Presbyterorum Ordinis

Elements which form part of a healthy lifestyle

Helping the priestly mission to emerge:
normality and humanity

interview with Filippo Di Natale
The subject of this interview has a degree in psychology and a masters degree in researching how to help people with schizophrenia according to the cognitive-behavioral school. For 10 years Filippo Dinatale has been part of a team working for the rehabilitation of autistic children in Pescara. He is a technical consultant at the ecclesiastical Tribunal of Palermo. He is part of a school in Madrid with professors Richard Cohen and Carlson who study how to best accompany people with AMS (difficulties related to sexual identity). He teaches at the school of formation for focolarini in Loppiano and is an international training course consultant.

GEN’S: As a psychologist, you have worked a lot with consecrated people. Nowadays, there is an urgent need to look after the human maturity of priests. From your perspective, which aspects would you underline most?

After years of working in different Italian cities, first with disabled children and their parents, then with people trying to find a new equilibrium or to recover some balance, priests, religious, seminarians and seminary teachers started to come to my surgery. I was also asked to assist a monastery of nuns. This new development surprised me as I thought people in religious or priestly life went their own way without asking anyone for help. It was important for me to realize that human problems, the sufferings caused by a poor self-management, traumas relating to childhood and adolescence traumas and difficult relationships are part of everyone’s life. They are generated and taken on (for better or for worse) by all types of people irrespective of their calling in life.

There is a new general awareness of the need to take care of one's HUMANITY (written in capital letters not to be confused with the spiritual or other dimensions of life). This is true also for consecrated people. I must stress that having a sense of NORMALITY in one's life, journeying side by side with everyone, is very important.

GEN’S: Every person's life includes stages of both growth and crisis. Looking at the life of priests, what are the most critical moments and how should one live through them constructively so that they become opportunities for greater maturity?

Some time ago, several scholars suggested dividing the human lifespan into four great stages: from age 0 to 20, from 20 to 40, from 40 to 60 and from 60 onwards.
In the first 20 years, one starts facing life, learning so many things, establishing relationships, almost always with great enthusiasm and curiosity.
In the second period, from age 20 to 40 one finds fulfilment, putting down rather deep roots through studies and professional life among other things; it is the time to make big life choices (usually one gets married, has children). Some make choices of a spiritual nature that might involve living in a religious community, in a seminary, in a parish ...
Between the age of 40 to 60 years old, a lot is going on, many things happen in a person's life and often there are big crises, great interior suffering; one feels uncomfortable, ill at ease, even frustrated. There is a sense of loss and lack of self-fulfilment. Because of these feelings, people aged 40+, can become critical, often bitter toward everything and everyone, even cynical. It is this midlife crisis, that the great thinkers of all times - just think of a teacher and mystic like Tauler - suggest that we look at an entrance into a new life. This life is purely interior regardless of one’s vocational choices, be it as a layperson or religious. It is as if the first 40 years of openness towards life, towards the exterior, now lead us to the discovery of the interior life: a world which is much greater than the outside world. The discovery of ourselves means that we learn to see the world made up of people, relationships and things with new eyes, new interest and in time, I would say with a new type of enthusiasm (a softer enthusiasm).

GEN’S: Can you say something more about midlife crisis, especially in terms of affective life and sexuality?

We can say that at the midlife stage, everything converges, in terms of our affective and sexual life. At that time of our life we are quite fragile and our thoughts and desires go back to the past, to our childhood and youth. Often there is nostalgia for what we left: a girlfriend, for example, and we would like to go back and see her again ... and if we did not have a girlfriend we would like to have one now ... And falling in love at a mature age is a very strong experience, even for people who have chosen not to marry due to their religious calling! There is no need to be afraid of this kind of affective whirlwind. These things happen to everyone and if it does not happen (either in our youth or adulthood) we must ask ourselves if we had a healthy development or if we skipped or failed to value all stages of life. I am thinking of that stage in our youth when you pass from a self-centered and narcissistic vision of self to the discovery and attraction of the opposite sex.
One secret to address these issues is to open up with friends and if needed, to get professional help without any need to feel ashamed.

GEN’S: Typically, Roman Catholics do not know that there are married priests in the Catholic Church of Eastern Rite. Yet, in his recent book entitled ‘Celibate Priests and Married Priests’ the Catholic priest and moral theologian Basil Petrà explained, that both are “true charisms of the Catholic Church." Recently you were invited to give your contribution, as a psychologist, at a meeting of the Eastern Rite Catholic married priests, close to the spirituality of the Focolare Movement. Could you share with us what it meant for you to be with them?

