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How much should a priest own?

December 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Detachment, Fr. Bartunek

Dear Father John, I am a Catholic priest. Because I am in studies and do not have a rectory to call ‘home’, I’ve temporarily moved all my personal belongings back into my parent’s house. Looking over all the ‘stuff’ I’ve collected over the years, it’s dawned on me that I have A LOT. Too much, so that I am even nauseated at the amount: especially books, vestments, and clerical clothing, and some secular clothes. My regular spiritual director and I have been trying to discern what exactly a diocesan priest ‘needs’ as opposed to ‘wants’. How many books does a priest truly ‘need’? How do you discern needs vs. wants? How do you practice detachment, even radically if necessary?

The tricky part about this issue is that the principles are clear, but they can be – and need to be – applied in myriad ways.  It’s clear from your question that you know what the principles are: 1) material goods are not ends in themselves, and so we should never seek our soul’s satisfaction in their possession or enjoyment; 2) material goods are means to an end, and so if ever a possession or a practice is inhibiting me from achieving my end (holiness and spiritual fruitfulness as a father in Christ’s Church), then those possessions or practices need to be curtailed or eliminated.  The famous Ignatian “tantum quantum” comes into play there: material goods should be sought, welcomed, and used insofar as they help us achieve our purpose of glorifying God and helping to save souls.

The virtue that governs the application of general principles to specific situations (your situation, or mine, or your spiritual director’s) is prudence.  And there is the rub.  Prudence involves making a particular judgment, so it is always linked to the concrete circumstances of an individual’s life.  As a result, gospel simplicity may look very different for two different priests, and each one of them may be living in complete fidelity to what the Holy Spirit is asking of him.

So that doesn’t help you very much – at least not directly.  The development and application of prudence in our lives is linked to our spiritual maturity.  That means, basically, the more I grow in temperance, fortitude, and justice – which translates into “the more faithful I am to my life of prayer and to God’s will through fulfilling my basic responsibilities” – the more prudent I become.  Keep growing spiritually, and you will keep developing prudence.  As prudence grows, we are able to identify more easily and quickly the proper application of general principles to our particular situation.  Bottom line: there is no formula I can give you; you have to keep seeking God in your heart, and seeking his guidance in this area, and every other area, of your spiritual life.

That said, here are some thoughts that may help you reflect and discern.

1.      Money is the great deceiver So we need to keep it on a leash.  This consists primarily in having a personal annual budget.  A budget allows us to be responsible with our money – to decide ahead of time, based on life-priorities and not on spur-of-the-moment impulses, how much we will spend and on what.  This helps protect us from the latent materialism that’s always trying to seep into our hearts and minds through whimsical and indulgent culture of consumerism in which we live.  I don’t know if you are familiar with Veritas Financial Ministries, but they seem to offer some excellent tools for making and following budgets and tying money-matters into faith-matters.  I would recommend checking out their services and making a commitment to govern your money habits with a budget: http://www.veritasfinancialministries.com/.

2.      Keep in mind the possibility of scandal.  This matters.  As fathers of a spiritual community, we need to embody the principles we preach, to be good examples.  Everyone knows that Father needs a car.  But if a Toyota Camry will do the job for him, why does he have a BMW?  Everyone wants Father to have a refreshing and renewing vacation.  And they will be overjoyed and understanding if he takes a trip to Rome or the Holy Land for his time off, making a pilgrimage out of it.  But they may furrow their brows in confusion if he goes to the Bahamas.  They will be edified by his taking a fishing trip, but they may be confused by his taking a gambling trip.

3.      Gospel simplicity is not opposed to dignity and distinction.  A priest is a representative of Christ, and his bearing, along with his clothes, manners, and paraphernalia, should reflect the dignity and propriety of the King he serves.  Jesus’ tunic was of good enough quality that the soldiers didn’t want to tear it into pieces to pawn off the material, rather they threw dice to see who would get the whole thing.  When people see the Pope, they expect his cassock to be clean and well-ironed, and they rejoice in the elegance and dignity of the papal surroundings.  On the other hand, they also know that none of that belongs to Joseph Ratzinger – it belongs to the Church.  And it will stay in the Church after the current Holy Father has gone to his heavenly home.

