Rediscovering the Priest as Physician of Souls

In many ways the Church is like a hospital and priests are like doctors. Consider for a moment the “double path” that medical doctors and nurses must walk.

  1. On the hand they must have a sober understanding of  disease and how serious it can be.  They cannot minimize or simply dismiss it. They must learn to identify its causes and symptoms and address them forthrightly. They must often speak frankly to their patients about health related issues. A great deal of disease is behavior related. Hence doctors must prophetically and clearly call their patients and the public in general to healthy living. They must insist that we avoid excesses of certain foods, that we eat good foods and exercise regularly. They must regularly teach us that smoking, excessive drinking, obesity and the like may well kill us. If we need medicine they insist that we take it regularly. We expect all this of them even if we don’t always like to be reminded of such things. But in the end a good doctor will be firm, clear and insistent about disease, its dangers, its causes and its cures. Anything less would be a kind of malpractice.
  2. On the other hand, a doctor must be willing to work with sick and diseased people. They must do this with patience and compassion. Many of their patients struggle to implement all the best practices to improve their health. Despite all the prophetic utterances of doctors and the medical community many people still struggle to eat well and eat less. They have a hard time drinking moderately and ending smoking habits. Healthy foods seem less appealing than fattening ones, exercise seems so hard to do. But the good doctors will not abandon patients. They continue to treat their diseases and to exhort them to at least  to make small changes that will improve things. They offer medicines to help counteract bad tendencies and the cumulative effects of the past. They patiently work to bring healing to us, many of whom, repeatedly struggle to follow their advice. But they do it anyway.

Portrait – Just about everything said above applies to priests as well. Priests too need to be sober about sin and its effects. They have to exhort us stay away from unhealthy and bad behaviors that ruin our spiritual and moral lives and cause us to be in poor spiritual health. They must insist that we take the medicine of the sacraments, scripture, prayer and repentance. But priests must also be willing  to be around spiritually sick people who struggle to get it all together and make the necessary changes. They have to patiently but persistently help people to implement small changes that add up to better spiritual health. They must work to bring us healing even if their patients are a bit stiff necked.

Problem – But what is interesting is how the modern world seems increasingly to insist that priests and the Church should NOT exhibit the qualities of  Number 1 above. Objections are often raised by many when the Church and her priests soberly warn us of the disease of sin and how serious it can be. How dare the priest even call certain things “sin.”  And if the priest warn of spiritually unhealthy behaviors he is often denounced as “judgmental.” Oh,  perhaps he’ll be allowed to gently suggest we pray more, and try to be “more loving.” But God forbid that he should speak frankly about bad behaviors such as fornication, abortion and missing Mass and tell us that they are wrong. Even worse if he should warn us that such things can spiritually kill us and land us in hell! No indeed many people want their priest to engage in a kind of spiritual malpractice by tacitly approving their bad behavior and replacing any warnings with affirmations and reassurances. And sadly, some priests have slipped into this kind of gentle affirmation mode.

Proper Practice – But as physicians of the soul priests have to do the spiritual equivalent of BOTH 1 and 2 above. The world would rightfully question a medical doctor who just shrugged in the face of serious illness and told his patients they were fine, who just told them jokes and made them feel good but still sent them home with a serious cancer growing in their body. The world would scorn a medical doctor who didn’t feel comfortable talking about disease because it might upset his patients; who didn’t want to upset them by insisting that they must take their medicine. What a poor doctor! And yet many insist that priests act in just this way when it comes to the soul.

I hope you can see that priests have to do both 1 and 2 above. It is true, no one likes a grouchy or overly negative doctor. It is the same with priests. We are to speak the truth in love, with compassion but also with clarity. We can do nothing less for otherwise it amount to a spiritual malpractice.

Prescription – So as a priest I have this to say: Stay away from abd and excessive behaviors. They might kill you spiritually! Take your medicine: the Eucharist, regular confession, daily prayer and scripture! Take it or you will die! Get proper exercise through plenty of good deeds, prayer and acts of kindness. And if you fall? Keep coming back. We’ve got healing medicine here for you. You may not even know how you are going to stop but keep coming back and let the Lord minister to you through the Church. I’ll see you at your next appointment (this Sunday!).

