Even the Black Plague [1347-1352] came to an end, awful as it was, and I believe that as a Church we shall go back to work, too, at some future time when it is safe to do so. I don’t think it will be soon, though, and I don’t think there will be a “normalcy day” where everyone runs from the shelter of home into the public marketplace and starts engaging with the living ministers of the church again. Were I a pastor today, I would tell my hard-working staff and volunteers to go home on a [paid] sabbatical. On second thought, I would recommend a sabbatical to every adult Catholic facing the question of what to do with enforced time off.
Webster’s defines a sabbatical as “a leave often with pay granted usually every seventh year (as to a college professor) for rest, travel, or research.” This is a period when professionals refresh their minds and commitments to their fields, read the insights of colleagues, perhaps take a course of their choice, and even create some contribution to their field. [College professors write their books on sabbaticals.] A sabbatical is a time to break free of the shackles of the phone and its evil partners, absent one’s self from the employment environment, and live by one’s own schedule. It is customary to submit a plan of study and goals to the employer and make a private or public summary of what one has researched during the sabbatical, which is a reasonable requirement.
I am struck by the inclusion of “rest” in Webster’s definition of sabbatical, because most professionals I encounter in counseling appear to be in good need of it. For many years I was a United Health Care Employee Assistance Provider for, among other populations, everyone on my diocese’s health insurance plan. The term “burnout” does not adequately describe the range of job-related symptoms presented by Catholic ministers, including priests. I don’t need to describe each stress in detail, but in the past few weeks I have seen many blogsites with posts from catechists who are literally frantic that they can’t get materials for sudden religious education homeschooling demands brought about by Corona closings. Another poster was deeply grieved that there were no hours for confession in her church; an elementary knowledge of Penance and Canon Law would have calmed her. Before World War II Saint Maximilian Kolbe wrote: "Whoever can, should receive the Sacrament of Penance. Whoever cannot, because of prohibiting circumstances, should cleanse his soul by acts of perfect contrition: i.e., the sorrow of a loving child who does not consider so much the pain or reward as he does the pardon from his father and mother to whom he has brought displeasure."
Worry is an enemy of spirituality and a roadblock to effective ministry. Consider this: You can’t take responsibility for a pandemic, nor can you take responsibility that your diocese or parish does not provide on-line resources for you to tap immediately for the next several months. Some years ago, my own pastor picked up the bill for every parishioner to access Formed, the NETFLIX of family faith formation. So, relax. It is a subtle form of narcissism to believe that the Church cannot survive without your 24/7 helicopter ministerial surveillance. Let the people who get paid to supervise you take the responsibility.
What the Church will need come next fall is a cadre of renewed and rested ministers, enriched by time to pray, healthier from time to exercise and eat nutritious home cooked diets, better qualified for ministry by virtue of a challenging study of theology. In other words, let’s consider the model of Church sabbatical, ministers and laity alike. The days holed up at home may take on a refreshing hue if you think of them as that opportunity to escape into the various branches of religious experience and theology, places you've always wanted to go.
Tomorrow I will provide an overview of how to construct your personal sabbatical plan, and on Wednesday I will connect you with books from every corner of the theological world. The Café is one place that will remain open and with you as we together transverse this unexpected sabbatical.