Priests care for the people, but who cares for priests?

Priests are increasingly isolated and often have no one to whom they can bare their soul (Photo:AP)

Recent controversies are an all too vivid reminder that priests are under various and sometimes severe pressures and that frequently we deal with delicate personal situations. Some professions and employers have ways in which their members can express their concerns and open up regarding the challenges they are facing in their work. But to whom does the priest turn to bare his soul?

Some priests have spiritual directors, and others have the company of fellow priests occasionally in the form of support groups. Others might turn to their bishop. Then there is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But all these options have their limitations.

Spiritual directors are hard to come by and in the nature of their role their job is primarily spiritual and less concerned with the practical challenges of living as a priest on a day-to-day basis. In seeking help from fellow priests my experience is that there are fewer of us around, we are increasingly scattered, alone and ensnared in a multitude of duties. Therefore contact is more spasmodic than in the past.

Where one’s bishop is concerned the situation can be invidious since a bishop’s role is not purely pastoral – he is also in authority too. An ordinary priest may be wary of disclosing himself fully to his bishop, being uncertain of the consequences. Confession is sacramental primarily and not always the best forum for talking about matters in depth unless one’s confessor has a lot of time on his hands.

An area of life which is sometimes compared to the priesthood is that of counselling and psychotherapy. I have been fortunate enough to train for several years in this field. There are plenty of pitfalls but I am convinced that there is much that we can learn, too, where the priesthood is concerned. Of course counselling and priesthood are not completely analogous, but, like priests, counsellors do deal with people’s personal problems and the problems which they throw up for the counsellor. The latter are sometimes referred to under the heading of counter-transference. This is what the counsellor feels about the client – or in this case what the priest feels about the parishioner, for example.

An example of this, which once arose for me some years ago, was when a parishioner had a mental breakdown.

But I felt only limited sympathy for him, and experienced no desire to rush down to the hospital and visit him. The reality for me was that I felt upset by the way he had treated a family member and that to gallop to his assistance would have been to rescue him from a situation that was partly of his own making. I clearly needed to look at my own response here but there was no one to whom I could turn.

In counselling there is a process of supervision. Counsellors are supposed to be in supervision on a regular basis. For some the word “supervision” may have an authoritarian or even a threatening tone to it, but the good supervisor does not lay down the law, but encourages, guides and generally supports the counsellor. Some supervision is in a group setting. This is particularly valuable because it enables counsellors to discuss their concerns in a safe setting and to contribute to the input of other counsellors. Among other advantages to supervision are that it offers a third-party view, and that it helps you to explore your feelings about the person with whom you are dealing, as well as the professionalism in the way you work.

There are those who might maintain that the world of psychotherapy and counselling is not an area from which the priesthood can learn. Here, I sometimes experience a sense that the Church feels it can provide a parallel society to the modern world, one in which we do not draw from secular disciplines because the Church is suspicious of secular values. In fact, I would argue that this is a false dichotomy and that in any case counselling and psychotherapy are not wholly secular in their genesis. A number of important pioneering figures in this field have come from religious backgrounds: for example, C G Jung, Rollo May and Carl Rogers. The Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber has been influential in psychotherapy and one of Jung’s closest associates for several years was the Dominican Victor White. In the present day there are a number of Christian therapists, including Catholic priests, who are engaged in this field.

The reality is that we draw from the secular world the whole time. A simple example of this is child protection legislation, where the Church has been obliged to adapt itself to a changing world, and alleged offences by clergy can no longer be dealt with on Church territory alone. Elsewhere the Church is opposed in theory to divorce but has to accept it in reality.

It would not be easy to set up a system of “supervision” for priests. There would be in-house resistance and it would be difficult to find suitable “supervisors”. Church supervisors would most likely have to be trained. It would entail long-term preparation and consultation to be effective. But there is a crying need for clergy to have an analogous system to counselling supervision, for it is not only pastoral dilemmas that need an outlet. Events of the past few years should also tell us that issues of priestly behaviour and mindset also need a forum where priests can express their fears, pressures, disturbances and anxieties.

Perhaps the existence of supervision as I have described it might have provided a safety valve for some of the tragic events that have occurred in the past and so damaged the Church.

Fr Ulick Loring is parish priest of St James’s in Twickenham, Middlesex, and a qualified counsellor