21 Replies to “Rediscovering the Priest as Physician of Souls”

  1. The world would rightfully question a medical doctor who just shrugged in the face of serious illness and told his patients they were fine, who just told them jokes and made them feel good but still sent them home with a serious cancer growing in their body.

    Sadly, Monsignor, I think you are giving the current medical professsion, and society in general, too much credit. Much of the modern world does not want the medical profession to exhibit the qualities of Number 1 either. Much of the world, far from questioning, applauds and advocates doctors killing patients in the womb or when they are too old or sick. And many doctors, even if they do not personally wish to get blood on their hands, nevertheless support the legality of such medicalized killing. Also, many doctors are all too willing to engage in deceit with their patients to make them feel good, even going so far as to perform radical “cosmetic” surgeries on them, rather than dealing with their underlying psychological pathologies (even playing into the lie that, by mutilating certain body parts, they can turn a man into a woman or vice versa).

    So, if society does not really push all doctors to fulfill their traditional function of actually promoting and protecting health and life, it is not all that surprising that society would not want priests to do so either.

    Still, there are a few good doctors out there. And our priests do need to be like the good doctors. Indeed, they need to be like the best Physician there is, who heals completely, body and soul, and can even heal a person from the sickness known as death. His healing might seem to be unpleasant or even unwanted at times, as when He smeared mud in a man’s eyes. But drastic sickness calls for drastic measures. And you do no one any favors by “being nice” to them in that situation. Be nice, tell them “peace, peace,” when there is no peace, ruffle no feathers, and you just might end up with a dead patient.

  2. Very interesting analogy, this. A couple observations: some want both priest and physician to be their ‘buddy’ – something that is very difficult to do when you must maintain objectivity with respect to the individual’s spiritual and physical health. So, yes, we can be put off by warnings and directions, no matter how gently or firmly they are offered. In some cases, physician and priest ‘shopping’ is the result of such interactions – you don’t like what your doctor says, find one who will tell you what you want to hear. You don’t like what your priest says, find one who will tell you that you are okay just as you are.

    One major difference between physicians and priests is of course, the fee for services. I’m not saying that priests feel they should be paid for spiritual services rendered, but sometimes I think being a priest must feel pretty thankless, especially when they are burdened with difficult people that they can’t even ‘fire’ the way a physician can. Conversely, even though I live in a rural community, I could see a new physician every month for a year or so, but I only have one priest – the only priest within a 100 mild radius – to tend to my soul. This can get pretty ticky at times – especially when one has personal situations where one needs spiritual guidance and the priest is not disposed to it. Our priest is so overworked in this vastly under-served area that they burn out relatively quickly and soon they are thinking more of when they can get out than of their congregation’s spiritual needs. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. And it’s to be expected to some degree, I guess.

    One final thing – I have seen over and over again that physicians are not scorned for the things you mentioned; it is in fact, just the opposite. The physicians who are less than competent, who chum up to their patients and have a free hand with the prescription pad are glorified, not vilified. Physicians who actually care for their patients health and not just their psyche are called difficult. They are labeled as having a poor bedside manner, no matter how competent and sometimes, kind, they are. It’s the same with priests – some are very good and open about dealing with their congregations. Some just want you to leave them alone, as is evidenced by the way they act and how they fail to follow through.

    Thanks for the Rx – it’s a good one, and legible, too!

  3. I took a whole course in my graduate studies on Aquinas’ treatment in the Summa of the sacraments as “medicinal.” Ever since then I have loved this spiritual.

      1. I have been told, and try to remember, that our priests are only men, too. Please pray for our priests and those considering their vocation.

  4. Many good points, and I hadn’t thought of this comparison. The more common one, I think because it’s closer to the truth, is priests (or prophets) and poets. So this was salutary.

