Presbyterorum Ordinis

On the causes of fatigue and disillusionment in the priestly ministry

Giving oneself without "burnout"

Interview with Roberto Almada
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Roberto Almada, physician and psychotherapist, originally from Argentina and with broad international experience, has recently published a book entitled El cansancio de los buenos (The Fatigue of Good People), which has been very well received. The book deals with the danger of burnout and being worn out. He recognizes the danger of mental health breakdown in professions and jobs that involve much self-giving and service, such as healthcare, those in close contact with terminally ill patients, social workers, the security forces, teachers, etc. We talked with him about the life of priests, one of the categories that appear most at risk.

GEN’S: To begin with, can you tell us something about the topic you address in your book in light of your professional experience? Which phenomena are you referring to and how does it relate to the life of priests?

I confess that I speak and write on burnout with a certain reluctance. One could think that helping, being in solidarity, continuing to work with passion for the causes that we embrace in our lives, like the priestly ministry, is dangerous and harmful to our health and should therefore be avoided, entrenching us in a "preventive and healthy individualism."

However, burnout is already quite common and, as a society, we must assume responsibility for it. Psychology describes its three fundamental components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a perceived lack of self-fulfilment.

Emotional exhaustion: manifests with symptoms such as loss of energy, physical, and mental exhaustion and a feeling of having reached the limit, of not being able to make it anymore. The person feels reduced to nothing, unable to give anything of himself or herself. It is easy to relate these symptoms to depression: there is a lack of will and initiative, an inability to experience pleasure, apathy and a lack of motivation and/or enthusiasm.

Depersonalization: those who are "burnt-out", to protect themselves, unconsciously change their attitudes. Depersonalization is experiencing work as a routine. You can truly speak of alienation. Depersonalization presupposes a dual alienation: towards work and towards those who are helping them.

Lack of self-fulfilment: this is a feeling of being inadequate in one's profession. One experiences feelings of being incompetent and low self-esteem in relation to work and it is accompanied by thoughts of failure. This latter dimension is linked to the previous ones and the fact that the sufferer continues to work in a state of exhaustion. This is the most dangerous part of the syndrome, as people who are exhausted can only react in one of two ways to this frustration: give up or throw themselves frantically into work thinking that failure is the result of insufficient effort. The latter is a path taken by priests who tend to activism.

GEN’S: Could you explain, in an equally concise way, what can occur in people with a very demanding ecclesial vocation (men and women religious / consecrated lay people), and more specifically in priests who are often overloaded with pastoral activities?

Some religious institutions and dioceses have researched the level of depression of their members. These studies required courage in order to face this objectively and quantifiably, discovering issues that were difficult to resolve or for which resolution could be lengthy. I will limit myself to two examples: one in Santiago of Chile and the other in the Italian diocese of Padua.

In the first survey, out of 127 priests it was discovered that 45% of respondents had a significant probability of developing burnout. These responses showed a higher than average level of professional exhaustion than in other surveys conducted on policemen and doctors in Spain, or high school teachers and mental healthcare workers in the United States. Analyzing the composition of the group, we found that the increased risk of professional exhaustion occurred in priests 40-49 years old, more so among foreigners, more so among religious than diocesan priests, and among those who were full time parish priests.

In the other survey, we worked with 321 diocesan priests of Padua. These were the results: 124 priests exhibited burnout and needed help. It is a high percentage: more than a third of the studied population.

GEN’S: Which elements are most likely to cause burnout in priests?

Priests are often overworked. In the parishes, they find themselves responsible for both pastoral needs, and maintenance of the buildings, and they often lack the help needed. The parishes are under stress themselves and have to address the issues hastily and without planning thus preventing their members from exercising control over their own work.

Also, many pastoral activities take place in a context of poverty, in poor neighborhoods, in hospitals and schools, where many need help and their needs greatly exceed the resources of the priests and of the communities entrusted to them. The dioceses have a hard time satisfying all parties.

There is, on the other hand, a pastoral individualism that limits internal communication. As a result, young priests receive little support; there is no agreement on how to manage and organize the parish, decision-making is slow, etc. It is easy to understand why some institutions are on the verge of failure. Many young priests, just out of the seminary, complain that they have not received training in the necessary skills to deal with the type of activities that are now required of them.

We must also keep in mind the depth and breadth of the cultural changes that are affecting priests. In a part of the world that is rapidly becoming secularized, identity and meaning often become an enigma. This deep uncertainty is also the cause of wear and tear.

GEN’S: What fundamental advice, not only spiritual but also psychological, with appropriate treatments, would you give especially to diocesan priests, to "protect" them against the dangers of disenchantment and deterioration?

It is a matter of "networking." Individualism leads us to think of ourselves as isolated nodes (sometimes very tangled) or as a kind of one-way wire, never as a network. I think that, using an image that is exquisitely evangelical, we need to tidy up our networks.

First, we must look after the network that is our body, a meeting of biological, psychological, and spiritual realities. Then, we must integrate our body into the perception of ourselves. We are very aware of the work we do, of our prayer, but less of the stress in our body. Good nutrition and regular physical activity cannot be neglected. Without being obsessive, it is important to undergo medical checkups. There are too many overweight, sedentary priests, at risk of alcoholism, etc.

Then, we must nurture our social network. In my book, I speak of narcissism as a constant lurking temptation that insinuates itself in the life of consecrated people. From an individualistic mindset, communion is seen as an obstacle to our desires, even though it is good. In the end one pays the price of this lack of communion. We feel lonely, misunderstood by others, we experience repressed anger, hidden weaknesses, shame ... and so many other feelings that, with a healthy life of communion, would be channeled, clarified, and transformed into a source of energy for one's personal life and ministry. There is a need to tidy up one's social network in its multiple components: the presbytery, one's own family, the bishop, helpers and the parish community. Aristotle said that every friendship has its own justice. This means that every type of relationship has its own laws and characteristics that we understand through experience.

GEN’S: There are priests that dedicate themselves to an intense social and cultural ministry, in those "existential peripheries" that Pope Francis, with great force and conviction, has asked to keep particularly in mind. Could you tell us something about this aspect that is so important but also very delicate, since so many priests get "burnt out" in this kind of environment?

It is true that such a commitment, which is a clear demand of the Gospel and a fundamental aspect of the thinking, action, and structures promoted by Pope Francis, could intimidate us. Through my experience, I found that hard work and radical commitment do not necessarily lead to a greater risk of burnout. Rather it is the inability of finding meaning in work that presents a risk.

I know priests who give of themselves very generously, even in some of the most difficult areas. Yet, they not only achieve concrete and sometimes remarkable works, but they are integral and they do not lose peace. I have seen that their mental balance depends on the fact that they are trying to live every aspect of their lives according to the Gospel, moment by moment, in deep, effective communion with other priests and lay people. In this way they transform the inevitable difficulties of life into new opportunities to love. An intelligent trait that I found in many of them is the wisdom to discern God's plan on people, and be able to delegate and share responsibilities and tasks.

The most authentic Gospel inspired lifestyle usually coincides with the most humanizing aspects of life, therefore these are not just "spiritual" realities but features that contribute to the formation and fulfilment of the person of the priest.

GEN’S: These are very important points but the topic is too broad to be dealt with in a few lines. Your book is already published in several languages, are there plans for it to be published in Italian too?

Yes, its' Italian release is planned for next January, by the Turin publishing house Effatà.

by the editorial staff