As we grow old as priests, we realise how little care, esteem or affection is in our lives
Then PPs could expect to have curates who did most of the work - if they couldn’t or didn’t want to do it themselves. Now curates are an endangered species.
Then PPs could expect comfort and companionship in their declining years. Now, most priests live on their own.
Then PPs took for granted that they were respected and supported by their parishioners. Now, we’re often pitied, patronised, reviled, insulted, disrespected, ignored and resented.
Then there were plenty of vocations, almost everyone went to Mass (and those who didn’t were rounded up by the Redemptorists at the Parish Mission), almost everyone paid the collection and if they didn’t, as we used to say, they were ‘read off the altar’.
Not that I’m unambiguously lauding the past. Far from it. But now times are different: few vocations, congregations melting away before our eyes, collections declining by the year, morale at an all-time low.
Do I exaggerate? Yes, a bit for emphasis. But only a bit. The tide has gone out and only those out of sync with reality can imagine that it’s ever going to come in again. We need to stop playing that game.
But the problem is not that the Church in Ireland won’t survive or adapt to changed and changing circumstances - I have no doubt it will - my question has a particular urgency: how can the last priests in Ireland survive the final years of their lives with a modicum of comfort, esteem and affection?
We need to analyse the strands that conspire to burden, unfairly and dangerously, the lives of elderly clergy, and the multiple factors that exacerbate a growing sense of unease and sometimes desperation.
We’re expected as we grow older to work longer and harder. 75 is the retirement age for priests but now many are working into their 80s, often pressed reluctantly into service out of a sense of duty and sometimes guilt.
The effect of our increased and ever-increasing work-load is that effectively we become ‘sacrament-dispensing machines’, with parish work less and less satisfying with little or no real engagement with our parishioners.
Dublin and Killala dioceses, one the largest in Ireland and the other one of the smallest in the country, have one thing in common: both have just one diocesan priest under 40 years of age.
More work is one thing. Complexity is another. We’re struggling at a pastoral level with issues beyond our training, experience and competence.
Take, one example, how to minister effectively to same-sex couples who are parishioners.
We elderly priests live increasingly isolated lives, a condition exacerbated by age. We live alone.
A growing fearfulness and anxiety, born out of isolation, can mark our later years and create a vulnerability and a nervousness we hadn’t experienced heretofore.
A celibate lifestyle presumes a certain isolation and loneliness is part of it. Loneliness in priesthood depends on a number of factors: personality, life skills, hobbies, self-esteem, mobility, identity and, of course, health and loneliness increases steadily as each of the above comes under greater stress.
Priests, living alone and becoming increasingly isolated, are prone to depression. The increased incidence of priest-suicides in recent years and the growing body of anecdotal evidence of depression and despair is a reality we ignore at our peril.
Failure and responsibility
Once priests imagined that they had all the answers and that they were monarchs of all they surveyed.
Now that burden of unrealistic expectations of ourselves as messiahs has given way to a sense of personal failure that the Church has collapsed under our watch.
As old age beckons with its myriad inconveniences and disabilities and as we begin to contemplate, calmly and coldly, what’s left of our lives a number of truths begin to dawn.
One is that, as we age, there’s a growing sense almost of desperation when we realise how little care, esteem or affection is in our lives.
The recipients of an avalanche of media criticism, a constant focus of resentment and often insulted and disrespected, the last priests in Ireland are “a lost tribe” struggling to deal with isolation, ill-health and the multiple limitations of old-age.
Taken for granted, manipulated into working into their retirement, with few priests to take their place, often distrusting their bishops, many despair of ever receiving the acknowledgement, consideration, support and, above all, respect that they believe is their due.
Fr Brendan Hoban; The Irish Times; 21 November 2016
Fr Brendan Hoban is a founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests