Parish ministry can be a rather lonely occupation. We carry it out as celibate men, rarely assisted by a resident curate these days. We co-operate with key lay people in the parish, but must keep an appropriate pastoral distance. As one of my seminary professors said: “I fail my parishioners if I make them my friends.”
There is no shortage of support available. I can go to my spiritual director. I can go to the counsellor who gives me supervision. I can go to one of my priest colleagues for advice on handling a tricky pastoral situation, or to the Bishop or Vicar General for a sufficiently serious matter. But all of these require me to take the initiative.
I once worked, as a layman, with a priest who started airing his troubles to me one day. I tried to excuse the source of his troubles, but he responded in frustration with: “All I’m looking for is a little affirmation!” Now I am beginning to understand his point of view.
Who, in the Church, is responsible for coming to me and affirming me? Why can’t some senior priest in the diocese come to me 3 or 4 times a year, take me out to dinner, ask how parish ministry is going, and share the wisdom of his experience? I have asked my dean to do this, but he said it wasn’t his job. My current and previous bishops have agreed that this sort of support structure would be a good idea, but done nothing to implement it. But any such arrangement would only be affirming to me if I was supported by the right sort of the Three Kinds of Priests – the one who is a disciple. Otherwise we would have a fundamental disagreement about what the aim of priestly ministry was.
There are some support groups around. There’s a local chapter of the Steubenville-related Fraternity of Priests. I enjoyed the shared adoration and the lunches, but the third hour, being part of a group conversation of priests who were generally humanitarians rather than disciples, would drag me down rather than build me up, so I stopped going. There was also a ‘young clergy’ meal twice a year, but again, I don’t thrive so well in groups of differently-minded priests. Rather, the one thing that would communicate powerfully to me that I was cared for by the church at large would be a little bit of personal attention from a critical friend who shared the vision of being a disciple, while casting a discerning eye over my take on how to lead a parish to discipleship.
There are wonderful church documents on how the Bishop is to be a loving father to his priests. As clergy, it is a no-brainer that we are called to ‘love one another’. Why are we so appallingly bad at doing so in practice?