Why being a priest makes me happy

By Father Jim Kent, O.F.M. Conv. People are most satisfied when they are doing something for someone else. To serve others in the name of Jesus Christ is an experience of deep contentment.

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Priesthood is a path to happiness because it so often brings me into contact with God’s grace. In prayer, through my community life, and especially when administering the sacraments, I am constantly surprised by this grace, whether I am the primary or even the secondary beneficiary.

When I worked in a parish I would bring Holy Communion to shut-ins. I always enjoyed visiting with Edna, an 83-year-old who had few family members in the area and who was always so grateful for these calls.

During one visit she told me of her concern about someone who was about to move in next door. “They say he’s blind and mute,” she said. “He can’t see and he can’t talk. What am I supposed to do? And he’s in a wheelchair, too.”

The next month when I asked Edna about her new neighbor, she lit up. “I’ve got to tell you what happened. As I was leaving my apartment one day I could see his feet sticking out from the doorway like he usually did, sitting there in his wheelchair. Usually I would just tip-toe by, but I just couldn’t do that anymore. So, I took a leap of faith. When I came by him I reached out and gently touched him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hi, I’m Edna.’ And he smiled at me.

“The next day he was sitting in the rec room all by himself. I said, ‘It’s Edna again.’ He had this machine and he typed a reply and out came the response on a strip of paper, which said, ‘Hi, I’m Bob.’ And we started talking up a storm.”

With Edna I was aware of the flow—and overflow—of God’s grace. Her moment of revelation immediately became mine and I have since shared her story with others. Her “leap of faith” is all part of the Good News that crosses my path because of my role as a priest.

Being there for others
Some of these occasions of grace are joyous and others come in moments of sadness or tragedy. I was once called to the hospital by a family I knew because a 19-year-old relative was gravely ill. As the days went on, the family set up a shrine of small statues and vigil candles in one of the lounges. Over the next week many prayers and devotions were prayed hoping for a miracle, but the miracle we wanted never came and the college sophomore passed away.

WHAT MAKES FOR A HAPPY PRIEST

Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti’s 2011 book Why Priests Are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests identifies 14 elements that together point to a happy priest. Among them:
  • A sense of inner peace
  • A relationship with God
  • Having a strong spiritual life that includes regular spiritual practices, such as private prayer, Liturgy of the Hours, Marian devotion, spiritual reading, and regular reception of the sacrament of Reconcilation
  • Good relationships with laity, fellow clergy, and superiors, as well as religious obedience in relation to his bishop
  • Accepting celibacy as a lifestyle to which God has called him
  • Having close personal friends.
Together these elements most often lead to enduring happiness.
I assisted at the funeral and had a “home Mass” for the family 30 days after her death, as was their custom. Afterwards the mother said, “Thank you for the grace you’ve been to me and my family. It means more than I can ever say.” Her comment reminded me that, as a priest, I was there not so much for myself but as a representative of Jesus Christ and in that served as a conduit for God’s blessings. We are often happiest when we serve others, but to serve in the name of Jesus Christ adds a depth of fulfillment and happiness that’s hard to describe.

Priesthood is a way of life that, ultimately, brings deep joy and fulfillment because of that underlying reality. To make available the sacraments to people on a daily basis, to bring people healing and hope in difficult moments, to share the excitement of baptisms and weddings, to give Christian burial to the deceased and comfort those who mourn, to provide reconciliation and absolution, and to preach the Word of God and offer the Body and Blood of Christ to others has put and keeps me on a path rich in satisfaction and blessings.

Community to the rescue
Of course priesthood is also quite challenging. Not everyone is receptive to the sacraments or to my presence as a priest. Some are so hurt from current or past experiences that it’s hard for them to accept anything from the clergy. Priesthood is also a life that has no “clock.” As a priest I am on call all the time, at least on one level. And depending on their particular ministry, priests often face the challenges of administrative duties, financial realities, and legal and personnel matters, all of which require attention and care.

At times it can be overwhelming. There have been Saturdays when I’ve had daily Mass, a funeral, a wedding, confessions, and the vigil Mass for Sunday. Those days are rare, but juggling people who are in various emotional states and needs is not unusual. The greatest danger for a priest is often taking on too many things. It’s difficult as a minister to have to say “no” to things, but prioritizing and setting limits is essential for spiritual, mental, and physical health.

How does a priest keep the right balance? For me the key has been rooted in my Franciscan life. That means I live with other Franciscan friars. Some are in full-time ministry and others are less active or retired. Living with other priests and brothers keeps me grounded through our daily prayer, meals, and fraternity. It makes me see beyond my own work and into a larger world, and it allows me to share my joys and struggles with those going through similar things or who did so for decades. (I live with a 95-year-old who spent 65 years in pastoral ministry and is a living example of the rewards of priesthood and religious life; he is also the source of great wisdom.) The friars with whom I live also make sure I take time off, remain vigilant in prayer, and keep my sense of humor.

It’s a wonderful life
It is not well known but for many years surveys have shown priests to be some of the happiest professionals in America (see sidebar above). Being a happy and joyful priest is first and foremost rooted in the call itself. I don’t think anyone can find lasting happiness unless he or she is living a call that is truly for them, and I don’t believe God calls someone to a life contrary to their gifts and desires. Of course that puts all the more emphasis on discerning a call to make sure it is the right call for that person.

That should be explored in all phases of discernment: the initial step of considering a call, when applying to a religious congregation, and throughout the various stages of formation itself. How will you know? One “yes” will lead to other yeses along the way and will then be affirmed by peers and by those responsible for formation alike. You’ll know, as best as one can.

I believe we are happiest when we do something for someone else. It’s a profound happiness that can never be experienced when we merely do something for ourselves. To be of service to God as a priest involves sacrifice, as does any vocation, but it is a sacrifice that witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There’s no guarantee to a life of happiness, but for those called to it following such a path is as close as it gets.

Father Jim Kent, O.F.M. Conv.Father Jim Kent, O.F.M. Conv. is a Conventual Franciscan who served many years in vocation ministry. He is currently the minister provincial for the Province of Our Lady of Consolation.



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