Time to care for our Jaded Priests

As Catholics we need to ease the burden on our priests

 

Some of our priests feel unsupported: unsupported by those in leadership in the Church, unsupported by colleagues and unappreciated by many parishioners. While everyone acknowledges that there must be more lay involvement in the Church, this is often more of a platitude than a commitment to do something. Some priests say they find many parishioners reluctant to be any more involved than going to Mass once a week.

Some priests I meet often feel so discouraged, disheartened and even tempted to be disbelieving. The overwhelming majority are happy and fulfilled in their ministry despite the challenges, but are feeling the strain. For some priests, the deafening silence about the good they do is a painful reality.

Struggle

As Ireland struggles to come to terms with its past many priests feel that they are unfairly caught in the headlights, sins of a previous era hung around their neck. In the all-too-Irish desperate rush to simplistic judgement, the Church and priests are often blamed for all the ills of the past our culture is unwilling to address properly.

Priestly identity in Ireland is changing rapidly and no one is quite sure what the future holds. One thing that is for sure, however, is that priests are facing more-and-more demands on their time and emotional energy.

Something has got to give. Some of the priests I meet feel fragile – even jaded – trying to keep up. And trying to ensure that the mask doesn’t slip. Some priests cope with the daily stress of feeling that they can never admit that they’re struggling.

Parish-based priests have one day off every week – or at least that’s the theory. Many priests tell me that days off are becoming rarer. Holidays are also more difficult. Some priests feel guilty about taking time off, as if they are letting the side down.

“But who would do a funeral if I took a week off,” an elderly priest told me recently after daily Mass. At that same daily Mass I knelt as with tired-looking hands and arthritic fingers that holy man raised the host and proclaimed “this is my body”. It was a religious truth in more ways than one. He is a man who has brought the light of Christ to communities for decades.

He has witnessed the transformation of Ireland to a place where many people – even some Massgoers – live their lives as if God doesn’t exist. Yet, the demands are the same: families will often be irate if a priest is not immediately available to attend to a sick relative. It’s as if some people haven’t noticed that there used to be four priests in the parish and now there is only one man struggling to keep up.

Many of our parishes are still operating based largely on the generosity of an elderly priest. Some priests feel emotionally drained by non-Massgoing Catholics who have unmanageable demands particularly around funerals and weddings and feel hard-done-by when the Church’s liturgy can’t accommodate the latest X-Factor hit.

Some priests are at breaking-point simply keeping the show on the road and there is little or no thought about realistic reform of parish life. There is sometimes a culture in the Church that to admit one is struggling or one’s wellbeing is affected is to concede weakness.

Expectations

While the number of priests serving in parishes has fallen sharply in recent years, the expectations largely remain the same. In many dioceses, the (usually unsaid) advice is simply to keep one’s head down and get on with things. Priests themselves can sometimes be too timid.

They take on more and more commitments, even though they know it’s not realistic. Some priests are reluctant to talk about the reality of burn out in case they are seen to be whinging.

Recently, support groups launched a campaign called ‘mind our men’ encouraging people to try to help Irishmen who are struggling with their mental health. Priests are hugely vulnerable. What about – as a Church community – a ‘mind our priests’ campaign? What about a realisation as parishioners that we can’t expect what went before? What about facing painful decisions about cutting the number of Masses and rationalising parishes? What about facing the reality that we have too many churches in Ireland? One of the ironies is that as priestly numbers have fallen the overall number of churches has increased.

Where is the leadership in all of this? Are we as laypeople willing to take on co-responsibility and let our priests know that they don’t have to go it alone?

There’s also challenges that the sometimes solitary life of a priest brings. Some priests are lonely and experience a huge sense of isolation. Some never experience intimacy in their lives and that felt needs goes unfulfilled. This sometimes leads to resentment, bitterness and, for some, overwhelming sadness.

Many priests have imbibed the message that the only way to live celibacy is to keep their heart a prisoner, to love no-one, never to be vulnerable. But, a human being can’t survive without love, never mind thrive.

The only way to have a heart that does not love, C.S. Lewis knew based on his own bitter experience is to “lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable”. Do priests have someone to turn to? Do they have friends with whom they can experience the human need for intimacy and to know themselves to be loved and accepted?

We all bear responsibility for this. Too often we Catholics see our priests as bionic Superman-like figures without the same feelings and emotional needs of others. It’s as if the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Orders overrides all human issues. But it doesn’t. How do we show appreciation for our priests? How do we demonstrate that the time spent on a homily or preparing a special liturgy is valued?

As Catholics we need to develop creative ways to ease the burden on our priests and to let them know that their work is valued and their ministry affirmed. Maybe this is something that parish pastoral councils could address?

A life of service in a bruised and bloodied Church is challenging and physically, mentally and emotionally draining. This is an uncomfortable truth that must be faced, but if faced with courage and honesty can lead to a renewed sense of co-responsibility in the Church.

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