Making the Most of a Sacred Time
Tips to avoiding burnout as we journey through Lent
The holy season of Lent is a dedicated time for personal conversion through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This sacred time of repentance calls us to turn away from sin and grow more deeply in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
How inspiring it is for us priests to witness the uptick in participation by the faithful. During this time, there are typically more people at holy Mass and Eucharistic adoration, the confession lines appear longer, adult religious education programs and Bible studies seem to flourish, and acts of penance and sacrifice abound. And let’s not forget the weekly fish fries, which bring parishioners together, followed by the Stations of the Cross.
During all these spiritual activities, there is a sense in which we are journeying together. A special fervor and strength come from knowing that we are fellow pilgrims on this journey through the desert. We feed off one another’s faithful zeal.
But for so many of us priests, what is meant to be a spiritually rich time can yield stress, fatigue and even burnout. The prayerful quiet of the season can suddenly turn into a treadmill of endless activity moving from one event to the next. Days off can get pushed aside due to the demands of the season. Daily exercise becomes an endangered species of sorts. Worst of all, because of the rigors of this time, personal prayer can fall onto the back burner to the extent that we can lose ourselves.
What can a priest do to avoid this devastating pitfall? What steps can he put into place to ensure that he does not unravel or become burned-out during this sacred time?
The first thing the Lenten priest must do is live in the moment. One of the temptations of this time is to allow one’s mind to race and run away from the present moment. While there is always the need for effective leaders to plan and look ahead, we can never sacrifice the moment that is always pregnant with grace. When we catch ourselves outside of the moment, perhaps we need to pause and pray an Our Father. There is a petition in this age-old prayer that can ground us — namely, “Give us this day.” It sounds trite, but it is so true: We need to live one day at a time. God will always give us what we need.
The second thing the Lenten priest must do is seek to sanctify every moment. As priests, we typically sanctify our day through holy Mass and the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours. Lent, however, affords an opportunity to plunge deeper into this realm by bringing prayer to every moment. There are silent mantras we can utter repeatedly throughout the day to embrace holiness. For example: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”; “Jesus, I trust in you”; “Father, not my will but your will be done”; “Jesus, I offer my sufferings to you.” There is one phrase my parents taught us children that is perfect for this time — namely, “Passion of Christ, strengthen me.” This prayer could also be offered for someone else, too.
The final thing the Lenten priest must do is to continue walking the path of conversion with others and oneself. Of course, we walk this path as confessors and penitents ourselves. Preparedness and a sense of intentionality can make such a difference in the work of conversion.
In his apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera (“Mercy and Misery”), Pope Francis issues an invitation to all priests. He writes: “I invite priests once more to prepare carefully for the ministry of confession, which is a true priestly mission. I thank all of you from the heart for your ministry, and I ask you to be welcoming to all, witnesses of fatherly tenderness whatever the gravity of the sin involved, attentive in helping penitents to reflect on the wrong they have done, clear in presenting moral principles, willing to walk patiently beside the faithful on their penitential journey, farsighted in discerning individual cases, and generous in dispensing God’s forgiveness” (No. 10).
This message is just as appropriate outside of the confessional when interacting with others, not to mention for ourselves. I pray that during this Lenten season we will live in the moment, sanctify each moment and continue the work of conversion with others and ourselves. Happy Lent!
BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.