An issue at the AGM of the Association of Catholic Priests was the experience of some priests during lockdown. One might think priests are not as affected as other people, but Tim Hazelwood, a Cork priest, told a different story.
Many priests spoke with him about their sense of loneliness and isolation. Priests in bigger towns and cities often have the support of colleagues in the same parish, not so in smaller parishes.
“No matter what way you dress it up you live on your own. Summer was okay because of good weather, but now you close up the front door at 5pm and switch on EWTN [Catholic news network] or partake in your favourite addiction.”
Isolation is a real issue for many priests, so is the loneliness. The reality is that the average age of an Irish priest is around 70. If they were in a regular job they would be retired, but priests must soldier on until they are 75. There are some exceptions for those who retire earlier on health grounds.
Imagine the reality that these older men had to face with lockdown. Churches were closed for any public Mass or service. Funerals were especially difficult, not just for the many families, but also for priests.
Another nightmare started for many priests with the notion of social-media Mass. You had subtle pressure like “The fellow in the next parish is on Facebook saying Mass. He’s a mighty man.” Many older priests see themselves being judged because of this.
These men were not ‘tech savvy’, and the idea of saying Mass to a smartphone or camera in an empty church was anathema to them. It only added to the angst already being experienced by lockdown. When some of these older men braved up to their social-media fears many had not bargained for trolls. These keyboard warriors spend their time shooting viral bullets from the safe distance of their pyjama-clad living rooms.
If this was happening in any other sphere of society we would call it abuse of the elderly, but because it is happening to Catholic priests it seems that they are fair game. Many priests, especially the older men, suffer deep hurts because of all the comments and vitriol that can follow them online.
Another cause for worry is more clerical. The neighbouring priest can be great on social media and have so many followers, but “poor old Fr is struggling in front of the camera.” Mass is not a performance art. “Our man has loads of followers. How many has yours?”
Lockdown has also created another liturgical species – Masshoppers. These are the people who tune in to this parish and that parish “to see what’s happening.” All of this loses the meaning and purpose of what a liturgical celebration is meant to be.
Another issue facing many priests is the actual ‘running of the parish’. For some of them, the most contact from their diocese is when they are looking for money for something or other, or an update on the never-ending rules and regulations pertaining to GDPR.
With lockdown, many parish committees are not meeting. Finance has become an issue in some parishes, especially those that don’t have a healthy parish account. One story was recorded of a priest paying for parish needs out of his own pocket because the parish account was so depleted.
Some priests are also feeling the pinch with their salaries being cut, for example, in Dublin. There are also reports of priests not being paid the minimum wage. In many dioceses, priests depend on the generosity of parishioners through ‘priests collections’ – spring, Easter, summer and Christmas. With closed churches, these collections are not physically taking place, even though some people make sure their donations are sent through.
When churches reopened in July the numbers had collapsed. People were fearful of returning. Some priests are visibly upset because they see the ‘collapse’ of the Church they love happening before their eyes. They feel guilty because it’s all happening on their watch.
For the most part, this is falling on the shoulders of older men, many of whose energies are depleted and health compromised. Spare a thought … or a prayer.