Q: Dear Father John, I am a Catholic priest. Because I am in studies and do not have a rectory to call ‘home’, I’ve temporarily moved all my personal belongings back into my parent’s house. Looking over all the ‘stuff’ I’ve collected over the years, it’s dawned on me that I have A LOT. Too much, so that I am even nauseated at the amount: especially books, vestments, and clerical clothing, and some secular clothes. My regular spiritual director and I have been trying to discern what exactly a diocesan priest ‘needs’ as opposed to ‘wants’. How many books does a priest truly ‘need’? How do you discern needs vs. wants? How do you practice detachment, even radically if necessary?
A: The tricky part about this issue is that the principles are clear, but they can be – and need to be – applied in myriad ways. It’s clear from your question that you know what the principles are: 1) material goods are not ends in themselves, and so we should never seek our soul’s satisfaction in their possession or enjoyment; 2) material goods are means to an end, and so if ever a possession or a practice is inhibiting me from achieving my end (holiness and spiritual fruitfulness as a father in Christ’s Church), then those possessions or practices need to be curtailed or eliminated. The famous Ignatian “tantum quantum” comes into play there: material goods should be sought, welcomed, and used insofar as they help us achieve our purpose of glorifying God and helping to save souls.
The virtue that governs the application of general principles to specific situations (your situation, or mine, or your spiritual director’s) is prudence. And there is the rub. Prudence involves making a particular judgment, so it is always linked to the concrete circumstances of an individual’s life. As a result, gospel simplicity may look very different for two different priests, and each one of them may be living in complete fidelity to what the Holy Spirit is asking of him.
So that doesn’t help you very much – at least not directly. The development and application of prudence in our lives is linked to our spiritual maturity. That means, basically, the more I grow in temperance, fortitude, and justice – which translates into “the more faithful I am to my life of prayer and to God’s will through fulfilling my basic responsibilities” – the more prudent I become. Keep growing spiritually, and you will keep developing prudence. As prudence grows, we are able to identify more easily and quickly the proper application of general principles to our particular situation. Bottom line: there is no formula I can give you; you have to keep seeking God in your heart, and seeking his guidance in this area, and every other area, of your spiritual life.
That said, here are some thoughts that may help you reflect and discern.
1. Money is the great deceiver. So we need to keep it on a leash. This consists primarily in having a personal annual budget. A budget allows us to be responsible with our money – to decide ahead of time, based on life-priorities and not on spur-of-the-moment impulses, how much we will spend and on what. This helps protect us from the latent materialism that’s always trying to seep into our hearts and minds through whimsical and indulgent culture of consumerism in which we live. I don’t know if you are familiar with Veritas Financial Ministries, but they seem to offer some excellent tools for making and following budgets and tying money-matters into faith-matters. I would recommend checking out their services and making a commitment to govern your money habits with a budget: http://www.
2. Keep in mind the possibility of scandal. This matters. As fathers of a spiritual community, we need to embody the principles we preach, to be good examples. Everyone knows that Father needs a car. But if a Toyota Camry will do the job for him, why does he have a BMW? Everyone wants Father to have a refreshing and renewing vacation. And they will be overjoyed and understanding if he takes a trip to Rome or the Holy Land for his time off, making a pilgrimage out of it. But they may furrow their brows in confusion if he goes to the Bahamas. They will be edified by his taking a fishing trip, but they may be confused by his taking a gambling trip.
3. Gospel simplicity is not opposed to dignity and distinction. A priest is a representative of Christ, and his bearing, along with his clothes, manners, and paraphernalia, should reflect the dignity and propriety of the King he serves. Jesus’ tunic was of good enough quality that the soldiers didn’t want to tear it into pieces to pawn off the material, rather they threw dice to see who would get the whole thing. When people see the Pope, they expect his cassock to be clean and well-ironed, and they rejoice in the elegance and dignity of the papal surroundings. On the other hand, they also know that none of that belongs to Joseph Ratzinger – it belongs to the Church. And it will stay in the Church after the current Holy Father has gone to his heavenly home.
