I was talking to a priest the other day. In late middle age, with no close living relatives, he tells me he entered the seminary straight from school, aged 18, and was ordained aged 24. He is loyal to his vocation but admits that “when you are 24 you have no idea what you will feel like at 54.” Although he did not say so, I sensed that life is something of an uphill struggle for him. There is the loneliness of the presbytery, the knowledge that you are out of step with the times (we spoke of the recent legislation on marriage and what it is like to be a priest in a post-Christian society) and sometimes out of step with other members of the clergy. What about sharing a house with other priests, I suggested. He felt that might be worse than living on his own. He came across as orthodox and conscientious, telling me he could not have imagined not being a priest and adding there had never been a time when he doubted his faith. “Without daily prayer you are lost”, he commented.
I think there are probably many priests of a similar age in his position in this country: loyal to their vocation, yet more isolated than is healthy, overburdened by the demands made on them and certainly misunderstood and treated without respect in the wider community. An article by Peter Jesserer Smith in the National Catholic Register last week addresses this same question. Entitled “Priests battle the pouring dark of loneliness”, the article concerns America where most US diocesan priests are living alone, working all day for their parishioners and then returning to an empty presbytery in the evenings.
Smith writes that “living alone at a parish is an experience that seminary talks about, but seminarians live in community and only come to know what the experience is like first hand as priests. Some priests end up as casualties of isolation: where the temptations of loneliness can lead to addiction, burnout or seeking intimacy in all the wrong places.” Two priests interviewed in the article emphasised that there are three key factors in living a happy priesthood: engaging in priestly fraternity, developing a strong prayer life and integrating themselves into the life of their communities. They mentioned the need for priest support groups such as Jesu Caritas, where clergy can meet up with colleagues once a month for a Holy Hour a meal and socialising.
Fr John Trigilio, president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, believes that ongoing spiritual, theological, pastoral and human formation is essential for a healthy and well-balanced clergy. He observes that “Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two, not one-by-one.” Another priest, Fr Joseph Ilio, is working alongside Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco to establish a community of diocesan priests in an oratory, where they will live together with a superior and have a rule of life that includes common prayer, meals and activities alongside their ordinary parochial tasks.
Having some contact with the Oxford Oratory, which William Oddie described so positively in a recent blog about its former provost, now Bishop Robert Byrne, I can see how such a community of priests can flourish. Meanwhile, there must be many diocesan priest in the UK whose lives are similar to that of the priest I talked to: growing up during the upheavals of Vatican II, during which thousands of an earlier generation of priests left the priesthood; entering the priesthood themselves just as the country was becoming increasingly secularised; faced by congregations, a generation of whom who have never been taught any catechesis and who have little understanding of their faith; growing older with few younger clergy coming forward to assist them.
Some studies from the US such as this article from The Catholic Spirit challenge the rather pessimistic account I raise here. But there are cultural differences between the two countries, as well as the new support networks in the States that I have mentioned, and I am supported by blogger Fr Ray Blake who wrote rather bleakly in a recent blog, “Most Catholics don’t know why they should baptise their children or how to pray with them, what to say in the confessional and why, what marriage is, what the Church is or even how to die well. It is no wonder that in most dioceses in England and Wales, cities like mine with a dozen or so semi-active priests, within two decades will be down to one or two if they are fortunate…”
It reminds me that praying for our priests (and for future priests) is not enough; we must actively support them, sustain them and let them know how much we value what they do. If, as Newman once observed, the hierarchy would be lost without the laity, we lay people are also lost without our priests.