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A new assignment, a health crisis, retirement. Deacon Steve DeMartino helps the 600 priests of the Archdiocese of New York navigate them all.
In his role as archdiocesan director of priest wellness, Deacon DeMartino serves as a sounding board for priests who are in transition and advocates on their behalf with service providers they may need to access.
One thing he has learned: “If a priest doesn’t take care of himself, he’s going to suffer.”
“Priests need support,” he said. “They’re not exempt by virtue of their ordination…from the challenges of life.”
In particular, priests should work to sustain a robust prayer life, get an annual physical, prioritize care for any diagnosed chronic illness, and maintain a healthy social life with family, friends, and their brothers in ministry.
Two institutional realities can make it a challenge for priests to quickly access help when they face a crisis, Deacon DeMartino said. First, most do not live in a family environment where others might notice changes in their physical or mental health.
“There’s no wife to tell them to go to the doctor,” he said.
Second, many dioceses “have not adjusted institutionally to the changing demographics of the presbyterate.” In particular, some may not have strong relationships with health care providers, elder care services, or long-term or acute care facilities.
Dioceses and religious institutes lacking such a network should make the development of one a priority, Deacon DeMartino suggested. Individual priests must do their part, too.
Retirement options for priests vary widely. Priests and others should take the time in their early 50s to develop a realistic retirement plan, including health care, based on their needs, desires, and resources.
Next, priests should identify individuals in their parish or ministry with expertise in a particular area – nurses, doctors, health care administrators, social workers, lawyers – and reach out to them for direction. These individuals may be an invaluable resource to a priest facing his own crisis, or if he is acting as a health care proxy for another.
Changes and challenges will be a part of every priest’s life and ministry. Embracing them in a healthy way can be an opportunity to practice true compassion for and solidarity with those to whom he ministers, Deacon DeMartino said.
“Any priest who’s able to acknowledge the stress, any priest who’s willing to talk about his wellness needs, any priest who’s willing to bring that into prayer…it’s in their struggle that they can be so strong and effective,” he said.
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