Heroic priests deserve not to be left alone at the altar


OPINION:It is hardly fair to sneer at a new association of Irish priests as a mere clerical trade union, writes DAVID RICE

THE ITALIAN alpine village of Villaretto was drowsing under its blanket of snow when, on January 26th, 1985, the parish priest hanged himself, just before the Saturday evening Mass. He left three farewell letters, one addressed to the altar servers. It read: “Be more friendly and generous with your next priest: do not leave him alone at the altar.”

Those words have haunted me for years, for we do leave our priests alone at the altar and the loneliness of many a priest is a crucifixion.

I know, for I once was one. I left and am no longer lonely, but many truly heroic men have stayed and live their crucifixion daily, a far worse one than I ever had to endure.

The loneliness of many priests today is infinitely crueller than anything I experienced 30 years ago. Just to give one example: last month a priest friend of mine in Dublin was talking to a boy after Sunday Mass, when the boy’s father came up to him and said: “Father, I’d rather you stayed away from my son.”

The tiny handful of evil-doers among the clergy, along with the incredibly crass, self-protecting decisions of church leaders, all the way up to the Vatican, have made life hell for many priests.

Have you noticed how few black suits and Roman collars you see on the streets today? Understandably, for no one wants to be spat at and there are some among the public who would just do that.

“Many priests I know are currently short of hope,” writes Fr Tom McCarthy OP in Religious Life Review. “I have spoken with some, still active in ministry, who describe the situation in which they find themselves as ‘hopeless’. Yes, they frequently say Mass and hear confessions just occasionally, but they speak of being aware something is badly broken in the church. And they are not sure it can be fixed.”

Few lay people realise what priests are up against today. I know of one very eminent priest, a brilliant scholar who devoted every moment of his spare time to the care of deprived young people.

One disgruntled woman made an accusation against him, alleging that he had interfered with her years before. The bishop immediately removed him from his work and he was forbidden to have any connection with the young people. This continued for three years, until he was dying in hospital. Two weeks before he died, a letter arrived from the bishop, apologising and saying that the woman had admitted to lying.

According to sociologist Max Weber, institutions invariably put their own protection before all else. In the old days the church protected itself by moving errant priests around, hiding their crimes and thus compounding the evil.

Nowadays the church has gone to the opposite extreme: it protects itself by presuming guilt and removing the priest on the merest accusation, which means that every priest in the land lives in perpetual fear of a false accusation. It is hard to imagine the suffering this must entail. Add to this the incredible amount of overwork laid on so many priests, many now in their 60s and 70s, who have to circuit-ride several parishes because of the scarcity of priests. Furthermore, add in their anxiety for the future, with so few younger men coming to take their place. And yet, in spite of that, they carry on and continue with such incredible devotion and generosity.

The well-known ones are only the tip of the iceberg. I myself know many such.

Only recently I met our own curate to arrange a Mass. It was clear from incoming calls and diary entries that he was run off his feet, and I remarked so. His reply: “Thank God I’m able to do it.”

So if there is talk of a new Association of Irish Priests, it is hardly fair to sneer at it as a mere clerical trade union. I think they intend something quite other. Remember how the apostles gathered in the upper room after Jesus left them. They were lonely and in fear.

If I were a priest today, I would long for some care and mutual support from my brethren.

Years ago I discovered that many resigned priests were living in loneliness and isolation from one another. Some of us got together to form an association called Leaven and, in the years that followed, it changed all our lives astonishingly. We were no longer alone.

I believe that Ireland’s active priests will achieve something similar, and let us remember who descended upon the disciples when they gathered together in that upper room.

Meanwhile, let us not leave our priests alone at the altar.

David Rice is a former Dominican who now directs the Killaloe Hedge School of Writing, running weekend beginner workshops in fiction and non-fiction (killaloe.ie/khs)

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