January 2, 2014 by lucieromarin
I’ve just realised that I know (or know of) five priests who have left active ministry – of whom two later Died Suddenly, one apostasised, and one disappeared – two priests who, while retaining both faith and vocation, still needed leave for the sake of healing, and four who, while also retaining faith and vocation, left their orders to become diocesan priests, not so much because the diocese called them, but because of the burnout and ill-use they experienced in ordered life.
None of the men were modernists. None of them left their orders or their vocations because they doubted the truths of the faith. At least three of them had supportive bishops (in one case, the bishop was pretty much all that keeps this tally from including a third Sudden Death), and, even in the one case in which a woman contributed to the loss of vocation, the situation was not primarily about either love or lust.
Burnout did it. I know eleven men whose vocations have been compromised or destroyed, not by heresy or capital sin, but by a) exhaustion, and b) the assumption that an orthodox priest can go on forever, working eighteen hour days, seven days a week, for decades on end, without any ill-effects.
Their exhaustion wasn’t just physical (though I knew one priest who sat down in the driving seat of his car, blinked, shook his head, and then realised he’d slept for an hour). The cassocked priest leaves his house and gets punched in the face by a complete stranger (true story), verbally abused from the windows of passing cars (four priests have recounted to me several different such experiences), pushed in front of oncoming trains (true story), spat on (several experiences), and the Evil Eye from passing Goths (true story.) Then he goes to some diocesan function and has a bevy of modernist priests try to block his way into the Cathedral, with the words, “Priests like you aren’t welcome here,” (true story) or to an obligatory diocesan meeting at which he finds himself one of only three priests present who actually think that Our Lord was God (and the other two are neo-conservatives who want him shut down for his liturgy, rather than for his theology, so that he is actually the only person in the room who is on his side.) Then he returns to his community, to find that a crazy man has been describing his visions and locutions to visitors, that his least-favourite neo-con is sitting in the congregation to catch him out in a heresy, that someone has written a letter of complaint to the bishop, that the servers aren’t speaking to the choristers because the choristers stole a sanctuary bell to ring during a medieval motet, and that there are three people lying in wait outside the sacristy – one to get her car blessed, another one to tell him where petrol is going to be cheapest this week, and another to tell him about a terrible thing she heard was happening in America. Then he looks at his calendar and realises that he’s booked to counsel two afflicted people, visit the hospital to minister to the dying (all by himself, because the other priests are still in the diocesan meeting talking about how Jesus wasn’t God), visit the mental home to pray with and counsel the afflicted, find a safe-house for the battered wife, see those persons to whom he gives spiritual direction, and listen to the guy who wants to ask him about vocation… and this is after he hears confessions, says Mass, prays the entire Divine Office, offers up mental prayer and Rosary, and writes and prepare Sunday’s sermon.
My point is not just that his day is crowded with incident, but that the pyschological strain native to his work (e.g preparing people for death, getting yelled at by strangers) is compounded, these days, by the strain of additional antagonism from within the community that once would have supported him. Where does his mind find rest? It’s all very well to say, ‘in prayer,’ but if we’re not practising that degree of holiness ourselves, it’s a bit rich to expect others to find it easy.
I know there’s nothing much that we ourselves can do about this, other than pray for our burnt-out priests and try to avoid being part of the reason they get burnt in the first place. I wish that every priest could be the Hero Who Did Not Crash, and I know that God supplies an abundance of graces and so on…but, you know, the rest of us aren’t saints, either. And, I suppose, whenever pious folk are disappointed by Father’s humanity (as one person said to me, “Why should a priest be traumatised by a natural disaster? You’d think a priest would have more faith than that,”) we can spare a thought and a prayer for the one category of persons who will never be forgiven for their weaknesses. Similarly, when secular folk talk about priestly power, we can spare a thought (and another prayer) for those for whom power was entirely expended in the service of others, who were held in contempt both within and without the Church, and who bore it for as long as they could.