Yesterday’s Irish News carried an article by Fr Martin Magill on the well-being and care of clergy serving across our denominations. The article is a response to the death by suicide of Fr Matt Wallace ten days ago, and follows on from interviews with Fr Magill on radio and television.
You can listen to his Radio Ulster interview here:
In the radio interview, Fr Magill called for a ‘serious time of reflection’ after Fr Wallace’s death, rather than maintaining the usual attitude of ‘getting on’ with things. For him, one of the messages from the tragedy is to look at the expectations and demands upon clergy. He said that as numbers of clergy decline,
… it feels in many ways like the burden is left to a smaller and smaller number of us.
Fr Magill admits having struggled with the burdens himself, and describes reading Psalms as he prays in the evening – identifying with their sense of anguish, pain and brokenness – and asking for strength to go on.
There is further follow up discussion on Talk Back here:
“Lives of Quiet Desperation” among Parish Clergy no longer Sustainable
“Generosity lies at the heart of the priesthood but often a high price is paid for such an ideal and sometimes it can bring you to a bleak and difficult place”; (Fr Thomas McGlynn at the funeral of Fr Matt Wallace).
Since his death by suicide on Friday 7 June there have been many tributes to Fr Matt Wallace as well as the inevitable shock. Now over a week later, as the reality of his death sinks in, I want to consider the stresses and pressures not only in the life of Catholic priests but clergy across the denominations. Any human being has limited resilience and energy, and when the demands become too many and too great, then inevitably there is a price to pay. It is no different for clergy even with a divine calling. The example of the self-sacrifice of Jesus was held before many of us when we trained for priesthood, and when called upon to serve others that thought comes to mind. Following on from this, when priestly duties increase and when we can no longer give and serve as we have previously, we can increasingly feel like we are failing ourselves, others and even God. In my own diocese of Down and Connor as more and more parishes seek to form pastoral councils, there will be a need for reliable, dedicated and faithful people to be “co responsible”. Fortunately there are signs that there are lay people very willing to share responsibility with their priests.
Yet I believe there is an untold story. Looking to and beyond the Catholic Church, I believe at the moment some clergy are living “lives of quiet desperation,” as one famous writer called it. I am reluctant to suggest numbers or percentages because I simply don’t know what they are. For the most part, it seems to me that clergy generally are reluctant to talk about their struggles and difficulties, their mistakes and failures. It could be that we believe we “just have to get on with it”, that we pray about it irrespective of the personal costs. Since speaking on radio and TV on the day after Fr Matt’s funeral, I’ve been contacted by a number of clergy and lay people from across the denominations on the need to “face and tackle” issues facing clergy today such as the way some clergy are treated including being bullied by members of their congregation.
In a small inter church clergy “well being” group in which I take part, we regularly consider support for clergy. In the diocese of Down and Connor, considerable time and energy has been spent on developing a plan to address the life and ministry of priests through the Living Church project. The plan will be launched at our Diocesan Congress at the end of September. As the result of a number of listening exercises to the priests of diocese, the plan will focus the energy of the diocese to ensure that all priests are given the support they need for their life and ministry, and that we take into account the changing context within which we as priests minister. There are also initiatives within the other denominations which have also recognised the need for structured support for clergy. It would make sense that some of the support on offer would be across the denominations as the issues are very similar – decline and aging of congregations, unrealistic expectations and demands of some parishioners, conflict and the burden of administration to mention but a few.
In the last few days, in West Belfast, many conversations have turned to the tragedy of Fr Matt’s death. Yet alongside these I detect other conversations forming around a growing recognition that the present situation at parish level is no longer sustainable, that it can no longer be “business as usual”. The shock of Fr Matt’s death may be awakening a greater awareness of the pressures which priests face in parishes today. I believe we need to time to reflect on the humanity of the clergy, on what it means to be a human being with a divine calling, on the expectations of people of their spiritual leaders and on how we develop a Church in which lay people and clergy support one another through the stresses and difficulties of life with grace, forgiveness and love.