Midlife Transition Catholic Clergy

Midlife Transition and Clergy

JAnetius, S.T. (2013). Altering the Altar: Myth, Celibacy & Psychology, ISBN-9781517015169, Thrissur: Mishil & Js Publishers chapter5:pp65-79

The urge to grow is one of the insatiable quests of human beings. This process will stop only at the point of death. This growth is different from our chronological growth. At one stage in life, a reflecting person will know and feel that half of his life is completed and pause for a while. He will look back and forth to wonder, question and evaluate the dimension of his growth in the light of past achievements and life lived and the roads less traveled. This process of adult development that occurs roughly between the ages 35 and 50 is identified as midlife transition.

Cavanaugh, a clinical psychologist understands, ‘most people have no crisis at midlife transition who handles things well before this period’ and Holden, that ‘men are more vulnerable at midlife than women’. Levinson (1978) who made a classical study on male adult life understands that, as men enter midlife, they are likely to review the progress and ask what have I done? Where am I now? Of what value is my life to the society, to others and especially to me? This is a period of re-evaluation where men confront themselves. They pause and reflect. Levinson’s studies also reveal further that this process is seen in all reflective personalities.

First let us look at the Midlife Transition from the perspective of two psychologists, namely, Levinson and Erikson and further from the perspective of psychosexual development.

 Levinson: Levinson explains male adult development as follows: When a person enters the adult world at the ages of 22 - 28 he plans out his future and takes initial choices regarding occupation, love relationships, peer relationship, values and life style. Roughly at 28 - 33, the plans and goals he has taken at the previous stage become more serious that he considers further modifications, exclusions. They will try to do it with the sense of urgency, for they feel the scarcity of time. Some go through this period smoothly while many experience moderate or severe crisis. This is the period of decision-making in a person shapes the second half of life. The next phase up to 40 is the culmination of early adulthood to realize his aspirations and goals. This is a settling down period, where a man will become ‘One’s Own person’.

The age 40-45 is the period of mid-life transition. Here a person yearns for a better life where the neglected parts of the self can be expressed. It is also a period of series of changes marked by a lot of marker events in any form of change in career, love life, illness, death of parents, move of residence. After this, a person enters middle adulthood, a period (45-60) marked by forming a new life structure caused by the transition and a real creative season in life, and a period of fulfillment.

Erikson: According to Erikson (1963) there are eight stages of psychosocial developments. Each stage develops depending upon our social interaction, having its own developmental tasks and psychological problems. In the adult life, intimacy Vs isolation (age 18-35), generativity Vs self-absorption (age 35-60) and integrity Vs despair (age 60+) are the three developmental tasks.

Intimacy is a person’s ability to share with and care without fear of losing oneself in the process. If intimacy is not achieved in authentic friendships, a sense of isolation will overpower the person. Once this fear of losing oneself is gone or in other words, a sense of selfishness is conquered, generativity takes place. Generativity is providing guidelines for future generations. That is, the focus shifts away from the individual towards others. Anyone who shows an interest in helping the next generation to become better in any way engages in generativity.

Although married people practice generativity by raising children, Erikson considers teaching, writing, invention in fields of arts and sciences, social activism and other creative pursuits in career, in leisure time activities, caring for others, meaningful volunteer works that generally contribute to the welfare of future generations to be generativity. Corey explains (1978) adults who fail to achieve productivity at this stage of growth begin to experience a kind of psychological death. They will be self-centered and will give priority to their own personal needs and comfort. Also in the next stage of development, which falls in 60+, look back their accomplishments feel guilty about their past, which will lead them in to despair, hopelessness, resentment and self-rejection.

Priesthood and Midlife challenges: According to Karl Rahner (1969), a leading Catholic theologian, priest is one who functions as bridge between God and human beings with a double ministry namely, cultic and pastoral. By cultic, the priests continually represent Jesus who was crucified and by pastoral, teach and preach the doctrine. The priest in the past was considered a special person of holiness, confined himself to the four walls of the presbytery. He could be easily identified by his dress, celibate life style, and practically away from the attractions and distractions of the society. Today, the mixing of conservative and liberal ideology in the same robe started conflicts and tensions in defining the role of a priest. The effort of theologians to moot a proper understanding of priesthood and celibacy applicable for today is still in process.

According to some studies, there are two major challenges that the priests are not prepared to meet as they enter ministry from seminary formation. 1) The sexual revolution in the present day society. 2) The challenges of adult development in midlife transition. A clerical student with a strong desire to become a priest, well guided and guarded by the seminary formation team enters into ministry, where he is practically free. The infusion of mass media and liberal morality in the present day society is a great challenge, which many young priests are not prepared to face. The second problem is handling midlife transition. Here too, priests who are poor in psychosexual development, fail to handle healthily the different adult developments that take place in them, especially as they grow older and older. Due to these, priests involve in many scandals, illegitimate sexual relationships and sometimes leave the active ministry.

Cristantiello (1978) defines psychosexual development as the ‘harmonious interplay of the individual’s psychological and sexual capacities within an ordered and ethical value system’. Cavanagh (1983), a clinical psychologist sees these inadequate psychosocial competencies as the cause of unsatisfactory psychosexual development in a person because it is closely connected with intellectual, emotional, social and moral areas of personality. Cavanagh further explains some progress normally in psychosexual development; for some, progress is stunned or delayed and in some there is no progress at all if they remain fixated in child or adolescent stages of development.

