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Secure Relationships – Conclusion

Today I conclude this four-part series, seeking some initial answers to a crucial question:

What does it look like for us who are celibate priests to become truly secure in our relationships?

The “secure attachment” resources for adults tend to focus on how insecurity shows up with a romantic partner. But our insecurity affects all relationships! Here are some questions we priests can ask ourselves – not with self-criticism, but with curiosity and kindness:

What is my prayer like? Can I receive from God, just be with God, and connect with him emotionally? Are there times or seasons in which I avoid intimacy (either avoiding prayer altogether, distracting myself, or pushing through it)? Do I trust others? Can I delegate? Can I hold others accountable with kindness? Am I okay allowing others to hold me accountable? Am I open to working with a team, or prefer to just do it myself? Can I listen to criticism without getting defensive or people-pleasing? Do I exhibit healthy love and affection? Can others feel honor and delight coming from me spontaneously? Is my affection secretly hoping that I will get something back? Do I stay aloof or emotionally distant? Do others sometimes feel my contempt leaking out? Do I know how to seek and find what I need emotionally? Can I receive love and kindness? Do I believe that my own needs matter? Can I even name my needs? Do I feel a sense of abundance, or a sense of scarcity (not enough time / not enough money / not enough…)?  Do I have healthy boundaries? Can I say “yes” and “no” with peace and interior freedom? Am I a people pleaser?  Do I struggle with guilt in my “no” or resentment in my “yes”? Do I have stable friendships? Do those friendships include a high level of emotional intimacy? Are there a few people who know everything about me? Do I let all of myself be seen (including places of shame)? Do I have addictions or substitute forms of intimacy? Am I healthy in solitude? Do I self-isolate? Am I restless when alone? Do I seek “rest” primarily by vegging out, or can I connect to the present moment with my body and my five senses?

The purpose here is not to criticize or fix, but to be compassionately aware of the symptoms. Most of us have at least a moderate amount of insecurity in our relationships. Who will we choose as companions on our journey from insecurity to security? Who will we choose as mentors and guides? Will we believe that we really matter that much and need that much? If we don’t believe so, there are many obstacles that will stand in the way, and we will find reasons to put it off.

Most of us find ways for a good long while to survive and make it through life without truly secure relationships. If and when we start living differently, we will discover not only our internal obstacles, but plenty of external ones. The avoidance of healthy intimacy and human maturity gets institutionalized in our parishes, dioceses, and religious communities. Let’s consider a few of those invisible barriers to our healing.

First, there is the ongoing rupture that tends to exist between bishops and their priests. Our new bishop in my diocese just named the repairing of this rupture as his top priority between now and Lent. He asks for our trust, but doesn’t presume it. Following his talk last week, I shared with our priests some of the findings of the 2022 study by The Catholic Project. 92% of bishops, when asked how they would handle a priest reaching out for help, expressed that they would do “very well” responding to the need. But, when asked the same question about their bishop, only 36% of priests felt the same confidence! That statistic points both to genuine injustices and breaches of trust as well as to the unhealed father and mother wounds of many priests and bishops.

Yesterday in my cathedral, we celebrated another priestly ordination. It was a beautiful celebration – and not only because Bishop talked about Lord of the Rings for three minutes of the homily. Symbol after symbol, gesture after gesture, we felt the intimate connection of the priests with each other and with our bishop. The rite manifests and effects the reality that we are to be his sons, his brothers, and his co-laborers for the Kingdom of God – all in a loving service that lifts others up and strengthens them in their identity. All this can be true if we are secure in our relationships. By contrast, insecure fathers either pile up power and privilege for themselves (at others’ expense) or abandon their children to protect themselves – or both.

There was also a sadness in yesterday’s celebration. By my count, only 1/3 of our priests were present for the ordination. Bishop asked me a couple of weeks ago, “What can we do about that?” There is the obvious question of making priorities a priority, but there are other factors.

That brings us to the second invisible barrier: the demanding and change-resistant culture of our parishes. I find that few laypeople see their priests as normal human beings with normal human needs. Often, they put us on a pedestal. Or they see us as functionaries – domestic servants on retainer, who are always supposed to be on hand to keep the plates spinning and keep their club comfortable. Never mind that the precious groups and activities are clearly not bearing the fruit that they used to. There seems to be a chronic inability to name losses and to grieve over what once was but will never be the same again. It’s easier to dig in and deny. Still other laypeople seem to feel badly for the poor celibate priest and load him up with desserts – even if he has serious medical problems. Still others get outraged at the word “no” – if a priest dares to utter it – and will proceed with litanies of “What do you mean you won’t _____?” Their shaming and manipulation then slides into whispered gossip sessions comparing the current pastor to the “nice” priest that preceded him. Some parishes are more dysfunctional than others. If a priest comes in already securely attached, he will navigate the dysfunction – knowing how to seek and receive support in the process. Otherwise, his insecurities and unhealed wounds are likely to be torn open, sometimes with tragic results. Without ever excusing priests for their own responsibility, we certainly can challenge faith communities to be healthier, and can ask them to be authentically supportive of the healthy humanity of their priests.