    One difference between priests and doctors — at least I hope it’s different — is how doctors are often interested more in protecting position than in counsel or aid. Doctors are very willing to elevate the place of their profession over the prerogative of patients (and patience!). More crucially, they are deeply and pridefully positive of their omnipotence and omniscience. The joke, after all, is not “What’s the difference between doctors and priests?” but “What’s the difference between a doctor and God?”

  5. It’s always difficult to make distinctions between the generalization, and the specific instances you run across in life that are contrary to what you expect. For instances, as I live in a poor area, I am aware of transvestites who are physically not of a determined physical sex. This obviously is a case of severe psychological pain and difficulty for them, and would be their motivation for sex change. I had a doctor who was gearing into a desired lustful relationship with me, and I feared for my sanity in trying to figure out how to escape from ‘clutches’ his with the shortage of physicians, and get out of that relationship. The spirit was with me and I succeeded. Every priest in his humanness is liable to run across situations that may we call is a test, and I think specifically of my often concern with my sins, which could itself be a form of sin, and how I know it tried the patience of one kind priest. The doctor/priest deals with hypochondriacs as well as people who are beyond salvation in the sense that they cannot see the need for healing or salvation. Sometimes, to be perfectly honest with you, I find impatience with church dogmatics which I often interpret as not being open to the reality that some people experience, on the specific level. I am not talking about generalizations in law or in church dogma here. But I also understand, that God forgives, especially when a person is not conscious of their sin. A person in need because of what is ‘real’ pain to him, may not see the ‘solution’ recommended by others, wherever that person is along the scale from hypochondriac to what we might deem him to be, a ‘hopeless sinner’. I was given absolution for sins when I returned to the church, that I feel if I had spoken about them, back in the sixties, early seventies, would have caused more alarm than they did when I made my confession much later. . I truly believe, that we can only pray for everyone’s health and salvation, so that when the spirit calls them they themselves will know that the time, (and opportunity) to meet their reality has come, and that they will be forgiven. There are good cops and bad cops, but if the doctor is ‘doing’ his job ‘as a doctor’, he should have no choice but to follow that ancient Greek oath to care for the persons health, beyond all else. Philosophically, I find in life it is very difficult in psychological cases, to know what is best for a person. The priest is not also a prophet and king. We cannot expect him to provide all of the consolidations we seek within our Savior. Within the secular world, we ourselves must move to change and promote the prophecies afoot within the social frontiers, and the laws that govern us that are in the spirit of Redemption.

  6. This is a great post. Working in the ER, and also having been a patient, I see and have seen both sides of the debate. I think that there definitely are similarities between priests and the medical profession. No matter what we say it is hard to please everybody. People get into certain comfort zones and ways of thinking, and don’t want to be told that what they have been doing for the past however many years was wrong or unhealthy. This correlates with a few of your other posts on ego, and how it is hard for many people to hear that they are not the center of the universe.

    On the medical side of things, it is not easy for us either. If a patient is “saved” we are heroes; if a patient passes away we are screamed at and accused by the family that we didn’t do everything we could. We are only human. If your loved one has been down without a heartbeat and respirations for 2 hours it is very likely, statistically and medically speaking, that he/she will not “come back.” There is brain death beginning a mere 8 minutes after cardiac and respiratory arrest occur. We do what we can, but it is in God’s hands. That is what I believe. I do not believe, that on the 4 occurences I have seen a patient “come back” that I played a part in it. Yes, I may have done CPR, yes, I may have done the IV, but I truly believe it is in God’s hands whether a patient lives or dies.

    And in the ER, it is never just one person working to save a patient. It is a team effort. It is a humbling profession, because we deal so much with life and death. Even though there are a lot of problems in the medical world (and i have had my share working in it and being a patient), I would not trade my job/lifestyle for anything in the world. If I can make at least a few patients smile and feel taken care of and safe, I am happy.

  7. “Still, there are a few good doctors out there.”

