I had a rather splendid dinner last night with a group of clergy, good hard working men, some I haven’t seen for quite a time. I am bit ambiguous about clergy meetings, I don’t go to many, in part because I generally come away with varying degrees of depression. It is my resolution to do something about that.
At a lunch a few months ago there four or five priests from our diocese nearing retirement, they started talking about vocations, all of them said they would actively discourage anyone who wanted to be a priest. I think I was the only one who said that if I had my time over again I would still be delighted to be a priest, the others said, with varying amounts of vigour, they definitely wouldn’t. These weren’t “way out”, they were good dutiful men, actually priests I admire. It is sad but not too unusual to hear of retired priests who have giving up saying Mass when they have no congregation to say Mass for.
Amongst younger priests there seems to be a growing desire to take time out, a sabbatical or “time away from the parish”, sometimes they return, sometimes not.
What is evident is that I and my brothers seem to be more tired, maybe that is inevitable as the average age increases. What it is going to mean is that as the numbers of priests decreases, those remaining are going to be able to take on less work. The idea of multi-centred parishes, might be more likely to exist in the wishful minds of some bishops than in actuality.
It could just be my own turn of mind but it strikes me that many clergy who abound in practical charity, have lost hope and to some degree, maybe there is also a loss of faith too. For many priests I meet they feel they are going to be the last, often in a long line, to serve a particular parish. They see not only a lack of priestly and religious vocations but a lack of vocations to Catholic marriage, to teaching, to the Christian life.
As I get older, I realise how important friendships amongst priests are, just wasting time with the brothers. I was a bit sad not to be Rome this week for that international conference of priests, maybe next week when I am there there will still be something of that fraternal spirit. I don’t know why our official meetings are the most tedious events imaginable, maybe because we don’t actually listen to one another; priests and bishops can be notoriously bad at that.
Crucial to the well being of priests, obviously is the care given them by their people, for many of they are his friends and family, this in part is what the Year For Priests is about. The crucial element must be the Bishop, the one to whom Christ gives the responsibility to strengthen the brethren. I know many bishops today say they don’t want to interfere, I suspect they are thinking too much in terms of “managing”. The role of Christian shepherd is actually about loving, spending time with the flock. The role of a bishop is first and foremost to work with his co-workers the priests of his diocese, they are his prime responsibility, they are supposed to be his friends and family.
I had a friend, Sandra, who was a shepherdess, in a small way. She had about 150 sheep, the same number of priests in an average UK diocese, in the spring she spent most of her time in their shed, the rest of the year in their field, she loved them. During lambing people used avoid sitting near her at Mass because she smelt of sheep. She always struck me as the model of a shepherd.
During this Year for Priests pray for holy and loving to care God’s, but pray for even holier and more bishops to care for the shepherd’s of Christ’s flock.