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Life of service

Exploring the transformations in lives of Roman Catholic priests

The power of the uniform, the sacraments and other transformational mechanisms in the everyday life of Roman Catholic priests.

Even some of the most consuming and demanding professions such as doctors and soldiers take time to do everyday activities such as chores, going to the gym, or even taking in a movie with a friend.  This is also true of Roman Catholic priests who spend a vast majority of their days carrying out their priestly duties. The objective of this 5-week observational research study was to understand the everyday lives of Roman Catholic priests and how the realities of their rigorous lifestyles influence the boundary between their personal and priestly lives.

Our approach was to conduct a series of field visits and in-depth interviews with priests in the Archiocese of Chicago. We interviewed a variety of priests from all walks of life and in different contexts. We explored a beautiful and isolated seminary college, toured a Franciscan friary in the middle of the bustling Chicago financial district, and even absorbed organizational philosophy from a monsignor in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

We spoke about the way priests think about their vocation or calling, the people, places and things that make up their everyday, and finally the way they think about their role in the Roman Catholic church. Even though we came in with the implicit understanding that priesthood is “for life” and that the concept of "private" may have a different meaning, we hypothesized that there are some boundaries between their parish life and their individual selves. We knew they are sons and brothers, friends and teammates. But they are also artists and educators, engineers and lawyers.

The big question are these two worlds experienced? This is what we learned...

There are 3 ways through which priests deliver this service to their community

There are 3 ways through which priests deliver this service to their community


Sacraments - The core of the service is the performance of the Sacraments which only ordained priests can do. The priests we spoke with talked about how important these acts are not only to their faith but their everyday activities. Sacraments are rituals and are very prescribed.

Spiritual guidance - This can be performed individually such as is the case with priests of Opus Dei who help individuals incorporate faith into everyday activities. It can take form of a pastor building an identity and catering messages to an entire parish. It is even a part of the Pope's set of responsibilities. Guidance is something that comes with experience and combines doctrine with context.

Individual relationships - These are the little things that priests often do to humanize the experience for their parishioners. Going to visit a sick parishioner in the hospital is a good example. They are the least tangible touch points of the "service" priests perform but they are critical to building strong communities around their parishes.

Being a priest is about living a life dedicated to service. Service to God and to people.

The Mindset-Transition Model represents a state of being which priests find themselves in at different times. These states

Embodiment of Christ - Performing the Sacraments means the belief that in that moment you are actually embodying Christ. e ritual is preceded by a highly rigorous preparation process allowing the priest to and the necessary focus. Embodiment of Christ requires a lot of emotional intensity and is very di cult to sustain for a long time. e Sacraments are a source of spiritual authority over people and can induce fear of judgment in parishioners. 

Life of Service: is mindset is about the belief that upon ordainment “your life is not your own”. Life of Service means dedicating yourself to service of others through Spiritual Guidance. It’s an opportunity to tailor the message, shape the community and lives of individuals. Thisis can mean using “scantron” questionnaires to help newlyweds nd themselves in new roles or running a $5.5 million parish. It is where a priest can make the most impact on people’s lives. 

The Self: It is important to remember that every priest has an identity even though the culture of the church doesn’t seem to support external expressions of individuality. From their time in the seminary, priests are subjected to isolation from their former ‘selves’ with the goal of reinforcing the selfless ideals they have adopted. is isolation can have negative e ects when priests fail to develop healthy, positive relationships leading to undesirable behaviors and further isolation. 

The third and final element of this model are the trade offs that a priest makes or are made for him as he transitions between the different mindsets. We realized that there are different types of authority (given vs. earned), that identity can manifest itself in many ways such as an ability to tailor the message (i.e. teaching science classes) to individual interests, and that the rigorous life priests live is structured to suppress the needs of the individual for which the priests have many work arounds.

As the priest transitions up from “The Self” his spiritual authority over people grows in strength. It’s earned through the Spiritual Guidance and Individual Relationships and it is given to him through the Sacraments. On the other hand, as the priest returns towards The Self he is relinquishing authority and increasing his sense of identity until he no longer feels the need to wear the Roman collar all the time. It takes a long time and self-awareness to be able to shed the collar.

The culture of the church does not support external expressions of individuality. Majority of the service is delivered through the priests individual initiatives. These become a way for priests to combat the isolation that is intentionally induced into their lives through the rigorous church life. Creativity can be thought of as the ability to interpret or tailor the message of God.