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Priests need help and comfort too

In the July edition of The Pope Video, Pope Francis emphasises the variety of activities priests carry out, and the tiredness that can result from many of those duties. “Priests, with their virtues and defects, work in many different areas”, he says, explaining that “Working on so many active fronts, they cannot remain inactive after a disappointment”. At such times, the Pope remarks “it’s good for them to remember that the people love their priests, need them, and trust in them”. The Holy Father concludes “Let us pray together that priests, who experience fatigue and loneliness in their pastoral work, may find help and comfort in their intimacy with the Lord and in their friendship with their brother priests”, referring to his prayer intention for July.

According to the Pontifical Yearbook, there are 415,656 priests in the world. Of these, 37.4% are in the Americas, followed by Europe with 31.6%, and then Asia with 15.1%, Africa with 13.4%, and lastly, Oceania with 2.5% of the world’s priests. Together, they must all carry out their pastoral work to reach the more than 1.2 billion Catholics who are spread across all the continents.

Fr Frédéric Fornos SJ, international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, noted that, “The mission that the Lord entrusts to his ‘pastors’ requires a total commitment to the service of others and of the mission, but it is very demanding, and without a profound friendship with the Lord, without prayer, and the support of a community, it’s impossible”. He explained that this is why the Pope “is inviting the faithful to accompany priests with their friendship”.

In his homily for the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, 2 April 2015, Pope Francis spoke directly to priests. He said that the Lord “knows that the task of anointing his faithful people is not easy, it is demanding”. He remarked that priests experience tiredness in many ways, “from the ordinary fatigue brought on by our daily apostolate to the weariness of sickness, death and even martyrdom”. The Pope mentioned how he thinks of priests and prays for them often as they work among the people of God entrusted to their care, many in lonely and dangerous places. “Our weariness, dear priests, is like incense which silently rises up to heaven, the Holy Father exclaimed adding that it “goes straight to the heart of the Father”. Francis assured priests also “that the Blessed Virgin Mary is well aware of this tiredness and she brings it straight to the Lord”. As our Mother, he said, “she knows when her children are weary, and this is her greatest concern”.

According to the Pope, a key to fruitful priestly ministry is expressed in how priests rest and in how they look at the way the Lord deals with their weariness. The Pope explained “Our weariness is precious in the eyes of Jesus who embraces us and lifts us up”. He said that whenever a priest feels very tired, “yet is able to bow down in adoration and say ‘Enough for today Lord’, and entrust himself to the Father”, he will be renewed. He cited how difficult it is for priests to learn how to rest, explaining that this says much about trust and the ability of priests to realise that they too are sheep, and that they need the help of the Shepherd.

The Holy Father remarked that there is a “good and healthy tiredness…the exhaustion of the priest who wears the smell of the sheep… but also smiles the smile of a father rejoicing in his children or grandchildren”. He underlined the importance of priests feeling “joyful, fulfilled, free of fear and guilt, and impelled to go out even to the ends of the earth”, remarking that “we cannot be shepherds who are glum, plaintive or, even worse, bored”, as Jesus “is shepherding the flock in our midst”. He concluded by asking priests to“ask for the grace to learn how to be weary, but weary in the best of ways!”.

Writing on the Pope’s Intention in the July issue of Sacred Heart Messenger, the publication of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer) in Ireland, Fr Vincent Sherlock says that “there is no point in being in a rush if you want to spend time with, and get to know, The Lord”. He refers to the passage in Saint John’s Gospel (John 1:35-42) where Jesus was approached by two of his disciples and asked ‘Where do you live’. The response of Jesus ‘Come and See’ was “immediate and welcoming”, he says, adding that the disciples remained with Jesus for the rest of the day.

Fr Vincent says that getting to know Jesus “can take the rest of the day, if not the rest of our lives”, but it begins with the question ‘Where do you live?’ and continues through a willingness to ‘come and see’. He explains that ‘Where do you live’ is the “tested and proven” starting phrase for all who in faith desiring to know more about the Lord; and the answer of Jesus ‘Come and See’, remains unchanged, he says.

According to Fr Vincent it is likely that Jesus brought the disciples “to places where he felt welcome – maybe Martha, Mary, and Lazarus’ house”. He also suggests that Jesus would have taken the disciples to “watch fishermen at work, patiently casting out nets and waiting for a catch” and to a mountaintop which “would reassure them that there’s a view to be seen and a highpoint to be reached but not without effort and a deeply rooted desire for vision and a conviction that there’s much to be seen and to be grateful for”. The next day when the disciples met their friends they exclaimed ‘We have found the Messiah’ (John 1:41), and Nathanael said to Philip ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46).

Fr Vincent remarks that the only possible answer was “the time spent, words spoken and the friendship shared: ‘Come and see’”. Friendship among priests is portrayed by “the encouraging words from one friend to another and the good humoured banter” he says, emphasising the importance of encounter among priests in these more pressed times “when priests are alone in the parish or maybe a group of parishes”. In this context he says “it’s more crucial than ever” that priests, even in small groups of two and three, “seek out one another and spend the rest of the day in friendship, in prayer”.

Fr Bernard Cotter, reflects on the Pope’s Prayer Intention for July in Living Prayer, a booklet produced by Messenger Publications containing reflections on the Pope’s monthly intentions. He says that priests are “human people, who get tired, feel dejected, even at times get depressed”. According to Fr Bernard “sometimes people can be too demanding”, while at other times “priests wonder if they are doing any good”. He remarks that priests “need to be allowed and encouraged to take time off”, and by doing so they “imitate their Lord”, explaining that “even Jesus had to get away from time to time, to spend time with his Father and renew his energy”.

Fr Bernard says that “intimacy with the Lord is a power priests can draw on, but he highlights how the demands of pastoral work can sometimes make prayer difficult as ”it’s hard for a priest to take time for prayer, without the risk of being disturbed”. He explains that “spending time with brother priests helps to restore the spirit”, adding that “it’s hard to be sure of this precious time apart: the joys and sorrows of people intrude unexpectedly”. Fr Bernard concludes with a request to “pray for priests who work hard, that their strength will constantly be replenished by the Lord who understood what it is to be tired”.