Priests are under unique and damaging pressures today
I’d like to look at some of the difficulties and pressures that face us as priests in Ireland today. I don’t think I have anything profound or original to say – in fact, I know I don’t. I am not an academic. I have no great expertise in or knowledge of theology. I may be considered with some suspicion by elements in the Vatican, but anything I say won’t be news to anyone. I hope, however, that it might provide a context for reflection and prayer.
All of us know these are challenging times to be a priest. The tragic death two weeks ago of Fr Murdeach Tuffy has reminded us of that again in a most distressing way. The manner of his passing devastated people near and far. We will never know why he did it.
He had given over thirteen years of outstanding service as a priest. For the past ten years he was director of the Newman Institute in Ballina. Added to this was his parish work, his work in vocations promotion at local and national level, and his work with Accord. Availability was his second name. If he had a fault, Bishop Fleming said at his funeral Mass, it was his inability to say no to so many people who came to him with requests, and no to his bishop, when, regretfully, according to Bishop Fleming, he did the same.
And after Murdeach’s death, people were left with the question. Why? Why did someone as gifted and as young as Muredach only see darkness and decide that he could travel no further on life’s journey? Why did he not share with someone whatever troubles filled his mind?
We will never know, but it is a reminder of the pressures priests face today, and maybe also of the difficulty we priests have in sharing – our burdens, and questions, our anxieties and darkness.
It would seem to me that many priests are experiencing unique pressures today that are, if not the cause of premature death, certainly damaging to our health – physically, emotionally, psychologically – and that we need to be aware of, and attentive to, them.
I would like to look at six factors that are contributing to the pressures clergy experience today, and to which we need to be attentive.
1. Work. You might remember an article by a priest that appeared, I think, in Intercom about 20 years ago that talked about the leisurely life of many priests, particularly of country priests, and which caused a lot of indignation at the time. It spoke of how after morning Mass and breakfast, the priest would look for a funeral to go to or maybe head to the golf course. It ruffled a lot of feathers.
How times have changed!
I don’t have to tell you that the workload of many clergy has increased substantially in recent years. Many busy parishes that had two or three priests 10 years ago now have to make do with one or two priests less. And it is not the number of Sunday Masses that is the problem (though that can be too). It is the many other heavy duty responsibilities that come with parish ministry, particularly urban parish ministry – the constant funerals, weddings, visitation of the sick, round-the-clock availability to deal with all kinds of problems, the organisations and committees the priest is expected to attend or chair. And then there is the management of schools. Some urban parishes have four or five schools. Managing them places enormous burdens on clergy. I know that many would be thrilled if they could be relieved of the headache which that responsibility brings.
And we know the problem is going to get worse. There is a greying of the clergy. The majority are now aged over 60. Young men are few on the ground. Seminaries are almost empty. Many parishes will have even fewer clergy in the next few years.
The clustering of parishes is a stop-gap approach that is not a solution to the priest shortage. Some parishes will be priestless, a phenomenon that has already begun. And the demands on the few remaining priests will grow even greater. They will become little more than sacrament dispensers, going from one parish or church to another, with little or no time to get to know people or to be with them.
As clergy retire or die, there is scarcely anyone to replace them, with the result that there are fewer active men who are required to take on more and more responsibilities. It is a phenomenon we are familiar with in the Redemptorists, where the few we have who are under 50 are asked to do more and more.
What all of this means is that priests are increasingly stretched and stressed. People’s health and quality of work are affected. They don’t have the space they need, the time out, to breathe, to engage in serious reading and study, even to pray. Their intellectual life can grow shallow; they become stale – with implications for the quality of preaching and ministry, and indeed for a healthy, balanced life itself.
Few can take a sabbatical anymore, because there is no one to step in for him for the time he is away. Not so long ago, Irish Redemptorists were permitted to have a sabbatical every 10 years or so. No longer can they do that.
Might I mention also the impact of men leaving the ministry? The departure of friends and people I admire has had a huge impact on me. There is the sense of loss, of betrayal, of being let down, of abandonment. It leads to a questioning of one’s own vocation and ministry. It has a tremendous demoralising effect.
2. Loneliness. I think loneliness is an issue for many clergy, and one that may become even more pronounced as work and other pressures on clergy increase. When I was thinking of priesthood all those years ago, a fear of loneliness was one of the main reasons why I opted for a religious order, why I decided to hook up with the Redemptorists. I didn’t fancy coming home alone to an empty house every evening. Of course, I’ve since discovered that it’s quite possible to be very lonely even when living in the context of a large religious community. And I know lonely religious; in fact, I’ve been there myself.
Loneliness brings particular dangers that I don’t have to tell you about – a sense of isolation, the risk of addiction, a tendency towards melancholia. We all know clergy who have found solace in the bottle, or another addiction, or who have developed an obsessional interest in something trivial or that should be peripheral to their lives as a response largely to the pain/dread of loneliness. They turn to whatever might distract them from the emptiness within. And so you can have the Golfer, the Gambler, the Racing Man, the Obsessive.