4.      Practice self-denial on a regular basis.  We have to keep ourselves in spiritual shape.  We have to consciously and proactively exercise detachment on a regular basis in order to be able to exercise detachment in the face of unforeseen temptations.  As priests, we should be offering small sacrifices, the kind we offer during Lent, on a regular basis.  But this can also feed pride.  Be close to your spiritual director on this point (well, on all these points!).

5.      Consider your time to be a material possession.  Just as you budget your money, budget your time.  Plan ahead.  Enjoy the freedom that comes from knowing that how you are spending both your time and your money accurately reflects your life-priorities and is not just a function of spontaneous and whimsical improvisation all the time.

6.      Create a wish-list for your library.  Every time you want to buy a book, put the title on your wish-list.  Let your wish-list grow.  Don’t buy any books from the wish-list until you have finished the books you are already reading, or the ones that you have already bought and put on the “to-read-next” shelf.  Here again, planning ahead is incredibly freeing.  What will your reading goals be for this coming year?  You will want to read a couple of books on current issues, maybe some classical and contemporary literature (if you like that and find it enriching), definitely some books on theology or philosophy or church history or apologetics (whichever is your area of expertise), and probably some other books of social commentary or self-help.  Then you also have the books you will be using for spiritual reading and meditation during the year, in accordance with your program for personal spiritual growth.  Pick out the twelve or fourteen that you want to read this year.  Get them.  Put them on your “to-read-next” shelf.  Don’t buy any more until you have read those.  All the new ones that come onto your radar screen – add them to your wish-list, but don’t buy them yet.  If you want to change your year’s list mid-way through, run your reasons by your spiritual director (or some kind of accountability partner), not because you need “permission” strictly speaking, but because you want to keep your book-habit under control, so that it doesn’t create turbulence in your heart and clutter in your life.

7.      Know your weak points.  We all have them.  From your question, it seems like you are a book collector.  Other people just have to have the latest clothes.  Others just can’t resist buying new luggage all the time.  For others, its electronic gadgets – the latest, no matter what, no matter whether it will really help me be more efficient in my mission or not!  For others it’s music – the CD collection is gargantuan!  We don’t need to go into the psychological reasons behind these personal tendencies (though that would be an interesting study!).  But in whichever area you find yourself most tempted to be over-indulgent, keep vigilant.  Get an accountability partner to help you stay objective (maybe your spiritual director).

8.      Support ministries or charities that mean a lot to you personally.  If we have income, we should tithe, just like we recommend to all Catholics.  I have always been struck by the example of St. John Vianney in this regard.  He spent a lot of time and effort raising money to bring his parish up to snuff.  Once the chapels and church and other accoutrements were in place, he continued to raise money, even begging the many pilgrims for money.  And what did he use it for?  To endow annual missions in other parishes.  He kept track of how much he needed to endow a mission, and would raise money continually for that purpose.  And once he finished one, he would start right away on another.  Here is a man who understood that money is a means to an end!!

9.      Be proactive in your entertainment.  What activities really help you relax and provide you with your necessary recreation?  How often do you need to engage in them to keep your mind and body keen and focused?  We need to be very careful in this area, because of our special responsibility to be spiritual leaders.  Our interior life directly affects thousands of people – the people we serve.  We can’t afford to be careless about what we let into our minds and imaginations.  And we have to make sure that we don’t start depending on entertainment for our happiness.  Our happiness is to be found in loving and serving God and his people.  Entertainment (TV, movies, video-games…) can serve as necessary recreation (“the bow that is always strung soon loses its strength,” as St. John the Evangelist put it once), but it can also become a drain on our energy, and even an addiction.  Other forms of recreation can often be even more beneficial – sports, real games (cards, Scrabble, ping pong…) played with real people, reading literature, hiking or walking outdoors in nature…  In this area, it’s also very healthy for us to find a small group of friends with whom we can recreate and relax together.  Unhealthy obsessions with acquiring or using material goods can stem from a psychological thirst for rest, companionship, or relaxation that we are not meeting in a proper way.

Well, as I said, I can’t give you a formula. But I hope that those reflections are of some assistance.  With this email I am sending along a prayer for you and your ministry.  God bless you!

I know we have a lot of holy priests and religious who read our blog. I would also like to invite them to provide insight into how they make these decisions.

