The Priests’ Sabbath Rest

The concept of a “day off” for a priest is not foreseen in the Code of Canon Law. From there, one can find many reasons against it: “one doesn’t get a day off from being a father”, “you’re just buying into the American therapeutic mindset”, “you’re probably being selfish”, etc. Those and many more reasons can be brought against a priest who chooses to take a day off with any regularity.

Granted, there are some priests who may treat their days off as sacrosanct: their most devout parishioner might be on his or her deathbed… and he or she must wait until after the day off to receive a priest’s attention. Cases like that, which apparently do happen here and there, are a gross failure of priestly ministry; it’s easy enough to point out such disastrous hypocrisy where it happens.

In an age of a general shortage of priests, though, many of us are in the category of feeling a need for a day off but often not feeling “free” to take one. Many priests face burnout: they know they need more “personal time”, but they fear taking it because they don’t want to be seen as selfish, self-involved, “soft”, etc. — or, they fear the workload that will pile up if they take a day off and life continues in the meantime.

Well, the institution of a “day off” might not be in Canon Law, but it is a tradition at least in this country. More than that, I recently came across this article, which speaks of the concept of sabbath rest in connection with a priest’s day off. The Christian sabbath, of course, is Sunday – one of the busiest days of the week for most priests: besides the various Masses (and some priests have to celebrate in more than one language, with multiple homilies also, etc.), there is often a lot of visiting/socializing with parishioners, youth group meetings, PSR visits, adult ed, and the like. It can be a very tiring day — one that doesn’t feel very sabbath-like from the priest’s personal perspective!

It occurred to me when I read the article, which has several good points about constructive uses of the time of rest, that I had never considered a priest’s day off within the framework of God’s design for creation: we all need to rest from our labors. It’s so easy to set aside taking a day off, in favor of “trying to stay caught up” or at least “not falling further behind”, or even for worse reasons such as feeling that one is indispensable, or in the cases where some priests have trouble “letting go” of day-to-day control of things. This article is good food for thought for those who struggle with taking a day off.

Of course, ultimately, one cannot take a day off from being a father, and so every priest must be ready to rearrange his schedule as needed to meet reasonable requests and more urgent priorities as they arise. The main thing for any priest is to take the time that he truly needs, even if it’s in smaller chunks or spread out over more than one day out of necessity. And Canon Law is clear about the amount of vacation to which a priest is entitled; priests who struggle with taking all their vacation (a struggle I have never had!) should even be challenged by their parishioners to do so.

I share this article here for any brother priest who may struggle with the idea of taking a weekly day off, even as he feels the need to take one. Many of us are feeling rather acutely the effects of the clergy shortage, as we try to maintain the same schedules our parishes have always had with less help than in the past to do so. Actually taking that time and then using it constructively, in pursuit of true leisure, may do more for our priestly ministry than continually wearing ourselves down as we power through extended periods with no meaningful rest — as is exceedingly common for many priests nowadays.

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