be made.

Clarity.  Priests need to have a clear sense of themselves and the pressures, values and formative forces in their lives that impact on us as we try to make decisions. Some of these forces include: our family of origin’s expectation of us, the Church’s, various members or groups within our parish etc.  Sometimes these “external formative forces” are in competition with one another. How should the priest find his way through all these forces? Theological Reflection was proposed as a model. The priests were invited to reflect on Scripture, the movement of the Holy Spirit expressed in silence, art, music and in the Tradition of the Church found in the Church’s teaching, the wisdom of mentors, in the Sacraments and the community.

Implementing Choices.  It is important for priests not to readily dismiss the various forces that are trying to impact on them. It is equally important that we not dismiss our “self” in the process. It is important to identify options to face the situations that we face which are consistent with our vocation and integrity.  Part of the implementation will require communicating with others in a way that is non-threatening, non-violent (physically, verbally or emotionally) where we can share our observations without judgement, express our feelings and needs, articulate our values and express requests rather than demands.

These four steps were proposed to the priests to be used in lives and also in our work within the communities we serve.  The test will be in our ability and willingness to try it out. Please pray for us!

Some of the recommended reading that came out of the presentations included: Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Lifeand Ron Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing.

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