First of all the meeting was held at Mariapolis Faro, near Križevci, in Croatia. The beautiful Byzantine church with its Icons immediately made me aware of what I was experiencing: an encounter between something ancient and eastern and the modernity expressed by the participants.
Aware that being with married priests was new to me, I sought the help of several of my friends around the world, including a bishop, some priests, and others. I simply asked what my attitude towards them should be and I got a variety of beautiful and also profound answers. I was reassured and enriched by their responses, and felt encouraged to be ‘straight forward’ and open. When I met them, I knew straightaway that these were "normal" people that there was something exceptional about them. They had learned throughout their lives, to broaden their horizons so as to be able to lead the life of a priest with all that this entails: a parish, sacraments, a close relationship - as it should be - with their bishop and at the same time lead a married life with a wife, children, relatives, school, society, etc.
They reminded me, notwithstanding the obvious differences, of some married focolarini friends of mine who also had to broaden their horizons so as to lead a healthy family life with a wife and children, and profession and at the same time committing themselves fully within the Focolare community which requires striving for "holiness".

GEN’S: We live in a time of huge transition and this poses particular challenges for those in pastoral ministry. How to balance fidelity to one's vocation and Christian identity with openness to the signs of the times and to dialogue?

Society changes, evolves in its thoughts and habits and often we find ourselves out of place because we cannot understand it. We feel like guests in a distant land, strangers in a world that does not speak our language: we experience discomfort, alienation, the inability to communicate. It is not just a difficulty in understanding each other across generations, but it is also difficult to enter the many ‘worlds’ we encounter in and around the people we meet.
Talking to a priest friend of mine we concluded that a good catechetical-moral or psycho-pedagogic formation is not always enough to enter a dialogue with for example, children and young people. They need to know that we are not Martians, from another world, or that we do not speak in an angelic way only about the things of the OTHER WORLD! Another priest, from a rather secularized region shared that it needs courage to enter into any dialogue with some people if not everyone. It needs courage to be open, setting aside cultural bias so as to discover beautiful and valuable things everywhere, even where gospel truths cannot be found at first sight, but values, human wisdom, healthy aspirations and the will to live.
All this frightens us and makes us feel small, inadequate and makes us feel that we have very little time. The discomfort is real and everyone experiences it. But those who - also because of their vocation – wish to offer some contribution to society, must make some time for formation and re-formation each day. This can certainly be done through specific courses and studies but also being "smart," asking for example friends and acquaintances, experts in their field, for example in the arts or other areas, to "share" some precious pearl, some new discovery in their field.

GEN’S: Looking at the statistics, there is a great number of older priests. What are the challenges for those who have given body and soul to a community and now, at this stage in their life, no longer feel that they are protagonists? Any useful advice?

Here is the fourth age group, from 60 on. In family life, it is the age of the grandparents, who withdraw from work and retire. But for priests and religious, tasks and responsibilities often grow with advancing age. This is right because of the experience they have gained over the years. However we must remember that at that age one cannot offer fresh and easily renewable physical strength, and not even direct leadership skills. An older adult has learned a lot and if he has journeyed well, he is at peace with himself and the world. Therefore he gives but not as a leader or as a person in position of responsibility but indirectly, through the peace, kindness and paternity. He conveys in fact like a grandfather, who is doubly paternal and merciful. He testifies that life can be lived to the end in peace and joyfully; he support and encourages; he believe in his children and grandchildren, and with grace and kindness he can express, what he has learned from life – sometimes without words.

Therefore, he is someone who gives, who is at the service of others but won’t do this full time. He can’t work Monday to Sunday but will have more time for "healthy idleness", time to think and meditate. He regularly nurtures his relationship with nature (plants, animals, and sunshine), which help mental serenity and physical vigor (depending on the age). He will have more time being artistic or enjoying art, to the benefit of all. Reading the newspaper - hard copy or virtual - becomes a source of formation and information at least for the people he lives with.
An older person who wants to do everything by himself, who makes everyone’s business his own, who corrects and moralizes, who is angry with the government, with "the authorities" and the institutions, who gets angry over nothing is one who has not matured but has regressed to a stage of mock aggressive adolescence and is incapable of forbearance and openness.

These are things that apply generally to the so-called third age, which includes priests as well. We must help each other to be well rooted in the present knowing that we can do anything at any age (also helped by technology) but that there is a time for everything.
I’d like to add one more thing on this subject: so as to reach well balanced psycho-physical affectivity and healthy self-acceptance which means a good relationship with ourselves and with others, we need to "do things well" in a certain order. We need to respect the times inscribed in our personal biology and the dynamics of inter-responsibilities in the life of our community, society, groups, family... Therefore, it is very important to live a profound experience of interpersonal communion. This is because, the wise and constructive "gaze of love" of the other person is essential for each of us, so as to get to know ourselves better and to "see ourselves as the others see us" to continue to purify ourselves and grow through all the stages of our lives.

By Enrique Cambón