Stress Free Environment
February 18, 2011
One of the best books ever written about being a parish priest is the 1961 classic, The Edge of Sadness, by Edwin O’Connor. It is a story of an alcoholic priest, Fr. Hugh Kennedy, who finds redemption in ordinary parish life.
Early in the book Fr. Kennedy observes that every parish has a few people who carry around a knapsack full of troubles. “At the sight of the first Roman collar, their eyes brighten and the knapsack opens.” They are determined to tell you their troubles.
This desire that people have to unburden themselves to the priest is not confined to the parish.
O’Connor writes, “Walking along an unfamiliar street, riding on a train, a priest will suddenly find beside him a stranger who, given the faintest encouragement, or even given no encouragement at all, will obligingly and at once reveal the sum total of all his private woes.”
It is part of the pain and privilege of being a parish priest. But sometimes it’s enough to wear a body out.
Our parish has developed a reputation as a place where people can come with their problems. That is a good thing. But you can have too much of a good thing.
Recently somebody at our local public library was informing the homeless people who hang out in the reading room, that they could come to St. John Vianney for the solution to their earthly woes. When out local office of Catholic Charities closed, the pace really picked up.
Most of the time, the problems are financial. They need a utility bill paid, gas for the car, or rent money. As long as the money holds out, those are the easiest problems to solve.
But often the crisis is spiritual. Those are the tough problems.
People come in with their loneliness, sorrow, sin, depression, failure, addictions, and anger. They need a place to lay it all down.
Usually I am happy to be their depository. But sometimes I want to run and hide. When we have had a particularly stressful parade, my secretary and I have a little routine. I let out a cri d’coeur and declare a moratorium on problems. I am changing vocations I say. “I just want to go pour coffee at Starbuck’s!” She just laughs at me.
Then, not long ago, my dream of free caffeine in a stress free job was shattered.
I was actually in Starbuck’s. Sometimes I hide behind a newspaper there, seeking anonymity in our small town. There was a man standing at the counter whom I vaguely recognized. He ordered a giant “venti” coffee. Just as he paid, he spied me behind my newspaper. I was trapped.
Unbidden, he came over and sat down. His large coffee meant that he would be there for a while. He started in on his woes. It was the usual catalogue: job, wife, the economy, disagreements with the church, and “kids these days.”
Just as he was getting warmed up, we heard a commotion behind the counter.
One of the employees, a young woman, was obviously angry. She started yelling. She took off her employee’s apron and threw it on the floor. “I can’t take it anymore!” she screamed. Then she walked out.
My illusion was shattered. My dream of a “no stress” job at Starbucks was only an illusion. God was reminding me that every life has its troubles.
I turned back to the man across the table. He was undeterred by the drama behind the counter. I smiled at him and let him open his knapsack.