4. Practice self-denial on a regular basis. We have to keep ourselves in spiritual shape. We have to consciously and proactively exercise detachment on a regular basis in order to be able to exercise detachment in the face of unforeseen temptations. As priests, we should be offering small sacrifices, the kind we offer during Lent, on a regular basis. But this can also feed pride. Be close to your spiritual director on this point (well, on all these points!).
5. Consider your time to be a material possession. Just as you budget your money, budget your time. Plan ahead. Enjoy the freedom that comes from knowing that how you are spending both your time and your money accurately reflects your life-priorities and is not just a function of spontaneous and whimsical improvisation all the time.
6. Create a wish-list for your library. Every time you want to buy a book, put the title on your wish-list. Let your wish-list grow. Don’t buy any books from the wish-list until you have finished the books you are already reading, or the ones that you have already bought and put on the “to-read-next” shelf. Here again, planning ahead is incredibly freeing. What will your reading goals be for this coming year? You will want to read a couple of books on current issues, maybe some classical and contemporary literature (if you like that and find it enriching), definitely some books on theology or philosophy or church history or apologetics (whichever is your area of expertise), and probably some other books of social commentary or self-help. Then you also have the books you will be using for spiritual reading and meditation during the year, in accordance with your program for personal spiritual growth. Pick out the twelve or fourteen that you want to read this year. Get them. Put them on your “to-read-next” shelf. Don’t buy any more until you have read those. All the new ones that come onto your radar screen – add them to your wish-list, but don’t buy them yet. If you want to change your year’s list mid-way through, run your reasons by your spiritual director (or some kind of accountability partner), not because you need “permission” strictly speaking, but because you want to keep your book-habit under control, so that it doesn’t create turbulence in your heart and clutter in your life.
7. Know your weak points. We all have them. From your question, it seems like you are a book collector. Other people just have to have the latest clothes. Others just can’t resist buying new luggage all the time. For others, its electronic gadgets – the latest, no matter what, no matter whether it will really help me be more efficient in my mission or not! For others it’s music – the CD collection is gargantuan! We don’t need to go into the psychological reasons behind these personal tendencies (though that would be an interesting study!). But in whichever area you find yourself most tempted to be over-indulgent, keep vigilant. Get an accountability partner to help you stay objective (maybe your spiritual director).
8. Support ministries or charities that mean a lot to you personally. If we have income, we should tithe, just like we recommend to all Catholics. I have always been struck by the example of St. John Vianney in this regard. He spent a lot of time and effort raising money to bring his parish up to snuff. Once the chapels and church and other accoutrements were in place, he continued to raise money, even begging the many pilgrims for money. And what did he use it for? To endow annual missions in other parishes. He kept track of how much he needed to endow a mission, and would raise money continually for that purpose. And once he finished one, he would start right away on another. Here is a man who understood that money is a means to an end!!
9. Be proactive in your entertainment. What activities really help you relax and provide you with your necessary recreation? How often do you need to engage in them to keep your mind and body keen and focused? We need to be very careful in this area, because of our special responsibility to be spiritual leaders. Our interior life directly affects thousands of people – the people we serve. We can’t afford to be careless about what we let into our minds and imaginations. And we have to make sure that we don’t start depending on entertainment for our happiness. Our happiness is to be found in loving and serving God and his people. Entertainment (TV, movies, video-games…) can serve as necessary recreation (“the bow that is always strung soon loses its strength,” as St. John the Evangelist put it once), but it can also become a drain on our energy, and even an addiction. Other forms of recreation can often be even more beneficial – sports, real games (cards, Scrabble, ping pong…) played with real people, reading literature, hiking or walking outdoors in nature… In this area, it’s also very healthy for us to find a small group of friends with whom we can recreate and relax together. Unhealthy obsessions with acquiring or using material goods can stem from a psychological thirst for rest, companionship, or relaxation that we are not meeting in a proper way.
Well, as I said, I can’t give you a formula. But I hope that those reflections are of some assistance. With this email I am sending along a prayer for you and your ministry. God bless you!
I know we have a lot of holy priests and religious who read our blog. I would also like to invite them to provide insight into how they make these decisions.
PS from Dan: The book “Happy Are You Poor” by Father Dubay provides a fantastic treatment of this subject.