Priests and Midlife (Martin Ashe)

POSITION PAPER
prepared by Fr Martin Ashe

All priests have experienced changes both in their personal and priestly ministry over the years. This fact of change will continue to be with us. As one author put it "Destabilising change is the status quo". It matters little whether we are at the beginning, middle or moving towards retirement. Both external factors and internal factors contribute to the making of change. The categories of change are myriad and could include for example, organisational changes in a diocese affecting priests, personal changes, loss of relationships, and inner changes at a psychological and spiritual level.

What needs to be addressed in a special way during times of change is not so much the planning and implementing of the new change - this aspect is always addressed in some reasonable way, but rather the psychological process people go through in coming to terms with their new situation. Change is situational and external but transition is internal involving feelings and emotions.

There is a real tendency to see change as a matter of moving from A to B. "We have made some important changes in the parish', or 'I've taken up a new appointment in the diocese", or "I now spend a little more time reading and reflecting'. An important element to be dealt with is to ask the question how 1 am coping with the change? How does the change personally affect the group or me? Some changes will affect us more than others. The important fact to remember is that for any changes to be a success, the TRANSITION period will need to be negotiated effectively.

This is shown in the example of a parish priest immersing himself into the life of a particular parish community. He builds a relationship with members of this community and develops a bonding with particular individuals and groups. He shares in their joys and hopes, their sorrows and disappointments. He has grown used to doing things in a particular way. For example, the First Communion program is organised differently in this parish, and they also have a very effective 'Caring group'. With all its challenges including the workload, it has been a very positive experience for him. After 10 years the priest takes on a new parish appointment. Within a month he is at his new parish and looking forward to his new challenge. He is looking forward to getting to know the members of his new community. In his head at least, he is also aware that there are many aspects to this parish which are very different to the previous appointment. The change from Parish A to Parish B on the outside is going very well, but emotionally both for himself and for the people there are a variety of feelings arising. On the one hand while he is happy to meet with new parishioners, he is also feeling a little lost missing some of the familiar faces he had grown used to over ten years. The way things are done here are different. The Communion program, for example, is completely different and while he has heard that there is a very effective St Vincent de Paul group, there is no 'Care Group' and he finds himself having to respond to calls that in the previous parish would be handled by the Care group. What is happening within the priest whether he wishes it or not is the fact that he is going through a transition time. He has already made the external change from Parish A to Parish B, but he has yet to negotiate this new situation at a deeper level and this takes time. While this transition phase has to be faced by everyone, it is becomes more important as we go on in years.

Therefore a most important aspect of any change process is what happens at a psychological and spiritual level. In other words it is not a simple matter of going from Parish A to Parish B. Unless this middle aspect or transitional period is handled well for priests or groups of priests then it is likely that the new changed situation will not be handled well. In relation to mid-life Jung's words are helpful. He comments: "we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life's morning; what was great in the morning will be little in the evening; what in the morning was true, in the evening will have become a lie". In other words whether we like it or not we are in transition and we need to take hold of it. William Bridges, in his best selling book 'Transitions", outlines three elements involved - Endings, Neutral Zone and New beginnings.

ENDINGS

Before there can be a new beginning there needs to be an ending and it needs to be recognised as such and dealt with especially if it is a significant event or situation. Whenever change takes place it inevitably leads to a feeling of loss. This sense of loss can be accompanied by feelings of anger, depression, sadness etc. It can also be reflected by a sense of apathy and numbness. Even a positive change such as a priest looking forward to his new appointment is accompanied with a sense of loss in leaving a community, which one had grown to respect and love. Part of our priestly identity is related to the way we lead and serve the community. Our role as priest with this community has had a part to play in shaping whom we are as priests.

Changes cause transitions, which cause losses and it is the losses for the most part, not necessarily the changes in themselves, that people react to. Priests need to be given the opportunity to name what they are going to lose in the changes that they are experiencing. There is a need to ask ourselves; what do we need to let go of. A certain image of priesthood? The boundless energy of my youth? It is time to articulate something of their grief at this particular juncture of their lives. For some change seems like as if everything will now be different and nothing will remain the same. There is a need to articulate what is ending and what continues to be an important part of who we are as priest, parish, and diocese. Finally there is a need in the transition process to celebrate some of the more important endings. It is a way of treating the past with respect. There is a need to ritualise the ending, to honour our past and what we have accomplished before going forward to the new.

A parish celebration was held for a priest's 30th anniversary of priesthood. He had been its pastor for about five years. It had been a more difficult appointment than he thought it might be. In contrast to his previous appointment, the majority of the parish was made up of younger families and the numbers at Mass kept dropping off in recent years, and this seemed to be happening even before he came. He felt that in some way his particular style was part of this. He was constantly heard berating himself and being negative about the way he was handling the parish. In many ways this image he had of himself was affecting his ministry. During the barbecue one of the members of the parish council gave a speech highlighting how much their pastor meant to them especially his way of organising aspects of parish life.

