I’m sure we’ve all heard by now about the death of Father Harkins, a young priest from Kansas City who committed suicide. The news deeply shook our Catholic community in St. Louis, particularly since Fr. Harkins had attended seminary here and was friends with priests in the area. There’s something shocking about a priest dying in such a way; it feels like a total defeat. And while in the case of Fr. Harkins the death appears to have been linked not to ongoing loneliness or depression so much as to a disastrous side effect from a pain medication, it has a lot of people talking about what has become an open secret—our priests are struggling.
It isn’t unusual that priests quietly suffer loneliness, fatigue, or depression. The attrition rate for young priests is especially high; young men are ordained and sent off to parish ministry full of fire and enthusiasm only to burn out within a decade. To protect their health, these young men discern out of the priesthood and back into the laity. It’s a difficult phenomenon to grasp, because surveys consistently show that clergy have among the highest rates of job satisfaction.
And yet, something is going on that isn’t healthy. Our priests are suffering.
For 14 years now, I’ve served God either as an Anglican priest or, since my conversion, as a Catholic priest. When I became Catholic in 2010, I was ordained to the priesthood through the Pastoral Provision established by Pope St. John Paul II for former Anglican clergy. The Provision provides for the ordination to the priesthood of married men who meet certain, strict criteria, and I have been blessed to have been one of those men. I live with my wife and six children, so I’m surrounded on a daily basis by the happy chaos of family life. Loneliness isn’t a problem. In fact, my work in the parish is a blessed escape for prayerful quiet. This isn’t to say that I don’t have my struggles, but my family provides a constant source of strength.
My family is a safe space where I can put the stress of the priesthood aside for a bit. Priesthood brings with it a feeling of being constantly on a stage; people are always watching and evaluating what I say and do. I’ve had parishioners repeat things I’ve said many months previous that I had no recollection of ever saying. That’s how closely they’re listening. Knowing how important my words and actions are—and valuing the seriousness of my call—when I’m in the parish I’m very careful as to how I interact with the parishioners. I don’t want to have even a single bad day or one negative interaction, because if I do, I might sour the entire enterprise of Catholicism for a person and turn him away from the Church forever.
The success of the faith isn’t about a single person; I know that. I’m not arrogant enough to suppose everything in the parish is about me. (How I wish it were even less about me!) But I think that any priest reading this would agree that we have a certain responsibility that constantly weighs on us. We gladly take it up, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t labor. As a married priest, I can occasionally set that weight aside and roll on the floor with boys in a wrestling match. I can play a card game with my five-year-old. My wife listens to my complaints or lets me ramble on about completely random topics that have nothing whatsoever to do with the priesthood.
My brother priests often form support groups, small groups of priest friends who get together for coffee or a drink and simply socialize. These men are often forced into isolating conditions by the constant demands of running a parish, so their time together is a necessary component to maintaining mental health. In spite of this, whenever the priests of the archdiocese meet, a constant request is for more social time among the priests. It seems that many of the men are still feeling the lack of friendship and family.
It’s an odd complaint to say that priests suffer from isolation. After all, we are literally surrounded by people all the time, typically parishioners who like us very much and treat us better than we deserve. The problem isn’t the parishioners; mine are delightful and I’m sure other priests would say the same about theirs. It’s the expectations that form the context of our relationship. I don’t blame the parishioners themselves for this; I’m far more suspicious of the way that priests are formed for their vocation and the way the laity have been taught to interact with their priests. Here’s what I mean: there is a specific understanding of a priest that forces him into the roles of problem-solver, counselor, advisor, CEO, and charismatic leader.
This is wrong-headed.
It isn’t to say that a priest doesn’t counsel or offer advice, or that he doesn’t lead his parish and steward its resources carefully. Yes, he occasionally must put on the hat of a businessman or general contractor. He must set a vision for his parish much as a CEO would. If a successful priest is defined by these functional roles, however, he will quickly find the task to be overwhelming. Every interaction with a parishioner would be marked by what the priest can offer, what he can give, or how he can solve problems. Priests are often made anxious over the question of what more we can do, what we can do better, or what we may have done wrong. This is why many men are happy to be active priests but hesitant to become pastors.
Here’s where I’ll get personal. Yes, I’m a married man and have a family to share the burden, but even I—a man who could not be happier to be a priest or more thrilled to have discovered my vocation—have moments when I’ve been caught breathless with the crushing realization I may never retire. It isn’t that I object to saying Mass or providing the sacraments. I hope to offer daily Mass until my dying day, but seeing no end in sight to the administrative task of running a parish is apparently a growing and common concern among the clergy. In fact, it’s cited as a major factor in the rising rate of suicide among Irish priests.
The Church is desperate for priests and we feel tremendous pressure to keep working. There are always more Masses to be said. Always more spiritual directees wanting our time. Always more meetings. I’m happy to work for the Church, but absolutely everyone, regardless of how happy they are with their career, contemplates retirement as a natural endpoint. No one wants to work forever.
This is precisely the problem with the way priests have come to be defined. We must be clear that the priesthood isn’t a job. It’s a vocation within a spiritual family. I have no wish ever to be free of my natural family. The idea that my children will forever be my children doesn’t cause me stress. It makes me happy. Before anything else, a priest is a father. His relationship with his parish is familial. Once I consider it that way, I breathe more normally and don’t worry at all if I ever retire. Who would want to leave his family?
But how can we help our priests avoid isolation? How can we help them to have long, joyous vocations? The answer is to recover the reality of the hierarchical family within the Church. A priest is a father, and, as any good father has discovered, there is great value in spending time with your children “playing,” if you will, by which I mean simply enjoying each other’s company. It shouldn’t always be work and paternal instruction, or discipline and advice. If it were, what father wouldn’t be worn out?
It’s quite simple. Your priest needs the chance to be “off-duty” on a regular basis, not only with a few fellow priests when they can squeeze in a lunch once every few weeks, but also with his parishioners, and to be friends with you. Have you ever invited your priest into your home—not to give spiritual counsel or talk about Church business, but simply to visit with you? Your priest probably wants nothing more than to have a cup of coffee and make small talk. Invite your priest out for a beer sometime. I guarantee he’ll be interested. Partly what a priest needs from you is that familial comfort, the knowledge that he can let his guard down with you and relax. No priest is perfect, but in a family everyone bears with everyone else with patience.
I make great efforts to participate in the lives of my parishioners, simply enjoying their friendship. God asks a lot of a priest, but in a well-ordered vocation he also gives them much. I get to be a part of many, many different families. I gratefully accept when I’m invited to baptism and first communion parties. The parish children have thrown water balloons at me and I play frisbee with the youth group. After Exposition and Benediction, the young adults come with me down to the pub where we laugh and talk about nothing much in particular. I have tea with retired ladies and love nothing more than to hear them tell stories about their lives.
This is the Church as family. If this is my vocation, if this is my “work,” how could I possibly feel isolated? No one would want to retire from such a lovely family, one in which everyone helps carry the weakness of the other. The weight seems much lighter because I know that the burden isn’t mine to carry alone. I am here for you and you are here for me.