I know one parish priest who in his old age became obsessed with litter. He preached about it every Sunday, and spent his days going up and down the village streets chasing after litter. Some people laughed at him; many felt sorry for him – and it was very sad.
The need for healthy friendships is obviously critical, and not just inside the priesthood, even though that is so important, and not just with men. It’s something Donald Cozzens stresses in his book, The Changing Face of Priesthood, that it is critical we priests cultivate intimate relationships and that we cultivate female friendships too; that we develop, if at all possible, a healthy, intimate relationship with a female soul mate. Such a relationship will offer a sense of perspective and give a balance to our life that is essential. Aside from the loneliness issue altogether, to be fully human, to be effective ministers, to be mature sexual beings and to be healthy celibates, we need to nurture authentic celibate relationships. I myself have been very fortunate in that regard, and I thank God for it.
Of course, this is difficult to do. Suspicions will be aroused if you’re seen too much with a member of the opposite sex, so it is important to keep the relationship in the public domain – so that family and friends know about it, so there is nothing secret about it.
3. Fallout from sex abuse scandals. I’m sure that, like me, you have been upset, appalled, depressed after the publication of the various reports and audits into clerical sexual abuse. The fallout from these has had a hugely demoralising effect on clergy. Each time a report has been published, my way of dealing with it has been to not listen to the radio or read a newspaper for about a week afterwards. I have to tune out. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to cope. I remember after the Ferns Report came out, one parish priest telling me that he decided there and then never to wear his collar again when going into town. He was so embarrassed and ashamed.
And while we appreciate the need for effective child protection policies, we all feel threatened ourselves also – because we know how open it leaves us to false or malicious allegations being levelled against us, and how difficult it is to defend ourselves against them. The Fr Kevin Reynolds case that brought this home to us in a very real and frightening way. So there is, naturally, a worry about policies and how they might impact on us individually. This is perhaps the one instance above all others where someone is guilty ‘til proven innocent, and even if you are acquitted, you remain tarnished forever.
And then there is the loss of trust that was for so long taken for granted. We all feel more circumspect in our dealings with young people, and we feel that many parents view us with greater circumspection too.
In that context, it is understandable that we should experience a number of maybe even conflicting emotions in response to the clerical sex abuse problem. Certainly, I have.
I have felt a great deal of self-pity. Here I am a poor, innocent priest getting a terrible bashing, getting fierce flack for the sins of the few, even though I myself have done nothing wrong and am a mere foot soldier doing my best. To wallow in self-pity is a useless exercise – but it is understandable.
I have felt anger at the media, not so much for highlighting the problem because it was essential that they did that, but because of the impression created that this is exclusively or primarily a Catholic Church problem. It is understandable that we would feel defensive, and hard done by, and believe that the media have not been fair to us, and that we would want to lash out at them – though that too is a useless exercise.
I have felt anger at the abusers, for getting us in this mess in the first place, for betraying their religious vocation in a most appalling way, for the damage they have done to their victims and their victims’ families, as well as to their own families, and to the family of church.
And I have felt anger at the bishops and congregational leaders, a real frustration at the poor leadership they have shown. My God, how could they have mishandled the thing so badly? Why were they not more pro-active in dealing with it? Why, in God’s name, couldn’t they get their act together? So, a feeling of disappointment, of frustration, of being let down.
And all of this compounds the already strong feelings of pressure and vulnerability so many of us feel. It’s hard enough doing our job without having to deal with the devastating impact of the clerical sexual abuse scandals on top of everything else. But I think we should note a positive in all of this too – and that is the continued support and understanding of so many ordinary Catholics, their appreciation of the good work their good priests do. So many have gone out of their way to offer their support and appreciation.
4. Life of prayer. Many priests are men under pressure, and one area of our lives that can suffer as a result is the spiritual. As priests, it goes without saying that the spiritual dimension must be at the core of our lives, and all the more so in times of stress like we are experiencing now. But it can be hard for us to integrate the spiritual dimension into our lives, certainly to do so in a way that is authentic and is suited to our particular needs.
In this regard, diocesan priests may have a particular problem because the model of spiritual life that the diocesan is given so often tends to be based on the monastic tradition, and may not be suited to the particular situation of the diocesan clergyman. Almost all clergy retreats, for instance, are given by religious. The spirituality they propose may not be suited to the needs of those who live and minister outside of religious community. Even the Divine Office is not meant to be said alone, or is more easily prayed in the context of a religious community. In monasteries and religious communities, too, there is some prayer structure to the day, whereas diocesan priests are left to their own devices. And some sort of regular, structured prayer life is more difficult if you are living alone, irrespective of whether you are busy or not. I think it’s also true that on-going spiritual direction, in many cases, just doesn’t seem to happen.
5. The impact of secularisation. I was ordained in 1988. It was the culmination of nine years of study that had begun in September 1979 – the month of the pope’s triumphal visit to Ireland. I was in Ballybrit for the youth Mass. I will never forget the 10 minutes of cheering that interrupted John Paul II’s address. The pope was Bono. You’d have to go to Slane for that today.