What struck the priest was how different others perceived him and his presence among them. Indeed he felt he was being challenged to let go of these negative self-images that seemed to be crippling his way of dealing with life in the parish and its own changing situation. Unless he began to do this, he would not be able to deal effectively in an objective manner with the challenges which he now faced.

NEUTRAL ZONE

The neutral zone is the uneasy part of the transition period which needs to be negotiated and yet in the end it can be the most fruitful. Initially the experience is one of disorientation, confusion, uncertainty, feeling empty; the familiar is no longer with us. The temptation for many people is to react by wanting to rid ourselves quickly of these feelings and seeking to run away from them. It appears to be an unproductive period in our lives at least on the outside but if we are sensitive to our inner self, much is happening inside us as we come in touch with past failures or the seeming worthlessness of life. Nothing feels solid anymore. It is the biblical experience of the wilderness and God no longer seems close by. Yet there is a need to surrender to what is happening. There is a need to surrender to the emptiness and to give up trying to escape it. The old is dying and it takes time for the new to emerge.

Some priests will say that when they move to a new parish it takes them a year or two before they begin to do anything significant. They observe this as the external situation and often feel guilty that they appear to be so unproductive at this period in their lives. Yet inside themselves they are reflecting and seeking to grapple with who they are in this new situation. The same is true of the priest's midlife experience. While he wants to get going and respond to the variety of parish needs, he is experiencing apathy or loss of interest in work. If his self-worth is attached to his being productive it can be more painful. Much of his emotional and psychic energy is focused inside him as he re-appraises his life and searches for new meaning and purpose.

One priest found himself getting tired, running out of steam, and getting more colds and flu than he normally would. He used always be reasonably energetic and involved in life but now he could sense that he was becoming quite frustrated with people, even cynical about others priests and people that he worked with. He had lost that spring in his step. He blamed it all on external factors like parish pressures and particular policies coming out of head office at the diocesan centre. At some parish meetings he would let some of this out without even realising it. He would get angry even more than he normally would. He was finding it hard even to pray with any regularity or feeling. What made him really sit up and think was when his doctor said at a particular point "What is making you so run down this last year?' The priest had no real answer but he knew he was going through something. At the doctor's suggestion he began to spend a little more time, one afternoon a week, being alone with himself reading and reflecting on his own situation and the feelings that were part of this. He wasn't used to doing this as it seemed as if he was 'doing nothing' and wasting his time, but another part of him said that he has to be easy on himself. Eventually these few hours even became a prayerful time for him and became part of his weekly routine.

At times such as these priests may even need to share what is happening inside them. Some of these feelings may be difficult to share. A priest who felt he could handle being celibate now finds himself in need of deeper intimacy in his life and yet wants to remain faithful to his priestly commitment. Spiritual direction or counselling may be of value at this time. For others it may be gathering in groups and sharing the "wilderness experience". It is an opportunity to know that others are with them in this confusing and painful transition time. It can enable them to understand what is happening as they seek a new perspective on life. Even doing this within the context of prayer using the biblical story of the 'Exodus', can give us a deeper appreciation that God is with us in our particular struggle at this time.

NEW BEGINNINGS

As well as being a painful experience, the wilderness or neutral zone can be an opportunity for new learning to take place. It is a dynamic and creative place. The ideals and aspirations of earlier life are being renegotiated and a new fresh vision is emerging for oneself and others. New patterns of behaviour, of personal disciplines, new ways of doing things, new pastoral initiatives are tried out. The priest in mid-life is now acquiring a firmer sense of identity as he begins to experience the generative side of himself again. However, beginnings can feel scary as we leave the old behind and risk being the new person or attempting the new way of doing things. There is a need for encouragement from our brother priests and parish communities as we attempt those faltering steps in realising a new vision of oneself or the parish. Patience with oneself and others are essential at this time.

For example, one priest began to focus his energies on a couple of areas of pastoral ministry and in particular the Parish Sacramental program. While he used to be involved in many areas, he became less impulsive about becoming active in everything as if his sense of worth and value as a person depended on it. He began to discover a new energy both in his work and in the way he related to others. He was beginning to sense a lot more self-acceptance and peace. He even began to discover the importance of making time for relationships in his life that, in the past, were not high priorities. He was making more of a commitment now to these.

In order to cope with and creatively work through the changes which happen to us in life, including mid-life, acknowledging the need to enter the transition period will be essential to our growth and development and seeking fullness of life.

Martin Ashe, 19 April 2000

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Transitions, Making sense of Life's Changes by William Bridges
  • Noon to Nightfall - A journey through mid-life and ageing by Mary D'Apice
  • Created: 24 August 2008
  • Modified: 23 April 2009