Jesuits to provide new support ministry to diocesan priests

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

EASTON, Mass. — Acknowledging them as “the greatest asset our diocese has,” Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., informed his brother priests that the Jesuit community at Boston College has established a pilot Ministry to Priests program that will begin providing support in the Fall River Diocese.

During a gathering of priests at Stonehill College in Easton on March 7, several members of the Jesuit community introduced themselves and discussed how the fledgling Ministry to Priests program could benefit their diocesan brethren.


The program would fulfill one of the key tenets Bishop da Cunha outlined in his latest progress letter to clergy, religious and diocesan faithful entitled “Introducing Strategic Planning,” in which he cited the importance of restoring support for the clergy as an essential part of “rebuilding the diocese in faith and hope.”

“Recent feedback from our pastors revealed concerns about a lack of collegiality, a lack of transparency, (and) feelings of isolation,” Bishop da Cunha wrote. “The Pastoral Planning Report also echoed (the) concern that pastors are overburdened, at times overwhelmed, and unable to be ‘priests’ because of administrative responsibilities.”

To that end, Boston College’s first-ever Ministry to Priests would serve as “a comprehensive and multi-phased approach in caring for our priests — Spirit, mind and body. Together with Boston College, the Jesuits have created programs that will focus on physical, Spiritual and emotional health,” the bishop wrote.

An innovative work in progress, the program dates back to a meeting Bishop da Cunha had about a year ago with Father Jack Butler, S.J., vice president of Mission and Ministry at Boston College, who immediately offered to assist.

“This is something that is a privilege and we want to do it,” Father Butler told The Anchor. “I talked to the bishop and I asked him what he wanted, what was his dream. From those few encounters I went back to Father (William P.) Leahy, S.J., president of Boston College, and I told him there was this need in Fall River. So he agreed that we should put together a program and a ministry for priests. This is not to make them better ministers, this is for themselves — for their emotional, physical and Spiritual well-being.”

In addition to having access to some 50-plus Jesuits currently working at Boston College, Father Butler said there is also a retirement community of nearly 100 Jesuit priests in nearby Weston who could be enlisted to help as needed.

“Some of those guys are still not only very active but very capable and want to help,” Father Butler said. “We probably couldn’t take care of multiple parishes at the same time, but if priests need some respite or help, we’d like to try to provide that.”

The simple notion of “ministering to the ministers” of the diocese is an idea whose time has come, especially given the fact that many diocesan priests are juggling multiple assignments and are more often than not working alone.

“They really are on the front lines, and there’s not a whole lot behind them, and it’s tiresome and emotional work and sometimes it’s not always a hospitable environment,” Father Butler said. “We don’t need — not even a little bit — to give them help in being ministers. They’re pros at being ministers. They’re great preachers, they know how to deal with people who are sick, they help people in time of grief — they know how to minister and we’re not here to help them become ministers. The hope of what Boston College wants to offer is to walk with them as brothers and say: ‘Who’s caring for you?’”

Among the facilitators spearheading the program is Father Jack Siberski, S.J., a trained medical doctor and licensed psychiatrist, who will be offering basic evaluations and short-term counseling to priests.

“This program isn’t set up to be a treatment center or facility, but (Father Siberski) has had some excellent training and he’s putting himself at the service of his brother priests,” Father Butler said. “He was an internist for many, many years before he went and became a psychiatrist. He loves being a doctor and what we’ve found, even with our own guys, is they will go to him and talk about some of their emotional concerns and we can then refer them out as needed.”

According to Father John C. Monahan, S.J., director of Ministry to Priests, they also will be providing Spiritual care in the form of Spiritual direction, monthly support group meetings, monthly prayer meetings, and annual retreats and sabbaticals — much of which can be held at Bellarmine House, a Jesuit-owned retreat center located within the Archdiocese of Boston.

“Right now, we have the use of the former Jesuit villa on the water in Cohasset,” Father Monahan said. “It’s a spectacular location — a very quiet and prayerful place. We’d like to offer it as a place to pray, to relax, to enjoy a good meal, for support groups to meet, and to offer days of reflection and annual retreats. One of the goals is to make you feel cared for and valued and to have opportunities to deepen your relationship with God. We want to provide the same pastoral care to you that you provide to the people of your parish and we want to offer you quiet time for relaxation and reflection.”

Noting how the increasing challenges and demands of Roman Catholic clergy today have frequently caused burnout, stress, fatigue and deep discouragement among many priests, Father Butler hopes the Ministry to Priests can provide a much-needed respite and an opportunity for Spiritual renewal.

“The Jesuits have been lucky over the years to be in high schools and colleges,” Father Butler said. “They are environments where conflict isn’t really much a part of our life. You dedicate yourselves to the people of God, on the front lines. You hear the pain, the struggles, the sufferings and you get the complaints and you get the jokes. You take the brunt of the sexual abuse crisis; you take the brunt of secularism; you take the brunt of a lack of faith; you take the brunt of running two or three churches; you take the brunt of doing the work of what was once (given to) two or three pastoral associates.

“If nothing else, please know you have our thanks. And this Jesuit, as long as we have this program, is committed to working with the priests in the diocese. If you need Spiritual direction, we’ll provide that for you. We can relieve you sometimes in your parish and send somebody to help you. Resources at BC and our faculty and our properties can be shared, because we want to pack your parishes. We want to lift you up and say we know it’s tiresome and it’s hard, but we appreciate it and we’ll walk with you — so let’s renew each other.”

While the Fall River Diocese is the first-ever beneficiary of the Ministry to Priests program, Father Butler said they hope to offer it “to other New England bishops as we go forward.”

“But the reality is we haven’t put the program together in an ironclad form yet,” he said. “We want to listen to what the priests need and want first and then use the resources we have at BC and whatever experience we have to help.”

“I just want to say how grateful we are to Boston College and the Jesuit community for the beginning of what I hope will be a long journey together in helping one another,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I’m so grateful and inspired to see so many of you here today. As diocesan priests, we are not a religious community, so many of us live alone. But because we live alone, it doesn’t mean we have to be alone. I think we’re all here today to say we’re not alone — we have to take care of each other and support each other.”

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