It is of course right that we should be a ‘listening Church’. We think of ourselves as a communion or a community – and that means communication. How, we married people may ask, can the hierarchy command and advise when they have no experience of marriage and the upbringing of children? Quite right! They should listen to us, and respect our situation, before they open their mouths.
But this goes both ways. Do we listen and respect those who have other offices in the Church? So I am proposing today that we should look at parish priests, and try – as best we can – to see what it looks like from behind the roman collar. So I have taken an extract from an article I wrote for the Catholic Herald, in 2007. It gives us a picture, from a fine priest, of what his life is about.
“I worked with Fr Mike O’C some years ago (name altered at my initiative) and he has been parish priest for several years of an urban, multiethnic parish with more than its share of the elderly and unemployed. A comprehensive video system in his presbytery, covers his frontage; it is essential for security.
Mike agreed to keep a diary, and the two weeks he has carefully recorded immediately removed any easy assumption that a priest does his work on a Sunday, and spends the rest of the week at the races. I am surprised at the variety of tasks ranging from the staples of baptism and funerals, “My life is in extremities: birth and baptism at one end of the road, death and tragedy at the other.” to complex administration “at the expense of my pastoral time”.
There is a myriad of meetings: some related to groups such as RCIA, or the pastoral council, others on an individual basis: “In marriage matters, whole lives can depend on the decision of some canon lawyer.” I inferred that his fixed points, besides the church itself, “the liturgy remains at the centre of all we do”, are his beloved parish hall, “a sacred space where so much happens”, the primary school, “a constant source of new life”, and his parish visiting team – some 30 people who work in pairs, for security. Mike is a natural delegator, and, without abrogating his canonical responsibilities, he leaves the chairing of these enterprises to effective lay people. The gentle steer rather than executive command is his natural way.
But in his diary reflections, fleshed out in our lengthy conversations, there are concerns. In deanery discussions he finds morale lowered by dwindling numbers, fewer priests and escalating tasks. And I have seen similar comments in other deanery reports, which sometimes question whether such discussions will actually result in any change. There are still a few priests around who fear a laity takeover, but Mike believes that an “exchange of gifts” is the way forward.
He is much concerned by the child abuse crisis (and strongly affected by the gross damage that this has done to his native Church). He will only hear a child’s confession on the sanctuary, in full view. “Suffer little children” he says ironically. They are more like unexploded bombs. But at least they go to confession: adults, except for the older generations, rarely use this sacrament; it is seen as irrelevant or obsolete. He hears more confessions in informal meetings.
Mike, who is 57, believes that in many ways he was ill prepared for parish life by his Irish seminary. “I was taught an idealised model of the Catholic parish; it bore little resemblance to experience. Just last week I presided over a wedding of a couple who already had three children. That’s reality.” He was grateful that his first curacy had been with a fine parish priest – old in years, young in mind.
He expressed what I sensed to be a deep concern. “You” he said, “have a wife and family. You know that there will always be people close to you, right up to your deathbed. Me, ultimately I am alone.” This aloneness (not, he stresses, loneliness) afflicts him during his rest times. He sees celibacy as a “strange animal”. No talk here of sexual need, but of the intimacy of an interdependent life. I note that his close support friends tend to be women, including his sister. Perhaps he is redressing his need for female qualities. I thought of Jesus and his valuing of women in his life.
But withal he is happy as a parish priest; he does not regret his vocation. “Yet” he tells me ‘I would never suggest priesthood as a vocation to others. I would support anyone who expressed an interest, but it would be his initiative, not mine.’”
Fr Mike did not raise with me another factor which I imagine to be important. A parish priest is an example of ‘middle management’. That is, he has a bishop to the north – perhaps bearing down, and the laity to the south pressing up – with a whole range of demands. He is squeezed in the middle. I suggest this because, generally, it is middle management in the secular world who are under the greatest stress.
I wonder, too, whether the paedophile scandals have lowered the public status of the clergy. I haven’t noticed many roman collars around lately. To feel that your vocation is suspect in many eyes must be a heavy burden to bear.
The only extensive survey of parish priests which I know is The Naked Parish Priest Louden & Francis, 2003. While I would not rely too greatly on the results – getting a truly random survey was difficult – it does suggest that a significant proportion of respondents are not in full agreement with the Church on some matters of consequence. Since they are obliged, under oath, to defend Catholic doctrines of substance, they may face a difficulty here.
All of us have different experiences of parish priests – and some, because of their office, work on both sides of the altar rails. But I think it would be useful to share our experiences, bad and good – and consider what it must really be like to fulfill that vocation.