Twenty Something

Counseling the Counselors: Providing More Support
to Our Priests


Is there still a stigma around mental illness? Is that stigma more pronounced among priests?

The answer to those questions became resoundingly clear last summer when Paul Ruff addressed a gathering of 250-some priests from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Ruff, a 66-year-old licensed Catholic psychologist and director of counseling services for The St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., was sharing results of a survey they had participated in, exploring areas of reported satisfaction and concern. He told them he’d been talking to the archbishop about how to increase accessibility to mental health services for priests.

Spontaneous applause broke out.

“That let us know the stigma is gone,” Ruff said. “‘I’m not going to just secretly say that’s a good thing, but I’m going to applaud it.’ The need is felt, it’s palpable.”

Further evidence: when a priest comes to Ruff’s office at the seminary—where he counsels both seminarians and priests—he isn’t shy.

“I’ve always told priests I see, ‘If you want to come in the back door, to not do the long walk down the hall and maintain some sense of privacy, you can call me when you arrive.’ They always say, ‘No, it’s good for guys to know I’m coming in here.’ And when someone asks, ‘What are you here for?’, they say, ‘Oh, some mental health stuff with Ruff.’ ‘Oh, great.’”

His work is part of The St. Paul Seminary Institute for Ongoing Clergy Formation. Founded in 2016, it supports priests and deacons in active ministry through a variety of retreats, workshops and counseling services. Given the breadth and depth of its offerings—about 25 events a year—it is unique.

“It’s really helpful because our lives are full,” said Father Peter Williams, pastor of St. Ambrose Catholic Community in Woodbury, Minn.

“How do we help priests go from survival mode to flourishing?”

By providing year-round opportunities for intellectual, pastoral, spiritual and human formation.

Their well-received programs are expanding in scope and impact, thanks to new grants from Lilly Endowment Inc. and the Haggerty Foundation. The grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. was made possible through the Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative. They are enabling more guidance for pastors at schools and a major boost in mental-health support.

Warding off against burnout is crucial, Ruff said. “How do I stand in this vocation in the too-much of everything and live it in the way that I just carry the part that’s mine? If we try to do it all, we can’t.”

In addition to examining their prayer lives, Ruff prods priests to assess their sleep and dietary habits. “It’s our dilemma as men—we haven’t been trained to think about the self-care we need and how to take that not as a luxury but as a responsibility. What’s your stewardship, as a resource?”

Getting fresh air can make a big difference. “We live in strange days,” Ruff said. “We live in more and more virtual worlds, and we weren’t meant for a virtual world.”

Some psychologists prescribe gardening. “Digging in the dirt helps with depression,” Ruff said. “Research shows that. It might be biologically driven. We’re part of a biome, and we want to be in it.”

The work of the Institute for Ongoing Clergy Formation is cause for rejoicing, Father Williams said. “It should be a note of pride for the whole Church, all people of God, that we’re caring for our priests and wanting them to grow.”

Ruff senses that response among lay people. “It’s kind of like when you’re a child, and you see your parents are doing things to take care of themselves. It’s reassuring to you that they’re going to be OK. We cheer for that.”

Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.