Fr Chris Townsend: Diary of an Iron Padre
I gym. I love my time at gym. I need my time at gym. As a priest and as a pastor, the gym is a very important part of my day.
It has always been part of my routine — sometimes more regularly than at other times, but in the last 20 months in particular, it has become a vital part of my stress management and self-management.
But let me rewind a little. A few years ago I was bitten by a black widow spider — in my bathroom in the middle of the night as I put on my slippers to subdue my restive dogs. The results of that spider bite have been long-term.
Thanks to the spider’s bite I have connective tissue damage and it was a long and fairly unpleasant recovery after spending 36 hours in ICU and three days in hospital.
My Body Needs the Disciple of Gym and Pilates
The consequence of this damage is that I need to keep moving. Near-constant motion was already part of my life as I am at least ADD — that was never diagnosed because in my youth we who have some attention deficit disorder were just called unruly and unmanageable; or just bored and uninterested.
I have had to learn that my body needs the movement and the discipline of gym and pilates — and the attention of a rather fearsome personal trainer who has greatly helped my recovery.
Recently I discussed professional conduct and ethics with the Cape Metropolitan Province AGROP (Annual Gathering of Recently-Ordained Priests). This is an opportunity for those priests who were ordained five years ago or less to spend time together to reflect on their vocation and ministry, and also their difficulties.
I can’t speak for their current difficulties, but one of the things I have learned in 17 years of ministry is that we often take too little care of ourselves — or we take too much care and become defensively selfish.
The time I spend at the gym, then, becomes for me a safe and structured space for downtime, an opportunity to take a few hours each day just taking care of the whole person.
Day of Prayer for Priests
There are just a couple of days a year when there is a focus on the care of the priest. Birthdays and anniversaries are very important to many priests. I personally am not particularly fazed by them, but that’s just me.
The feast of the Sacred Heart is also developing into the International Day of Prayer (and Care) for Priests. It seems like a really good idea to identify this day as a care day for priests. Some parishes take this very seriously with lunches and gifts for their pastors. Some dioceses have wellness days for their priests while others organise sports tournaments.
My favourite priests’ care day, however, is the International Buy Your Priest a Beer Day. I have no idea of the origin of this marvellous idea, but I see that it is being promoted on the www.catholicgentleman.net site.
Buy Your Priest a Beer Day
On the second Monday in September, parishioners are invited to take their priest out for a beer.
This gives us a chance to chat together over a pint and feel that we are actually a safe part of a community. And it needn’t be tied to just one day a year.
Of course, it must be emphasised, I don’t advocate that we priests have a beer with every parishioner…that would be irresponsible. But maybe this sort of opportunity allows us as priests to feel part of the communities for which we have responsibility.
So often, with the increasing needs and decreasing clergy, we enter into a service-provider mentality with the communities we pastor. We have also often been placed on an isolation-pedestal which makes it difficult to be part of our communities.
Communities are themselves cautious about welcoming any priest with open arms when they arrive and it’s often years before we are part of communities—and sometimes never really are a part of them.
Specific Concerns of Diocesan Clergy
The unreflective space of particularly diocesan clergy — the so-called “secular clergy” — managed on a religious community model by bishops appointed from religious communities increases this sense of isolation and detachment.
Our appointment for six years — if you ever get there! — means that you spend two years learning the story, two more years changing the story, and two further years mourning the end of the story.
This is why I think it is important for parishioners to learn something about their priest: his hobbies, his interests outside the Church, and his favourite beer…
And I’ll gladly take the pint with you — and then meet you in the gym tomorrow to work that beer off.