Letter to Robinson K. Russo concluded, finally, I hope.
Last week I shared a little bit about appropriate relationships. They are tough for a priest. Not many people can see the man and the priest at the same time. Avoid people who make a great fuss over you and not over the priesthood. It is very difficult to take one’s ordination as seriously as it should be taken, without taking one’s self too seriously. We priests are taken from among men as the letter to the Hebrews says. We are just men, yet the work we do, our very presence makes the demons tremble. You’ll find this out if you ever have anything to do with exorcisms. The devil really doesn’t like priests. Neither does the modern world. Just coincidence? Remember, Jesus promised we would be hated. If everybody likes you, you’re probably not doing your job, provided they dislike you for the challenge that you present, and not simply because you are a jerk.
I say this, from experience. Often enough I have been a jerk. We are very unworthy people called to a super human, no, a supernatural life. Among parishioners you will find the rare person who can love the man and his faults while at the same time honoring the grace of his ordination. I say all this because as a parish priest you are going to need real friends, not just groupies. The groupies, when they realize that you are just a man tend to drop you like a bad habit.
There are people however who you don’t have to impress. They are impressed enough by the holiness of your calling. I cannot count the times people have said to me, “Father just come over and relax. Our home is yours.” Sounds good, but do they mean I can come over and get a beer from the fridge and sit in in front of the TV in my boxer shorts? It most certainly does not. Just try it and they will be on the phone to the chancery office and the Department of Children and Family Services. There are however some people who mean it. I am thinking of a family in the parish whose house I can visit in my sweat suit on the way home from the gym. (Still boxers would be imprudent.) They respect me and yet are happy to serve me lunch in the kitchen. There is another family to whom I have become very close, and when I realized that I would know these folks better than most, I said that I would only visit if I didn’t have to eat. They said fine and have always stuck to the agreement, though I wish they weren’t such good cooks. It is amazing how people like to force food on you. “But Father, you have to have some.” To which I say, “No, I don’t,” and if they have so much of their self-image wrapped up in whether I like their food, this is probably going to be a toxic relationship. I like food. And there are a lot of really good cooks out there.
When I was in seminary I jogged three miles a day and was the dead lift champion of the college. I have gained 75 pounds since my ordination. I am a cautionary tale. Be honest with people right from the beginning. “If you force me to eat when I don’t want to, I don’t think I can keep coming over.” Honesty is the best policy at the beginning and all the way through any relationship. Don’t worry that you will hurt their feelings. It is not your job to make them feel good. It is your job to be a vehicle for the Lord in their lives, and maybe the kindest thing one can do is help manipulative people realize they are being manipulative when they think they are being kind.
Speaking of exercise, it is extremely important, and I don’t mean sports. We old men think we are into sports if we watch the game and eat a lot of nachos. This is not exercise. Get a regular exercise program and stick to it. Prayer and exercise are high priorities in the life of the priest. You’ve got to be healthy. You don’t have a wife to nag you. You must nag yourself.
Get a good doctor even at your age, one who knows something about nutrition. I have a great one. One of the first things he did was check me for vitamin deficiencies. Amazing! A doctor more concerned about health than illness! Regular prayer, regular exercise, regular social life with real friends and family, start these habits the day of your ordination, well maybe the day after, or still better way before.
Why? Back to my overriding complaint. The parish priesthood and the diocesan priesthood are not the same thing anymore. And this brings up money. A diocesan priest does not take a vow of poverty. He is responsible for his own clothing, vehicle, entertainment, vacations and out of pocket medical cost. We do have good insurance in this diocese. I pay taxes, lots of taxes. Technically I am self-employed as far as social security goes and I pay quarterly. It’s when we turn seventy that things get interesting. Just at the time when health is declining and you need people who you trust and with whom you have a history, they will throw a swell party, give a nice gift, usually monetary, a firm handclasp and then they will show you the door.
In times past, as you know, the pastor was usually carried out of the rectory feet first when he died. The parish was his home, the parishioners his family and children. For religious orders, who do take a vow of poverty, there family is their order, and though they have no money of their own, at least in theory, they are taken care of by the brothers or sisters of their order. We diocesan priests were exempt from the social security tax. In the days of Cardinal Bernardin, we were strongly encouraged to waive that exemption, so that we could receive social security and Medicare. The diocese didn’t think it would be able to support all those sick old priests, what with medical costs spiraling. We are responsible as diocesan priests for our own retirement. The diocese provides us with a pension of (I think) $1,200 a month, $600 if we live in a religious facility or rectory. That and social security are what we have to live on in old age if we have not planned well.
Save money. Get a good stock portfolio. Find a good accountant and a good financial advisor. And do not forget your responsibility of charity. Set aside an appropriate amount on a regular basis to give to charity. Make some of that charity personal. By this I mean give to people you know who are down on their luck or in need of a little help. How can you ask your parishioners for money, which you will do a lot, if you are not generous yourself? All this talk of money may sound crass, but it is realistic. The diocesan priesthood is very realistic. We build buildings, manage maintenance, deal with contractors, plumbers, zoning boards and lots of lawyers. When you retire, if in your days retirement is possible, those may be the best years of your priesthood. Time for prayer, time for study and you don’t have to worry about the endless meetings, the fund raising, the maintenance etc. etc. If you have maintained your independence and your health, and above all your faith, you can still be truly useful to the Lord and the Church.
This may sound daunting. I don’t mean it to be. I think you young guys are so much better than we old guys were at your age. There aren’t many perks to the business of religion any more, but still you hear something calling in your soul. Remember, it isn’t about the fund-raisers and the building campaigns and all the other things that really are important and will inevitably be part of your service to the Lord, but it easy to forget that it is primarily about Jesus, our Lord. Some people will see you as a plaster saint. Others will see you as the very devil. All the weirdness of a very strange way of life is worth it. You get to hold God in your hands. You get to give God to the world. I have loved being a priest in these difficult times and cannot conceive of having lived another life. That other life that I turned my back on, might have been easier, but this one, the call to the altar, has been amazing.
You and your schoolmates are in my prayers.
The Rev. Know-it-all
PS I really am done. Next week something more pleasant and not quite so personal. And remember to take what I say with a grain of salt. This has been my experience and it may not be everyone else’s.