09Apr Priests need support – but many don’t let their humanity show

Tony, thank you so much for your honesty and openness here. If cyberhugs are acceptable, consider yourself hugged!
When I read your words, I immediately felt my heart go out to you and a strong desire to be of whatever help and support I could be. As Ger Gleeson and others have said so many times, there are many, many of us who truly want to be fellow travellers with our priests – walking along the road with you side by side – reaching out a hand when you falter and having you reach out a hand to us when we do. We don’t want to be putting unbearable pressure on you to be superhuman and to be all things to all people at all times.
But, and I say this with all the gentleness I can muster, a lot of you don’t let us see that you are human. You may say the words, but your behaviour doesn’t mirror those words. You are constantly in role – a priest, a very firmly barricaded being, acting in a way that I can only presume you have been trained to act. Maybe it’s as a woman that I find most priests to be unapproachable as human beings? I can’t have any other experience, so I can’t know if priests behave differently with women than they do with other men. I have very strong suspicions though!
All I can state is that it’s not very easy to show (or even feel!) compassion towards a mask, a role. But when I see the person behind the mask, every fibre of my being feels compassion for any suffering that person may be experiencing.
You, Tony, by writing about your depression, have shown great courage and true leadership, in my opinion. Surely almost every single person who reads these postings is only too familiar, either personally or within his/her intimate circle with what you describe. The “black dog” is no stranger to my own person or my immediate circle. And we all also know how difficult it is for men in general (and, is it fair to suggest, priests in particular?) to open up about such “failings” and “weakensses” .
But by constantly hiding your human frailty and trying to carry life’s burdens all alone – by staying in role and only showing the mask of “holy priest” to the people around you , you are cutting yourselves off from a rich source of support.
God, how I wish you men could see how keeping women out is hurting you! How I wish the institutional church could see how vital and urgent it is for everybody’s sake that the whole area of human relationships and sexuality is brought out from the dark, forbidden place it currently inhabits in the Catholic church and is looked at in a mature, adult way.
And no, I am not trying to suggest that I think priests necessarily need intimate sexual relations in order to be fully functioning men, but while so much is denied to priests – in that they’re not even allowed to THINK about a non-celibate way of life practically – then how can they allow themselves to avail of the emotional support that honest, truth-filled relationships with women could bring.
I truly believe that, until men and women occupy equal status within Catholicism – whatever that may mean – that women too are priests/bishops/ cardinals, or that priesthood is utterly redefined so that we are all “priests” and there’s no special caste – the institution will continue to become less and less relevant to people’s lives and will become a small, pure sect.
I don’t want to belong to a sect – I want to be part of the world and help the world to see that God’s love is there for all of us and that such a love is way beyond what our wee human minds can even conceive of – not a narrow, judgmental kind of love that’s only there if we follow certain rules. Even my human love for my children doesn’t demand that – how could I possibly imagine God’s love isn’t as strong as my love for my children is?
(Normally, I take a lot of time over writing things on this site – I keep going back over them to try to get them just right. I’m going to try to have some of Tony Butler’s courage here and let this one go as is. I hope it make some kind of sense!)

5 Responses

  1. Padraig

    Makes perfect sense Jo – and right from the heart.

    I don’t know much about seminary training but imagine in the past, and it seems with some of the newer priests at present, they were and are expected to possess hearts of stone. And when the stoney heart is broken – unlike a fleshly one, it’s not going to heal so well, if at all. “Holy priests” and ‘plaster saints’. “The human heart must be broken for Lord Christ to enter in….. ” A heart of flesh. Stones don’t heal cause they can’t weep.

    I am in no way suggesting there are not good and indeed holy priests. We are all called to holiness. And Iraneus seemed to suggest that the glory of God is a whole person, a holy person, one fully alive. Christ comes to bring abundant life.

    I’d be annoyed that priests have expectations placed upon them that are borderline inhumane at times. You need help, support, and like Jo said, there are many people would be more than willing to try to help and support however they may. Families do that. And the ‘Church’ is supposed to be a Family.