Midlife Transition

§ Feeling that half of the life is over § Questioning the present life situation § Plans to change the career § Creative season in life § A period of fulfillment § New life structure & settlement

As people mature they learn about life, develop goals, values, and philosophies of their own. Sometimes these early decisions and plans fit very nicely with the life-style one has chosen as they grow older; most often, however, they do not. So tension builds up. For those who can well fit into the lifestyle chosen, the midlife moves as a pleasant transition. For others, who wobble in the crossroads, it can become crisis. This is a developmental dilemma according to Sheehy (1983), when a person stops trying to please others and begin to validate his own self. Another aspect of the transition in the mid-life is the urge or craving for life fulfillment or life goal setting. Corey (1986) views this crisis in the mid-life as a process of developing one’s own philosophy of life. The experience of early adult life surfaces in the current life creates a chaotic situation and threatens the present life. Murphy (1992) also views it in similar fashion, ‘(in mid-life) people start to re-evaluate the truth of what they learned about life when the old answers no longer work for the new questions’.

Psychologists Freud and C.G. Jung explain midlife characterized by depression, exhaustion, irritability, sleeplessness and headaches. This transition is also described as creative illness by some psychologists because of its integration with one’s strengths, purposes and goals in life. According to C.G. Jung (1975) this transition is marked by the awakening of one’s own anima, that is, the personification of all feminine psychological tendencies in a man’s psyche’ that are ignored and repressed in the first half of life. Anima is the feminine part of a man’s soul. It causes males to have feminine traits. It provides a framework for males to interact with females. It is the concept of ideal woman in a man. Anima Awakening is the midlife psychological process in which feminine psychological tendencies in a man’s psyche that are ignored and repressed in the first half of life will come out in the midlife. Men will try to see it in a woman. This task of the unconscious in the mid-life in bringing such an entanglement is ‘to force a man to develop and to bring his own being to maturity’.

According to Bush (19nd) in the life of celibates, this anima can be found within, through meditation, active imagination, contemplative prayer and mystical experiences. In the life of mystics this awakening of the anima is situated on a higher plane and directed towards the inner self, the consciousness of God in them. It is this realization that made St. Paul to proclaim that ‘it is not I who live but Jesus lives in me(Gal: 2,20). San Juan De La Cruz, a Spanish Carmelite mystic experienced his soul as the bride and Christ as the groom. His writings are highly sensual. In his writings ‘Spiritual Canticle’, ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, and ‘Living Flame of Love’, he speaks about the soul’s search for the beloved and the union. This is the highest degree of perfection a person can reach, i.e., spiritual marriage, a total union and transformation in the Beloved (Kavanaugh & Rodriguez, 1973). Before the spiritual marriage, San Juan De La Cruz under went a real trauma, which he calls ‘dark night of the soul’, which can be interpreted as mid-life transition too.

Buddhism advocates this integration of masculinity/femininity as a spiritual goal; and ‘it is achieved by few monastic and elite males with much struggle’ (Levinson, 1978 p.229). South Indian Tamil Hinduism understands this integration as bridal mysticism. Manikavasakar, a 7th Century Shaivite saint and Nammalvar, Vaishnavite holy people were notable for this masculine-feminine integration of self in God. Their love for God is expressed in Tamil poetry that sounds exactly like a man-woman love affair (Renou, 1961). The legitimate question that may arise here is can any ordinary celibate person attain this state? And, how many people have attained this state of life, where they could integrate their anima with pure imagination?

Other major problems of Midlife among clergy:The studies by Sofield (1992) on the adult development of clergy identify 3 major problems in midlife: 1) loneliness, 2) stress, and 3) frustration.

1) Loneliness: Priest an ordained committed man, who gave himself unselfishly and untiringly to his work and his ministry for a number of years finds himself in illusion. At first, it will be experienced as a strange feeling emptiness. Slowly he becomes aware that something is missing in his life and a sense of loneliness and emptiness overpower every movement of his life. The ministry that gave enough satisfaction and meaning no longer satisfy him. He wants something more but not clear what he wants. They feel that their parish people, priest friends and their superiors either unwilling or unable to respond to what they are looking for. Many priests fall prey to alcohol or intimate relationship with women. Many a times, not ready to leave the ministry due to social pressure, lead a life of duplicity and shame.

2) Stress: Gill, an American Psychiatrist claims that priests are different from the average male in the society. Priests are often kind, gentle, compassionate people with a strong need to be needed and appreciated for their efforts. Researches prove that this kind of personality is vulnerable to stress, especially in an all-male environment. This usually makes them sick emotionally, spiritually and physically. Lack of proper stress management and recreation aggravates this problem.

 3) Frustration: Priests are more of idealistic and less practical minded people with huge expectations. So they are easily disappointed and frustrated when they do not live up to the often unrealistic expectations of the parish people and sometimes their own. To a great extent we can attribute this to the seminary training where the main focus of formation is ministry not human living. Though exposure camps and other home-living experiences are very much encouraged and inculcated in the priestly formation today, the focus still remains ministry.

Managing Midlife: Priests should direct the creative energy of the adult life, which is normally diverted in the family and children, into other creative purposes like writing, composing, building society etc. Only then midlife will become a productive period of life. Since priests are more vulnerable in mid-life, they must be aware of this growth and development by participating in regular renewal and other psychological training on life span developments to face the challenges of midlife. Getting together often to share the personal problems and growth related issues among themselves will pave way for mutual help and it can facilitate an atmosphere where personal growth will be possible.

Conclusion: Midlife is a period of growth & development. However, Priests are vulnerable in this period irrespective of their commitments. It is a creative season in life and a period of life fulfillment and life goal setting. It is a time of developing one’s own philosophy of life because we stop pleasing others and begin to validate our own self by becoming ‘One’s Own person’. It is a time of serious decision-making and a beginning of new life. It is a time to re-evaluate the present with an eye toward the road less traveled.


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