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Clergy Sabbaticals

This paper is presented to the dioceses after reflection within the Commission and consultation with Diocesan Directors or Representatives at meetings over the past year. It is offered to dioceses as a aid to decide on the need for a written policy on Clergy Sabbaticals to determine what matters would be in such a policy.


Among the ancient Jews every seventh year was a Sabbatical Year when the fields were left untilled and debtors were released. In the Macquarie Dictionary Sabbatical Leave is explained as a year, term or other period of freedom from teaching granted to a teacher, as for travel or study. Sabbatical leave also applies to professions other than teaching.

Sabbaticals are common in the academic world and in various professions. They have been common for some time among religious priests, but not among diocesan clergy, except for a few in specialised jobs, academic or other. Several dioceses are presently discussing or have recently formulated a written policy on Sabbaticals for clergy.

About a third of the dioceses in Australia have no policies or structures for enabling their clergy to take sabbatical leave. Where there are policies, the understanding of sabbatical leave varies. Some dioceses do not use the word sabbatical or use sabbatical as well as study leave, recreational leave, renewal leave, long-service leave, etc.

For our purposes, Sabbatical Leave means a period of time usually 12 months, 6 months or 3 months, away from one's normal work and given over to continuing education, either personal or professional improvement, or both. It can be spent either overseas or in one's own country. It is different from long service leave or study leave.


When Pastores Dabo Vobis, the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation to the church of Pope John Paul II in 1992, briefly lists forms of continuing education or formation for clergy, it makes no explicit mention of Sabbaticals. Its brief list of "privileged" moments for ongoing formation seems to be directed to activities occurring in a diocese each year (80). What is said there, however, and what it says elsewhere about the nature, purpose and various areas of ongoing formation for clergy, supports the view that regular Sabbaticals at intervals throughout the life of a bishop, priest or deacon are a very concentrated and most effective form of these "privileged" times for ongoing formation. The 1993 Directory explicitly mentions Sabbatical Periods and the development around the world in recent years of carefully planned and integrated Sabbatical programs for clergy confirms this view.

Ongoing formation is not a repetition of the formation acquired in the seminary, simply reviewed or expanded with new and practical suggestions. Ongoing formation involves relatively new content and especially methods. (71)

Its aim is to promote a general and integral process of constant growth, deepening each of the aspects of formation - human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral - as well as ensuring their active and harmonious integration, based on pastoral charity and in reference to it. (71)

(1) Fuller development is first required in the human aspect of priestly formation.

Through his daily contact with people, his sharing in their daily lives, the priest needs to develop and sharpen his human sensitivity so as to understand more clearly their needs, respond to their demands, perceive their unvoiced questions and share the hopes and expectations, the joys and burdens which are part of life: Thus he will be able to meet and enter into dialogue with all people. (72)

(2) The formation of the priest in its spiritual dimension is required by the new Gospel life to which he has been called in a specific way by the Holy spirit, poured out in the sacrament of holy orders.

The priest's prayer life in particular needs to be continually "reformed." Experience teaches that in prayer one cannot live off past gains. (72)

(3) The intellectual dimension of formation likewise needs to be continually fostered through the priest's entire life, especially by a commitment to study and a serious and disciplined familiarity with modern culture.

In particular, continuing theological study is necessary if the priest is to faithfully carry out the ministry of the word, proclaiming it clearly and without ambiguity, distinguishing it from mere human opinions, no matter how renowned and widespread these might be. (72)

(4) The pastoral aspect of ongoing formation is well expressed by the words of the apostle Peter: "As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:10).

Indeed, pastoral charity not only coordinates and unifies the diverse aspects, but it makes them more specific, marking them out as aspects of the formation of the priest as such, that is, of the priest as a clear and living image, a minister of Jesus the good shepherd. (72)

The need for clergy to set aside time for their ongoing education is enshrined in other important church and papal documents: Vatican II's Decree on Priestly Formation, #22, and its Decree on Ministry and Life of Priests, #19, Code of Canon Law (1983), #279, and Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (1993), # 83.


At present we have in our office files written documents under various titles that were sent from 3 Archdioceses and 11 dioceses concerning Sabbaticals for Clergy, where Sabbaticals are offered to all clergy, explicitly or implicitly. Some of these documents are specifically diocesan policies on Sabbaticals, others treat Sabbaticals in a broader context of other matters.

Nine other dioceses stated they had no policy on Sabbaticals. Some dioceses do have customary practices that allow for Sabbaticals to clergy who request them.

The length of Sabbaticals and their frequency vary from diocese to diocese as do policies in financing.


The "how" of Sabbatical Leave is the responsibility of the bishop in each diocese. Issues that a policy needs to decide include the following:


1. Definition: the parameters of Sabbatical Leave, clarifying what is meant by integral continuing formation or education.

2. Basis in relevant church documents, especially Pastores Dabo Vobis.


3. Duration: 12 months, 6 months, 3 months?

4. Frequency: every 12 years, 6 years, 3 years?

5. Number on Sabbatical each year from the diocese?

6. Eligibility: how many years after ordination?

7. Financial arrangements: a diocesan responsibility? redirecting funds?

8. Supply arrangements during priest's absence: who staffs the parish? (Similar questions for bishop and deacon).


9. Method of application: when, to whom?

10. Procedure for deciding on type of Sabbatical: who shares responsibility?

11 Criteria: desires of the bishop, priest or deacon who is considering Sabbatical Leave, his personal gifts, future needs of the diocese.


12. Debriefing after Sabbatical: with whom?

13. Evaluation of the Sabbatical: with whom? what process?

14. Pastoral Planning by bishop, priest or deacon: with whom and what process?


The Commission sees Sabbaticals as an important element in the continuing education of clergy and supports written diocesan policies towards making them a regular feature in the life and ministry of each diocesan bishop, priest or deacon. In line with Vatican II and Pastores Dabo Vobis #76-77, the Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry considers ongoing education not as an optional extra but as an integral part of the entire ministry and life of a bishop, priest or deacon.

The Commission sees Sabbatical Leave, where a prolonged period of time is given over to one's continuing education in any or all its aspects - the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral, to be a vital and very effective way of continuing education.

Some might see the present shortage of priests as a reason against such a policy. The Commission, on the contrary, believes that as the shortage of priests bites harder, the flexibility and the quality of their service will need to be enriched, and that regular Sabbaticals are a most effective way of doing this.

John Reilly sj, Executive Officer, 8 February 1998.

  • Created: 24 August 2008
  • Modified: 25 April 2009