Seven tips for a more joyful priesthood
Between 2013 and 2019 at St. Mary Parish in Hudson, Ohio, seven men were ordained to the priesthood, one in each of seven consecutive years. This parish was my first priestly assignment, so I knew each of these men, and I saw the ways in which their formation in the faith was a true community effort. During my years at the parish, from 2003 through 2007, I worked side-by-side with an incredibly gifted and faithful youth minister and his selfless core staff, had the support of a wonderful and open-minded baby-boomer pastor and experienced the prayerful and zealous commitment of an entire parish for making young disciples and helping them find their missions in the world.
What I brought to that mix was not priestly perfection, liturgical elegance or administrative genius, but the joy of a sinner whom the Lord had looked upon. I would never claim that I am the only reason those seven men are priests today—of course they all have their own unique stories and influences—but I do think it helped that my own vocation as a priest has given me great joy. So during my time as parochial vicar I was able to offer a joyful witness to the priesthood that was human and therefore accessible and imitable. I also think that my own joy helped the parents of these young men worry less about their sons becoming priests.
What I brought to that mix was not priestly perfection, liturgical elegance or administrative genius, but the joy of a sinner whom the Lord had looked upon.
Joy is a gift, and I experience it often. However, I readily admit that at times I get too tired, too weak, too lazy or too prideful, and I lose my joy. Yet I have found that if I am actively and intentionally engaged in the following seven practices, I am better able to sustain that joy. These seven practices are not unique to priests, but I write about them in the context of the priesthood because it is what I have known for the past 19 years. Adapt them to your own life as you see fit, because the greatest evangelization we can offer is a joyful church.
Pray. In his first Apostolic Letter, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis writes, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.” This invitation is so basic and so obvious that it can be easily overlooked or forgotten, even (and especially) by priests.
By our ordination, priests are configured to Christ in a unique way and are called to lead by word and example, particularly in cultivating a life of prayer. But when one’s vocation is to be a professional at prayer, it can be tempting from time to time—at Mass, or when praying the Office, or even during personal devotions—to turn on autopilot. I write from experience. Distractions abound, and if I am not vigilant about recognizing those distractions and intentional about praying with them or through them, that daily renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ that is essential for a joyful priesthood is lost.
Even to simply tell Jesus, “Lord, I’m tired,” or “Lord, I need you” and then to listen for his response takes both tenacity and humility, the fruits of which are joy.
Praying well is hard work, and it takes discipline. Even to simply tell Jesus, “Lord, I’m tired,” or “Lord, I need you” and then to listen for his response takes both tenacity and humility, the fruits of which are joy. But a priest who isn’t serious about prayer, even the simplest kind, cannot seriously expect to be joyful.
Maintain strong friendships. Aristotle writes that everyone wants friends and that no one wants to be without friends, and he is right. Jesus Christ, who is like us in all things but sin, had friends. Pope Francis reclaimed July 29th as the Feast Day of Sts. Martha, Mary and Lazarus, celebrating three of Jesus’ closest friends. (For a while it was just St. Martha’s day.) The Gospels tell us that Jesus was also tight with Peter, James and John, not to mention the great Mary Magdalene.
Like Jesus, a joyful priest will have good friendships, both with brother priests and with lay men and women. Priests need friends with whom they can share their lives, people they can trust and who can trust them. Thomas Aquinas notes that friends help us carry our burdens—they share our crosses, like Simon of Cyrene—and he thinks that the sight of a friend reminds us that we are loved. How true. My parents are deceased, and I come from a small family. I can say without exaggeration that I would not be able to make it as a priest without my friends. They bring me great joy.
Embrace your humanity. One of the most drastic changes in life is going from being a seminarian to being a priest. Even with the best seminary formation, it is hard to prepare for that day when you become perceived as one of the most mysterious sorts of people in the world—wearing strange clothes, choosing not to get married, celebrating sacraments, preaching to fellow sinners and being invited by people into the most important parts of their lives: marriage, birth, struggles with sin, suffering, sickness and death. Some people like you because you are a priest, and other people despise you because of it, but rare is the person who thinks nothing of it. It is important to remember that before a man is a priest, he is a man—he is a human being.
The most joyful priests I know embrace their humanity.
The most joyful priests I know embrace their humanity; they don’t run from it. They enjoy a good meal, a good drink, good friends, good music, a good novel, good art, a good hike. And they laugh a lot. It is true that the priesthood is serious business, but it is also human business. The most joyful priests seem to be the guys who speak in the same voice whether they are in their collar or in the gym or on vacation. They don’t lead with their office, but with their humanity, and, in turn, bring others to consider the joy of the Incarnation and the beauty and mystery of the priesthood.
Befriend people who make you uncomfortable. Jesus loves sinners. Since we are all sinners—we acknowledge this at the beginning of every Mass—this reality should console us. However, over time it becomes easy to forget. We, priests and lay people alike, often fall into the trap of surrounding ourselves mostly with people who believe what we believe and think what we think. Such people make us feel safe and comfortable. But the Gospels testify that although Jesus had a good circle of friends in whom he took comfort, he also took comfort in being with those on the margins of society, including sinners and tax collectors. He went to them because he loved them, and he knew that their hearts were ultimately made for him. In loving the sinner, Jesus softened the sinner’s heart for conversion, which results in joy. Joyful priests never forget that Jesus loved them first as sinners and continues to do so. And then they do the same for others.
Respect the dignity of all people (even—especially—the ones who annoy you). When I was a seminarian, I shared the same graces of the priesthood and the same diocese with the rector of my seminary. But our views of the world and the church were very different. I didn’t always like him, but I did love him. When he died, I was honored to concelebrate his funeral Mass, and I believe he would have done the same for me. If one’s heart is full of hate, there is no room for joy. Most of us have people in our lives who get under our skin. That’s O.K. Loving people we don’t always like is a way of remembering that everyone counts, everyone matters—even and especially those who are hard to love. The joy that comes from loving people with whom we don’t always get along is real and contagious.
The joy that comes from loving people with whom we don’t always get along is real and contagious.
Take risks. When I was sent away for doctoral studies, I figured that upon my return to Cleveland I would be teaching at our little college seminary for the next 10 years, as that was the original plan. A few months before my doctoral defense, my new bishop surprised me by asking me to take on a new position as his vicar for evangelization. I said yes, but I really didn’t know what I was saying yes to, as there was not yet a job description. He told me to be imaginative and creative and help him to focus all the efforts of our diocese toward evangelization. Not knowing what I was doing, I took great comfort in the Stations of the Cross, specifically in the fact that Jesus fell three times on his way to Calvary. There’s a lot of pressure to get everything perfect in ministry, but Jesus’ Passion was part of his ministry, and his three falls are a reminder that we will fall too. Not everything I try as a priest will work, even with the best planning. But the Lord rewards those who take risks for his kingdom. The reward is a joyful heart.
Let Jesus do the saving. Perhaps the greatest threat to the joy of a priest is the temptation to see oneself as the Savior. Father must fix everything, make it all better, bind up all the wounds and heal all the sick, not to mention balance the budget, fix the roof and preach good homilies. Joyful priests take their day off, take their vacation, make their annual retreat and make the time for reading and exercise. In doing so, they model for their people the proper place for prayer and leisure in human living and fight against the temptation of workaholism, which affects many. A joyful priest remembers that Jesus is Lord and Savior.