Discouragement is a powerful and dangerous thing. Whenever we as Catholics revisit the Liturgical Season of Advent, we recall the powerful words of the Prophets such as Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my People” (Isa 40:1), and the description of the Messiah as one who would not break the “bruised reed” or the “smoldering flax” (Isa 42:3). There is something perennially compelling about awakening to hope, to the realization that with the Coming of Christ, a new day dawns upon us, as groups and individuals. We see something of ourselves as the audience to whom the Prophets speak afresh, year after year. For us to receive the Coming Lord, both in the present “Middle Coming”, as at the end of time, we all need that “thrill of hope” to raise us up to the joyful realization that the Lord is near to us. Yet how far that realization seems to many, lost in the horizonless firmament of modern living.
One of the unspoken and unvoiced trials of the current time is the massive number of priests who feel they are alone, who have no voice or advocate, neither in the Church nor in the world. In this near universal news cycle of bad news after bad news, there are continual reports, informal and formal, of priests turning to unhealthy behaviors to cope with the stressors. Some, perhaps many, neglect their health and become obese, turning to food as their comfort and not practicing legitimate and essential self care. Others turn to the bottle in an attempt to forget their sadness, or to find some degree of cheer in the company of others. There is the scourge of pornography and its “imaginary brides”, which affect priests perhaps just as much as the lay faithful. Add to these difficulties the average burdens of priestly living, from complaining parishioners to finances, and you have a man beset with trials, but with few of the supports on which the ‘average’ man may rely.
Add to this then the fact that he doesn’t know to whom to turn: if he turns to his bishop, he may very well be considered unfit for ministry, even if his falls are infrequent and hopefully manifested to their Confessor or Director (although if studies are true, some priests are eschewing even these important remedies). If he is a young priest, he may be facing a presbyterate which may despise him as a degenerate or a malcontent, perhaps even generally hostile toward the young priest’s zeal and orthodoxy, and even secretly jubilant at his fall. If he is an old priest, he may be facing a creaking diocesan structure which would be far more interested in laicizing him to avoid liability and costly medical bills and pension plans. Some priests have even been offered something akin to ‘severance packages’ to incentivize them to forsake their greatest treasure, to alienate the unalienable: the priesthood of Jesus Christ, which Our Lord, with a brother’s kindness, has shared with them. Some priests have literally left everything to follow Christ, and have no family to fall back on. To whom shall they go?
What so many of these approaches have in common is that priests, bishops and even lay faithful don’t seem to understand the toxic conditions that they have created or abetted which is largely the source of the current record low in clerical morale. It’s so easy to pin the fault on priests, even when no one wants to seem to understand that most well adjusted and fulfilled people do not willingly turn to vice, especially when they are habitually disposed and trained to love what is good. What happens is a slow fade, a breakdown in the resistances, a wearing away of the radiant dawn of hope into the stillborn embrace of cynicism. For such men, grace and conversion have become half-remembered dreams. They may even say their prayers, but only as fragments they “shore against their ruins.” The end has come for them, again to quote T.S. Eliot, but with a whimper, not a bang.
Some of these vices are thrills to the senses when the joys of the spirit have departed. Instead of seeing in their confreres voices of consolation and edification, far too many priests abide on the sidelines, living alone without any reference to common life and group collaboration, as they compound idiosyncrasy upon idiosyncrasy due to years of living alone and unobserved by correcting human company. Some perhaps love this arrangement, so that they can continue to polish the bars of their mental prison cells, and cherish hidden vice.
It seems to me that help will not be immediately forthcoming from our spiritual fathers, the bishops. Their house is now in ruin, and the judgment of the Lord has now fallen upon them. Many have outright abandoned their mandate to shepherd the shepherds, and although we once professed love and respect for them, it is a love and respect as toward a father who long ago left the family to depart to a far distant land. Sometimes it feels to priests that they are dancing pegs in a gyrating game of personnel musical chairs, a “ring around the rosie”, while the corpses of priests drop dead from moral and physical exhaustion. Bishops seem almost as distant celestial beings, unaffected and disinterested by our plight, as they legislated procedures inimical to us, while exempting themselves from the same. We have continued to be obedient, even as we have seen our brothers, some of them long dead and saddled with accusations as baseless as they are unprosecutable, have their memories and reputations defiled, while for the bishops, the band has marched on. I think most of us would have endured any regulation or reform if it meant protecting the people of God and ourselves, because the days are evil. But they have played by another set of rules.
I do have ideas for the renewal of the morale of the priesthood, but I am only trying to explicate the depth of the problem, if only I can touch the hearts of the discouraged and the afraid. I want to say two things to these priestly souls: firstly, you are not alone. Secondly, what is happening to most of us is wrong. Thank God for the kindness of friends and good parishioners who have shown us such understanding and support. Sometimes things for us don’t seem so bad, especially if we are grounded in prayer and healthy relationships. But our concern must be for our broken and vulnerable brothers, because who us can understand fully, except for us? I worry for those who may be swept away with the tide.
I understand that there may be truly evil people among us, men who either never entered the priesthood with worthy intentions, or, having entered, have become so corrupted that they strike at the Church and abuse their spiritual and moral authority. Yet I think these men are worlds away, psychologically and spiritually, from the wounded priest who is laboring under a tremendous amount of stress, and may have his issues. Even now, certain lay groups, zealous for the reform of the priesthood, seem more interested in their pitchforks and feelings of righteousness, than for the actual cleansing and healing of individual priests. They make the same mistake that negligent bishops and arrogant Curiae do: they forget that priests are first persons, with a humanity touched by grace, while never completely leaving behind our common human fragility. They make a mistake that is common to self-styled reformers in every age, when they try to make the ideal completely actual. They can abide no stain, no spot, no weakness: all must be absolutely perfect. The fact is, this is a false anthropology, and makes no room for grace.
Bishops, if any listen, consider how you may restore confidence in your paternal leadership. Speak as a priest to priests, a father to fathers. We will love you for it, and willingly. Understand that most of us are striving for virtue, and we want to be as Christ wants us to be. Give us the tools to become that, rather than simply punishing us for when those among us make mistakes. No priest will deny that you can and must remove a priest gravely guilty of a crime or a deeply entrenched problem which makes him unfit for ministry. But first, before having to sanction him, love and appeal to him as a dear son. In former days, bishops protected bad priests more out of fear of ‘scandal’ or ‘bad press’ than truly out of love for their welfare and that of the lay faithful. Love indeed covers a multitude of sins, but not in this manner. Stand up for us before a press and a world that has condemned us in the court of public opinion. Save us from the predations of the mob. Ironically, in the current storm, it is we who may be able to understand your plight now, for not all bishops are corrupt, any more than we are. Not all are careerists devoid of the Spirit of Christ, or more branch managers and bureaucrats than pastors. And we know that.
But above all, implore Almighty God with us, having heard these voices of our misery, that he should give us all the blessing spoken of in the beloved Psalm: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum (Psalm 133)!
(This essay originally appeared on the Scutum et Lorica site and is posted here by kind permission of the author.)