PS from Dan: The book “Happy Are You Poor” by Father Dubay provides a fantastic treatment of this subject.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", Inside the Passion--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Meditations for Mothers, and A Guide to Christian Meditation.

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  • Jessica

    Thank you for this post! I am not a priest, but I have been feeling especially called to keep it essential in my posessions and was looking for some guidelines to do so. I’m in a tight economic situation, but want my simplicity to be based on the gospel and not on pure necessity. I would want live the same way (with regards to my personal belongings) even had I better financial means.

  • JustMe

    Great advice for all of us.  Thanks for the insightful and informative post. 

  • Teresa M.

    I have been getting rid of stuff on a regular basis for over a year. I can’t believe how much junk I have accumulated. My weakness is books. I had a huge collection and realized that the last time I had read many of these books was 15 years ago, or longer. Why keep them?

    I find it is easier for me to place the books I have decided to get rid of in a box and seal it. That way, I am not tempted to look in the box again to see if I have changed my mind. I haven’t missed anything I have donated to the thrift shops.

    I also no longer buy popular fiction in hard copy form. I buy it for my Kindle or borrow it from the library. Either way, it doesn’t take up permanent space in my house.

  • M.

    Excellent post Fr John! I think all these things can be applied to us lay folks as well. We can surely all agree that for the most part our homes and garages are overwhelmed w/stuff!! But the reality is that there is so much freedom is living a simple and uncluttered life. I do like this reminder that “gospel simplicity is not opposed to dignity and distinction”. I know priests who will spend a little bit extra on beautiful vestments and items of worship as a sign of glorifying God and saving the best for Him. They also are the ones that are clean and neat and well dressed. Not to be pretentious or anything, but because they are representatives of Christ, and as such recognize that dignity and carry it with great honor and humility. So, in essence it is not about them, but about Who they represent. But as you said, there is a balance. I also know some priests who practice tithing, giving 10% back to the church. Not that they really need so since they are already giving their whole life, but it is something they do out of gratitude and also it is a practice that allows them to place their trust in God and give an example to their parishioners that no matter how much or how little you make, your first fruits should always go to God.

  • Eugene LeBoeuf

    I have Fr Dubay’s books – for me, good for spiritual direction. I thought I was unique as a book-a-holic. I like your advise to created
    the shelf or space for BOOKS TO READ

  • Anonymous

    It is so beautiful how the practical instruction in this post speaks to a wide variety of people and to hear how the Spirit is already leading others in care for simplicity and detachment from material things! Thanks everyone here for commenting, Father questioner for the idea, and Father B. for such thorough counsel! This is a real gift in itself in the middle of something of the annual material consumerist extravaganza! 

  • Anonymous

    Books are great items to re-gift.  How nice it would be to receive a book from someone who cherishes books.  Send a nice letter with each book stating why it meant something to you.  I love when I’m able to “pass on” what I truly don’t need anymore.

  • Suzacon

    Can anyone comment on the tension that results when a spouse struggles with the addiction of accumulation and the other seeks to simplify?

    • Anonymous

      Having been on both sides of the ‘accumulation’ issue I can only suggest that you must pray first of all, for healing and patience……..for prudence, fortitude, enlightenment, love, and understanding.  For both spouses!!

      The media play an enormous role in our ‘buy, buy, buy’ culture.  You hear it and see it on TV, radio, the Internet, magazines, newspapers, etc….. turning off the TV, being selective of what you watch, read, and listen to, and being aware of advertising ploys can help.  There are many souls, myself included, who have found themselves throwing out never-used items, asking ourselves, “Why did I buy this?”

      One answer is that it fills a void – but that’s a whole different issue.

  • Fatherkizito

    That was soul inspiring and thought provoking. God bless you Fr. John

  • Claire

    This is a very challenging article, one I need to copy and save to reread often.  It makes me realize how much of my life I haven’t yet surrendered to God.

  • Guest

    I have re-read this Post and it is a brilliant “Food for Thought” not only to the Ordained but to all of us Catholic Faithful

  • Yusboko

    Fr John,
    Thank you for such good counsel.
    Yohanes, Dili, Timor-Leste

  • M.

    I know we are far far far away from lent … but I have heard of people putting into practice the “40 bags for lent” moto. Each day they fill a bag with stuff they do not want, and donate it to Catholic Social Services or Goodwill. Start w.your attic and work your way down