A third invisible barrier is a distortion of the human person that many conservative Catholics wrongly equate with orthodoxy. I speak here of a false exaltation of reason and willpower while dismissing emotions. In reality, it’s a trauma response that is unwittingly bypassing the labor of facing difficult emotions and healing relational ruptures. This hyper-rationalism is quite unbiblical and un-Traditional. It reflects the modern philosophies of Descartes and Kant far more than Genesis, the Song of Songs, or the Gospels. It forgets the writings of medieval theologians like Bernard, Bonaventure, or Thomas Aquinas. Modern philosophy attempted to start with human reason and then work its way out into the external world and other relationships. It’s a backward and disintegrated approach! Relationships are primary, and we are always embodied. Only when we are safe and secure in healthy relationships is any real growth in Truth possible. Focusing only on reason and the will, or falsely exalting them, leaves us sputtering in emotional immaturity, relational insecurity, and denial.

There is a fourth and related invisible barrier that hinders us celibate priests from becoming truly secure. The modern era not only witnessed a fragmentation of reason and emotions, body and spirit. It also witnessed the rise of toxic distortions of male and female. For at least four centuries in the Christian West, there are deep-seated stereotypes. Women haven’t been allowed to be fierce or strong or bear authority. Men haven’t been allowed to be tenderhearted or emotional. I still don’t know exactly when and how things shifted, but they shifted. Study the Middle Ages in depth, and you will encounter fierce females and tender-hearted men. I’m not saying everything about troubadour culture was lovely, but those men thought nothing of singing or dancing or emoting or engaging in physical affection with each other.

Today, there is a blossoming of “bottom up” therapy techniques that begin with the body and nervous system (versus talking about, rationally analyzing, or figuring out), Those bottom-up approaches include breathwork, somatic experiencing, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, art therapy, play therapy, drama therapy, dance therapy, horse or dog therapy, etc. Talk therapy may work well for some priests, but many of us are too skilled in our self-defenses and too well educated. We will outmaneuver the therapist! By contrast, becoming like a little child and working from the bottom up allows more immediate access to our insecure parts.

But will we go there? We celibate priests are men living in a world and in a Church that has particular expectations about male and female. Are those expectations grounded in Truth? Often, no! But they get in the way. How can we reclaim a masculinity that is both strong and tender-hearted? Consider examples that span the centuries: Moses, David, Job, the apostle Peter, Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, John Bosco, or John Paul II.

Ecce Quam Bonum – “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalm 133). We who are Catholic priests pray that Psalm at least monthly. We profess and celebrate it in our ordination ritual. The lived reality is only possible if we allow ourselves continued maturing and healing in our affectivity and our capacity for relationships – both on an individual and a collective level.

I am overjoyed to discover – across the United States – many priests and even some bishops who are experiencing profound healing and transformation. The Holy Spirit is moving! I sense the beginnings of new springtime that John Paul II promised long ago. May it be so. May we become who we are and support each other on the way.

Categories: Abandonment Abuse Affective Maturity Anger Apprenticeship / Mentoring Attachment Theory Chastity Developmental Trauma Facing Heartache in Our Story Francis of Assisi Grief Neglect Neuroscience and Trauma Research Philosophy Polyvagal Theory Sexual Harm Theology

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Fr. Derek Sakowski

2 replies

  1. Derek,
    How blessed your diocese is to have a bishop who sees the value of what you have to offer!
    Insecurity is rampant in this diocese, and the insecurities of the leadership only magnifies it. The insecurity also makes it difficult to ask these questions without self-criticism. Curiosity and kindness were not a part of my training in the 1970’s and 80’s. I know that to adopt these ways requires the abandonment of the insecurities, in order to rest in the love of Christ. I will be using this wise set of articles to try to achieve that end. Thank you.

  2. It’s beautiful when you have a good “spiritual father” in your bishop. How about a “spiritual mother?” Mothers bring something so different to the family than fathers and it takes both to have a healthy, happy family. I’m not saying women should be ordained, just that maybe there should be a role for spiritual mother’s too.

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