From the people and of the people
Priests are a particularly vulnerable part of that wider “victim” group. They report feeling dejected and embarrassed, of walking down the street head down, avoiding eye contact, even of leaving off the clerical collar to hide their identity. This is what Pope Francis is talking about in his new letter to Priests, observing that they are often held guilty – even by themselves – of sins they have not committed.
The Pope is right to be concerned. Priests need to be, and deserve to be, cherished, respected and cared for. Ordination to the priesthood is a fount of amazing grace, and Francis wants the clergy to be sustained in their ministry by the joy it can bring. Francis once identified the right sort of ministry as that where the clergy, like good shepherds, know “the smell of the sheep”. In a key passage of his letter, he thanks priests “for the times when, with great emotion, you embraced sinners, healed wounds, warmed hearts and showed the tenderness and compassion of the Good Samaritan. Nothing is more necessary than this: accessibility, closeness, readiness to draw near to the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters … the pastor who never forgets that he has come from them and that by serving them he will find and express his most pure and complete identity.”
He warns against “the sin of the mirror”, the temptation to navel-gaze, to become self-centred and to believe that everything depends on himself. Growing a thicker skin and avoiding close relationships may be one way of surviving in a suspicious or hostile world, but it is not the way of the Cross. Relationships bring vulnerability and some degree of risk, but they also bring emotional nourishment and fulfilment. It is an oversight of the Pope’s letter, perhaps, that he does not directly refer to the mental health of the clergy, though he implies it when he says a good bishop will be a good pastor to his priests, which means having a concern for their emotional as well as their physical wellbeing. Loneliness and depression, and the temptation to deal with them by over-indulgence in alcohol, are well known psychological traps the clergy in particular have to be aware of.
But it is in their relationship with the flock entrusted to them that the deeper satisfactions of the priestly life will lie, though some priests may need example and encouragement to fully explore the possibilities. A close bond of co-responsibility with the parish, perhaps through lay-led parish initiatives and structures, is not only a good way to empower the laity but also to enrich the life of the priest. It offers a more equal and rewarding way, a way closer to the Gospel, of handling parish relationships – not priests and the people, as different entities, but priests of and from the people.