    I suspect you do not work in the medical field. EVERY profession, even attorneys, have good, not so good and “a few” down right unsafe practicioners in their profession. Unless you’ve lived and work within a particular profession, I’d caution you to be careful when you wag your tongue through written words.

  8. Wow, what a coincidence. I am studying in my diocese to become a Permanent Deacon in the Catholic Church down here in Houma, Louisiana. (Starting our final year by the way, heading for a December 2010 ordination. Please pray for the 11 men that remain.) We are in our second semester of homiletics. The Priest that has been instructing us for some time has always been pressing the point that we have to let them leave the church feeling good about themselves. His claim is that a happy parishioner always comes back.

    Some of the other candidates and I have been struggling with the absence of the ‘what is sin and how to avoid it’ type of sermons. For the last 2 months our Priest instructor has been away and our Deacon supervisor has been sitting in on our homilies. Last night (Dec. 12) several of us took on some social issues and personal issues as we were assigned to preach on some of the Pauline letters. Mine was Galatians and the anger of Paul is very apparent. As Deacons living in our community, we feel we have a little more insight into the seepage of sin into the souls of the believing and felt compelled to speak out.

    Instead of getting reprimanded, we were told these were the best he has heard yet! He mentioned not agreeing with the ‘feel good’ preaching and asked us to pray fervently to the Holy Spirit for guidance when confronting those hard topics.

    Sin is real. Jesus’ main concern for everyone was sin and the effects of sin upon the soul. I am overweight and I feel the effects of too much food and the bad food on my body. It wasn’t until recently that I have been very uncomfortable and started turning this around and am beginning to feel much better. Sin is the same way. If we let it pile up and ignore it, it becomes excessive weight on the soul. We have to help people to remove this ‘excess weight’ by letting them realize they are uncomfortable and need to change. Once the change takes place, then there can be joy and happiness in the forgiveness of the lord!

    The good thing is, I can go to confession and relieve that weight in one fell swoop! Diets take a bit longer. (Pray for my struggle please!)

    Keep up the good work, Monsignor Pope. I actually feel as if you are my second spiritual adviser from long distance!

    1. Thanks for the story and for your encouragment. I too need to lose weight but near 50 now it is a HUGE battle even to loose a few pounds. Thank you also for the good analogies and being faithful!

  9. anon – telling Bender to ‘not wag his tongue’ because he’s not in medicine, besides being snotty, holds about as much water as the argument that men have nothing to say about abortion because they are not the ones carrying the child. If Bender is a normal human being, I expect he’s had some interaction with the medical profession; hence, he has the right to critique it.

    Before I became a full time mom, I was an intensive care unit nurse, and my husband is a Pulmonologist. I can tell you with certainty that Bender said nothing out of line.

    Of course there are lemons in every profession, but lemons in both the priesthood and medicine can have deadly consequences, both to body and soul.

    What I’ve observed is this – regarding physicians who do spectacular things – the ones who have any humility at all are the FIRST ones to say that the hand of God was on their shoulder as well as the patient’s. That’s what it all boils down to.

  10. Sometimes priests are not physicians of souls but instead they kill the soul and destroy someone’s faith. I know a priest who is lying about someone and bullying this person and her family out of her church.

  11. Anon —

    I have 50 million reasons — in this country alone — for writing what I wrote.

    Sadly, as one disillusioned lawyer, I can assure you that our current legal system, including a great many lawyers, is likewise filled with those who have long ago abandoned the concept of truth and have, instead, embraced a utilitarianism that has not only enabled the slaughter of innocents, but has declared it to be a fundamental right! To be sure, some of those lawyers are Catholics on the United States Supreme Court.

    From the medical profession to the legal profession to the religious life, many have, all over the world, turned against the truth, which sometimes can appear to be harsh. But the light is often harsh to those who have been in the darkness for so long.

    It is because so many are in the dark that it is crucial for doctors and nurses and lawyers and judges and legislators and nuns and priests and bishops to all speak the truth with fortitude even if many might not want to hear it.

  12. Thank you for the article Father Jim. God has given us physicians to heal our bodies and most important ones to heal our souls.

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