From Fr John Abberton Sir, The tragic death of Fr Richard Prior (report, June 7), and the general concern about seminaries and the way we train future priests (Comment, June 7), should make our bishops, and those who are close to them, think very carefully about , the pastoral needs of those engaged in parish ministry.
It seems to me that a thoroughgoing study of the demands of parish life needs to be undertaken as a matter of urgency. Such a study would have an impact on both the present situation as regards appointments and the care of the clergy, as well as helping seminaries to do more sensible work in the areas of assessment and pastoral training.
Another urgent matter is the discernment of distress in priests. I have heard one priest remark that a man has to have a nervous breakdown before anything is done for him. Others frequently speak about the huge demands made on them in parishes today. Many complain of the administration involved in governing schools and running parishes, but there is also another
area of stress which is often overlooked.
Priests often find themselves counselling people who have a very poor understanding of the Catholic Faith. These may be in great emotional distress or in the process of planning weddings or baptisms (and sometimes these two sacraments are not very far apart). There are also the huge problems of so many young people, often at Catholic secondary schools, who appear to have little, if any, Catholic faith to celebrate. Many of these young people are good according to their own lights, and many will come to a mature faith, but somehow it seems that so much that is good and beautiful in Catholicism is passing them by. There are many issues connected with this general situation. Some of them relate to the way we celebrate the Sacraments or organise funerals. Some ideas and beliefs expressed by Catholics owe much to Paganism or New Age thinking. Some Catholics treat the priest and the local church as they do a shop or a business. One priest recently told me that he had been verbally abused because he said he could not take a funeral because he would be away on holiday. Some Catholics expect the priest to change the rules in their favour, whether this has to do with giving full sacramental recognition to persons in irregular relationships, or with certain aspects of the liturgy, which they wish to shape according to their own emotional needs. Often the priest is unable to explain the situation because people are not willing to listen. He may even be compared to another priest who will do what they want.
What I am pointing to is the stress which comes from attempting to guide people into a more mature understanding of their faith, when what they actually want is to have their emotional needs satisfied. Sometimes priests feel that their bishops are not supporting them. Guidelines are often cast aside and priests are left bruised by encounters that tear at their self-confidence. But the point is that the burdens have increased and the pastoral care of priests is generally poor. Man management in some dioceses leaves much to be desired. Where there is a shortage of priests, some issues are left aside. Appointments are little more than filling in gaps.
There is a need, in every diocese, for a house where priests can go at short notice. Not a retreat centre, but a place of hospitality and relaxation: a place where priests will not be under pressure and where, if they desire, they will be left alone. In such a house, those who want to talk to someone else, lay or clerical, should fmd a ready listener. It should be a place not only for those who are stressed out, but for those who simply want to take a night off from the parish. Such a house has been set up in Bradford in the Diocese of Leeds. It is named after St John Vianney. But this is only one possibility. There are other ways of help ing priests, and there is a need to be more radical in thinking through the organisation of parishes in a diocese, as well as the kind of living accommodation required to ensure the well-being of priests.
Part of our problems, as bishops, priests or laity, is that we consistently fail to understand what it means to be human. When I was first interviewed as a candidate for the priesthood a much-loved and well-remembered senior priest (now deceased) said: "You must be a man to be a priest" I know that he meant. What I want to say is that to be a good priest I must be a sound human being. This means not only taking reasonable care of my health and my emotional stability, it means respecting my limitations and being sensible about the demands that are constantly being made on sinful flesh and blood. Bishops know that they need to spend more time thinking about this. There needs to be a much improved in-house pastoral care for priests in every diocese.
Yours faithfully, JOHN ABBERTON Bradford, Yorks