Twenty four years is an insignificant period of time when measured against the great expanse of history, but in terms of the recent history of the church in Ireland they seem an age. When I was ordained, things, at least on the surface, seemed rosy in the garden. It was a good time to be a priest. Weekly Mass attendance was extraordinarily high by Western European standards. Respect for the church and its leaders and clergy was high. The church’s power and moral authority were still strong, as the referenda results of the mid-80s showed. By no means was that power and influence at a level comparable to that of the early decades of the modern Irish state, but there was little reason to think that things would change substantially as we moved towards the new millennium.
But change they did. And at a rapid pace. We have undergone a quite phenomenal process of secularisation in recent years, compressing into less than two decades something that took over half a century to happen in other Western countries. So, the transformation from a religious to a secular society has been more traumatic for us.
And that secularisation had had huge implications for the church and for us priests. There are falling levels of attendance at religious services. All of us have noticed it, even if in rural areas it is not as pronounced as in urban areas. From a situation where Mass attendance at the time of the papal visit was in the 85-90 per cent range, it has now fallen to below 40 per cent. In some urban areas, it’s 10 per cent or lower. Conspicuous by their absence in urban and rural parishes alike are those aged under 30. These people are in all likelihood lost forever.
The experts tell us that as a consequence of secularisation, we can identify three categories of Catholic in Ireland:
•The committed – still a lot of people but mostly older, greyer, traditional. These are the ones who go to Sunday Mass weekly or often.
•The casual – these would consider themselves to be fairly good Catholics, but are a la carte (particularly in the areas of sexual morality and fulfilling the Sunday obligation). Many of my friends and family fall into this category.
•The disengaged – those who no longer go, who don’t care, or who are downright antagonistic.
For many people, religion is now a cultural thing, confined to first communions, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. In another generation, the sons and daughters of those who no longer practice will form the majority. Religious language and culture will be alien to them.
At the time of the pope’s visit, most Irish people looked (or at least said they looked) to the Church for guidance on moral issues, and Irish law and the Irish constitution broadly reflected Catholic moral teaching. Today the gap between Rome and the faithful is growing, the majority of people do not look to the Church for guidance on how to live their lives, and Irish law has been ridded of its more overtly Catholic elements. All the evidence would suggest that these trends of declining Church allegiance and attendance will continue.
This growing secularisation has had, and will continue to have, an impact on us priests. We live in a very different country to the one in which we began our priestly ministry and for which so many of us were trained. And we can be left confused and uncertain, unsure what to do, or how to respond. We worry about youth and the disaffected, about falling numbers and the increased demands on us. We worry – but we don’t know what to do about it. Many of us can be tempted to settle simply for maintenance mode.
Of course, secularisation has brought some positives, too. Priests and bishops have been knocked from their pedestals, the culture of clericalism is being challenged as never before, and lay people are beginning to find their voice and to claim ownership of the Church.
6. Lack of support structures. It seems to me, given the work pressures and the isolation and the fears priests can feel today, that there is a real lack of structures in place to offer clergy the kind of support they need. This lack of support is apparent on several levels, and is very damaging.
Priests need help from those in authority. They need to feel that their bishop or religious superior cares about them, and that he knows their story, and that they feel they can turn to him if and when necessary. Bishops and religious superiors need to engage with their priests at a human and pastoral level, to be available to them and not set themselves apart. Bishops need to be pro-active at the practical level, too, in encouraging their priests to delegate more and to take better care of themselves. Indeed, they must insist on it when clergy are reluctant to do it.
Priests need to help themselves also. Where do we go when we need real support, someone to unburden ourselves to? The clerical world can be unnerving, even cold. Adolescent bonhomie can substitute for real communication and intimacy. We can feel alone.
Many clergy are also set in their ways, afraid or unwilling to delegate. Some still feel the need to be personally in charge of everything. Others do not promote active participation by lay people, and oppose the setting up of pastoral councils on the grounds that they only create extra work or are difficult to control. How many of us would dare to employ a full-time pastoral assistant, even if we could afford it? We need to look at how we can help ourselves in practical ways.
We need help on the emotional level too. We clergy feel uneasy about sharing our emotions, our fears, our frustrations, at a personal level. I know we Redemptorists aren’t good at it. We don’t like faith sharing. We all seem to detest small group sharing. But now, more than ever, we need to explore ways in which we can offer each other the emotional and spiritual support and solidarity each one of us so badly needs. If the structures do not exist, we need to create them.
And in this context, we need to acknowledge the role and good work of the Association of Catholic Priests. Even if one doesn’t agree with all its objectives, no one can deny that it offers priests a support structure, a voice, a forum for the exchange of views that otherwise would not exist. Given the context in which we minister as priests today, the very real problems that exist in the universal Church and the dysfunctionality at the centre that is becoming ever more obvious, we need that support, that voice, that common vision, now more than ever.
Thank God for it.
• This is the text of a talk given by Fr Gerard Moloney CSsR at an afternoon of reflection for priests in Esker Retreat House.