    Any ‘normal’ person would fall into depression, and the rest, under that kind of pressure. And when it’s not to be ‘talked about’ for fear of ‘weakness’ ( aka being a normal human being) there is also the added danger that others might get hurt too. There is no need for so much of it.

    I have known one or two priests in my life who were under immense pressures of various kinds – and had nothing, no one they felt they could turn to. They were seriously in pain and that pain led to other people getting hurt too. It was all so very, very unnecessary.

    Tony you take care of yourself too. We maybe all have a tendency to being ‘yes’ people a bit too much. Can’t say ‘no’. Part of that fuller life is choosing at times to just say no.

    I am sure everyone here understands you or will do, sooner or later in life. God bless you !!!

  2. Nuala O'Driscoll

    The sincerity, frustration, common sense and love that motivates this piece of writing is obvious and I agree with all of it. Jo’s article is peppered with pertinent relevant statements. However it has the potential to be very dangerous…because it is all true. The enormity of what Jo and many others on this website envisage, the full inclusion of women in Church governance, is on the level of importance with Paul’s inclusion of gentiles into the early Christian community which at the time was still a sect of Judaism. There was huge opposition from Peter and the other disciples and many angry words were spoken. Paul was so convinced of the truth of his vision for the gentiles that he overcame the opposition to it at the council of Jerusalem. Non-circumcision for gentiles in the first century opened the world to Christianity, full ministry for women in the twenty-first century could create a whole new paradigm of equal enormity for Christianity. It would also break down those awful barricades, that have not only isolated priests in a lonely world, but has also broken women’s spirits for centuries.

  3. ger gleeson

    “But, and I say this with all the gentleness I can muster, a lot of you don’t let us see that you are human”. Just a line from Jo’s superb contribution in relation to Fr Tony Butlers post. That Black Dog Fr Tony, is snapping at the heels of so many on a daily basis. From the posts submitted I am sure that you have received great comfort from both the tone and content. We are all touched by that Black Dog, if not personally, then family members, friends, acquaintances. It appears to be one of those reminders that we are human and there is suffering, regardless of who we are, and what position we hold in life.
    I certainly agree with Jo, when she states that there are some priests who seem to try and hide their humanity. Is it possible that some part of their seminary education guided them along that path? When I was a child priests were put on a pedestal by the people. I wander is it possible that some of our priests, whilst not wanting to be put on that pedestal, believe that they must appear strong, and in control, in every situation. Consequently on occasions they hide their emotions, thoughts, humanity. Naturally if that is the case, then the pain is at times unbearable, particularly when that Black Dog comes calling.
    No matter what our position in life is we all need a helping hand from time to time. All priests who feel lonely and sad, please let your dearest friend know. A cup of tea, lunch, or something stronger, will do you the world of good. If the ACP does nothing else in life, it can be happy that it gave both priests and laity the opportunity of highlighting this scourge. We may not be able to cure the problem, but collectively we can be of immense help to each other.

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    “But, and I say this with all the gentleness I can muster, a lot of you don’t let us see that you are human”. Possibly this is a sympton of having one of the most innate sources of their humanity suppressed. St. Thomas Aquinas calls for Natural Law to never be tampered with (and for those purists out there who believe that homosexuality falls within the confines of this, you misunderstand human nature and what exists within it). I believe the biggest support the ACP has ever had is from St. Thomas Aquinas because it’s not natural that both women be excluded or that clergy be held in unnatural laws. He would refer to this as having the doorway to ethical relativism opened. He tells us that confining people to unnatural laws will lead to a whole mess of occurences – depression being one of them. We all know that Divine Law rules supreme but Natural Law is a close second and legally (in a canonical sense) it doesn’t even make sense for there to be such a tradition (we can’t call it a law simply because it is contrary to Natural Law).

  5. John

    Pope Francis it seems has adopted communal living and eating. Bishope Helder Camara was said to eat and converse in working mens’ cafes. (His successor did not) There seems to be an invisible wall between priests and people. Priests, if they are prepared to mix, could adopt the practice of sitting down to a meal periodically in the parish centre with their parishioners.