Earlier this month it was reported that eight priests in Ireland had committed suicide in the past 10 years.
The Association of Catholic Priests blamed the phenomenon on a collapse in morale among the country’s clergy, describing it as a mental health crisis.
“Our morale is affected because we are on a sinking ship,” said one participant in a recent meeting. “When will the ‘counter-reformation’ take place? We’re like an All-Ireland team without a goalie. We need a national confidential priests’ helpline. We’re slow to look for help.”
The suicide rate among clergy is still, thankfully, very low, yet the figures from Ireland raise many questions, one of which is: what pastoral and moral support do priests actually receive?
Traditionally, larger parishes could have multiple clergy living side by side, while smaller ones would at least have had a housekeeper to look after the parish priest. Now, as vocations and Mass attendance decline, many priests are finding the job more and more lonely. One place where this is especially true is in retirement.
In a widely read blog post, Fr Ray Blake of St Mary Magdalen parish, Brighton, wrote about how he considered retirement after a recent illness.
As a parish priest he had the support of his parishioners, while Mass and Confession gave “structure” to his life. “Retirement meant either a little house somewhere, with none of those supports for someone becoming less and less able, or a nursing home,” he wrote. “I think I would have preferred death to both.”
He added: “Many priests, I think, put off retirement, simply because the prospect can be so lonely.”
According to the Vatican II document Presbyterorum Ordinis, bishops have a unique duty of care for their priests. “Bishops should regard priests as their brothers and friends and be concerned as far as they are able for their material and especially for their spiritual well-being,” it says. “They should gladly listen to their priests, indeed consult them and engage in dialogue with them in those matters which concern the necessities of pastoral work and welfare of the diocese.”
But the extent of support for retired priests varies from diocese to diocese. One that does appear to be recognising the need is Southwark, which launched a fundraising campaign for sick and retired clergy in 2015. By September 2016, it had raised £4.5 million.
Jo Driver, the campaign co-ordinator, said: “There is no immediate crisis, but if the diocese did nothing to respond to this financial challenge it might erode central funds which could, in turn, impact on other projects that Southwark may potentially wish to undertake in future years.
“Although not all retired priests need financial support … many need a little financial support to cope with day-to-day expenses in order to meet all the regular costs of living.”
But while financial support for sick and retired priests is all well and good, what about assistance for demoralised or lonely priests, including those still serving?
While each diocese has its own support structure, there are those who believe that more must be done.
Crown of Thorns, a small charity based in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, offers additional pastoral support for priests. Lisa de Quay, one of the charity’s trustees, says that, while there are many priests in need, the situation is not as bleak as some think.
“Over the years we have been greatly inspired by the kindness of people, including notable specialist professionals, all willing to assist in the support of priests,” she says. “Even in the most extreme and difficult circumstances, we have had nothing but admiration for the kindness we have been shown by advisers when a priest needs help, whatever the circumstance.”
Often this kindness can involve even the simplest tasks, such as a greeting or a text message, as well as a visit. These gestures may be small, but they can have an enormous impact, she says.
She adds that the laity must help, and that diocesan authorities cannot be expected to provide everything.
“People can visit their retired priests, not with grumbles of change but with the joy of seeing them and with an ear open for their worries,” she suggests. “That way, they can gently take their burdens off them without burdening them with their own.”
As priest numbers continue to decline, this is a problem that will not go away. If the Church is to have any hope of fostering new vocations, clergy have to know they will be looked after.
The laity must play their part, but the hierarchy cannot be complacent either.