Father S.O.S

Challenges, risks and opportunities in the affective life of a priest

Priests, like everyone else, need to integrate all the dimensions of their life, with particular attention to affectivity, and direct it to the good of themselves.

Carlos Chiclana-December 16, 2022-Reading time: 3 minutes
the priest

In order to better understand the affective aspects of the priestly life and its integration with the other dimensions of the person, we conducted a qualitative research with a survey about challenges, risks, opportunities, what helped and what was missing in the development of their affective life. 128 priests, deacons and seminarians participated, with 605 open-ended responses and 1039 different ideas that were categorized into themes.

The main challenges were: spiritual life, loneliness, mission, psychological difficulties and giving/receiving affection. Risks: loneliness, psychological limitations, affective dependencies, moral defects and spiritual life. Opportunities: dealing with people, spiritual life and priestly friendship. What helped: spiritual life, priestly friendship, witness of other priests and a healthy family of origin. A significant percentage did not miss anything, and others would have liked to receive better formation, better attention to spirituality and psychology.

The variety of responses with different nuances, together with the presence of common categories, points to the personal diversity among priests, together with the participation in the same ministry of Christ, and shows the importance of initial and ongoing formation that addresses both the essential and central elements of the priesthood, as well as the particular needs according to formation, education, social origin, family system and life experiences.

This will allow: an enriching approach to their real life; to develop a personalized program; to adapt to the personal evolutionary cycle according to age, previous experiences, motivations or personality; to be aware of the needs that arise according to assignments, social changes, age, normative crises and the ordinary development of the spiritual life, with its deserts and oases.

We found that the areas of greatest interest were the spiritual life, solitude, interpersonal relationships and formation. Having self-directed formation, with good spiritual accompaniment and in community, may be one of the conclusions of this study, which shows that they would have liked more formation, better accompaniment and a more affectionate and less normative development of the spiritual life.

One of the recurring questions is loneliness, although they do not report that they have lacked training in this regard. Does it refer to the original loneliness of every human being, the physical loneliness that a priest may experience in rural areas, the emotional loneliness of those who dedicate themselves to the care of people? Could it be that loneliness is precisely the place where God waits to meet with that soul? Could it be the loneliness referred to by people who have developed an insecure attachment due to bad experiences?

– Supernatural social loneliness is a lack of close relationships of friendship, which makes the person feel empty, unaccepted, bored, and isolated. Emotional loneliness is the absence of meaningful relationships that provide security. The latter stems from the inadequate development of our bonds in childhood and how early relationships are configured in the first years of life, with the main attachment figure, and conditions the experience in adult life in the configuration of interpersonal relationships; it is associated with feelings of emptiness and can only be alleviated through restoration with the main attachment figure or a "substitute".

Loneliness is related to insecure attachment styles. If these displays of affection are not perceived, the person is unsatisfied in his or her emotional needs and presents insecurity, social or emotional loneliness. Secure individuals have a low level of loneliness, a positive view of self, low anxiety about possible abandonment, comfort with interpersonal intimacy and satisfying personal relationships, and a positive schema of others.

If a priest feels lonely, he will assess whether it is related to childhood shortcomings that have shaped an insecure attachment. If so, he will benefit from specific spiritual accompaniment to heal the attachment or from professional psychotherapeutic help. If not, he will have to discern whether he suffers from social loneliness - which can be remedied with the development of a network of general, priestly and family friendships - or whether it is precisely this loneliness that is the place where he can develop with greater intensity the experience of celibacy and his bond with God.

The study concluded that there are eight dimensions of enrichment of the priest's affective life: relationship with God, friendship, accompaniment, priestly fraternity, formation, personal care, psychological knowledge and mission.

Some aspects that can be worked on are: positive and stable sense of masculine identity; maturity to relate to others; solid sense of belonging; freedom to be enthusiastic about great ideals and the coherence and strength to carry them out; decision making and fidelity to these; self-knowledge; capacity to correct oneself; taste for beauty; confidence; capacity to integrate one's sexuality with a Christian perspective.

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