Father, I had dinner with a new […] Priest last night. I asked him what one thing surprised him the most about being a Priest, and he replied “the loneliness.” [Picking that one thing, meaning that it’s among other things and stands out as the most important among all things, and that he’s come to this point so soon, and that he’s telling you, a layman, is rather revelatory, or not. See below]. I felt very saddened by this as I listened. [Since I’m not privy to that, the meaning is wide open.] It wasn’t until this morning that I realized that I could (should?) have asked him what the faithful might do to help dispel hid loneliness. [If they could and would is extremely unlikely. It can happen, but… See later comments.] I had no presence of mind. [See “if they could or would” above, which is not the layman’s fault. Don’t beat yourself up.]
Anyway, I once asked you about approaching a Priest in regard to Confession (his personal practice) and you gave me very good advice on how NOT to go about it – thank you. So I now ask you (and for the benefit of other members of the laity who may read our exchange): What can the laity do to combat/prevent a Priest’s loneliness? [Hmmm….] What might the signs be? [Real loneliness is frustration because of wrongheadedness about expectations, a frustration, even worse, cut off from any hand up, giving up looking for a hand up because… of ever so predictable unrepeatable circumstances when that certain wrongheadedness prevails.]
I have read, somewhere, that this is a common malady [absolutely true among, say, military chaplains who are constantly changing assignments to places where no one speaks any language you could possibly learn with any speed, with no other priests around even for very extended periods of time. Lots of alcoholism], but it did not register as anything I should trouble myself about until I heard the sad words from a Priest’s mouth for myself. Please advise us.
The short answer is one you already know: the harder you try with banalities the more you will fail. I can’t remember if it’s the story of Blessed Charles Eugène de Foucauld, when he was still a knucklehead party boy and not a yet someone who knows Christ, that the more of a party boy he was, the more knuckleheads around him, the more he wanted to go and commit suicide. The answer isn’t smothering someone with attention and company and keeping someone busy and involved blah blah blah. All of that merely intensifies loneliness, reinforcing the impression that the loneliness cannot be escaped through circumstances we can control, doing this or doing that. And that’s when escapes become self-destructive, like the alcoholism thing.
There is a longer answer. But it asks more questions. First of all, I think that most all priests have no idea what they are saying when they say they are lonely:
- In saying they are lonely, do priests mean that they have no idea of the positive life of celibacy, of chastity for the sake of the Kingdom of the heavens, not knowing that they are married to the Church by the Sacrifice of the Mass that they offer, repeating the wedding vows daily of total giving of self to the Bride: This is my body given for you in sacrifice, the chalice of my blood poured out for you in sacrifice… This is actually likely; I’m guessing that one would be pressed to find any seminary in the world that says that explicitly, and reinforces it with formation conferences and spiritual direction until the seminarian lives this as the driving force of his perfect chastity. I mean, if a priest is constantly living regret he’s a catastrophe waiting to happen, and he already is a catastrophe, unconvinced of what he’s doing. That does no good to anyone. “I wish I were married,” he says to himself. Crap. He already is married and he doesn’t even know it. Instruction and formation and direction is much needed, the sooner the better. This needs priestly conversation. I need to up my series on priestly celibacy once again.
- In saying he is lonely, does he merely mean that he misses having any specifically priest around with whom he can spend some time in recreation with common interests, such as mountain climbing, sharp shooting, hiking, going on pilgrimages, having a priestly book club with a meal they all prepare, or just a priest with whom he can, on occasion, perhaps over a stiff drink, solve all the problems of the church and the world, but again, with priests that think as he does not just on those things, but about Jesus Christ, Divine Son of the Immaculate Conception? Not having those opportunities isn’t real loneliness. This is just a bit of a cross to carry until he can get like minded priests to join him, or he them, in whatever. Friendship with the laity is great! Hey! Really wonderful! But friendship with good priests is so very important.
- In saying he is lonely, is he really talking about real and wonderful progress in the spiritual life? Saint John of the Cross says that it is a terrible mistake, a kind of worst possible sin for a spiritual director to make, to say that all loneliness is evil and bad. As we progress in the spiritual life, Jesus reveals to us what He saved us from, and that includes, at its worst, feeling all the effects of original sin and whatever of our own rubbish, the worst effect of which is being alone, cut off from God and others, feeling that being cut off. Yikes! We are not our feelings. If this loneliness is actually spiritual progress, what we want to do is to recognize that Jesus is still with us in all the chaos (and this is discernible, that good and kind presence of Jesus) and say this to Him: “Jesus, wow, now I see more why we had to be saved. Thank you for coming into this world, knowing what we are like and what we would do to you, letting yourself be ‘abandoned’ on the Cross, right to death, so that you have the right in your justice to have mercy on us. I should hope that the priest would learn over a lifetime to carry, with Jesus, the loneliness of the world as he offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, you know, during the consecrations, the greatest moment of unity and love in all truth. “My God, My God, Why?” Note the unending filial union with His Heavenly Father.
- In saying he is lonely, does the priest really mean that there are no good priests around him, that is, priests who believe, who are pious, who are respectful and reverent and honestly good and kind and welcoming, who “always have the billy (the tea-kettle) on the boil,” with the door open, with open ears, with affability, with time. Really honest to goodness good priests are lonely in a bad way when they expect that there are priests to be found everywhere you look who are also best friends with Jesus. There are those. But in some places they can very very few. A good priest must be good to other priests himself, regardless of what the others are like. A good priest must be first of all good friends with Jesus, meaning that he knows already that not all priests are good friends with Jesus. Loneliness, again, comes from the frustration of too high expectations with no way out. Hopelessness. If one expects faithfulness in this world, one will be disappointed. If one finds a priest by chance who knows Jesus, ahhh! This is to rejoice. Again I will say, Rejoice! Having no great expectation except in Jesus will also shield one from loneliness.
- One of the hardest things for priests to do is to go to confession, though they should be going very frequently, always frosty, always humbly thankful to our Lord, and if a priest should hear in answer to his question – “Father, could you hear my confession?” – an immediate: “Sure, right away, and then you hear mine, O.K.?”… well, in that case, I would say that there would be no real loneliness to be found (see above for distinctions). If instead, one is confronted with laughter, or scorn, or simply has the door closed on him, or your last confession is repeated to you with sarcasm outside of confession, well, this is devastating. But even this is not necessarily the depressive frustration of hopeless loneliness unless one’s expectations are too high. One can experience the agony of the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus, one can groan over Jerusalem, but this doesn’t speak of loneliness in and of itself. Grief speaks to sorrow, which comes from love. The one who has love is not lonely, perhaps in great agony and darkness, but not lonely. There’s a huge difference. But I’m guessing most priests just label any of the above as being “lonely” when it’s absolutely not necessarily so, and it would be mistaken, even catastrophic, to guess wrongly.
In other words, we’re pretty complex. Just one other good priest, saintly priest, is a boon in any priests life. I’ve been in dioceses around the world where one would wonder if there is even one good priest who is best friends with Jesus, and then I would meet a saintly fantastic priest suffering there. Great! In the diocese where I am, so very many dozens of priests are really good priests, really good, with some real saints, with others really wanting to make progress (and that’s really really good).
I’m trying to wrack my brains to find a time when I was truly lonely. There have been some very tough times in my life, like hell, truly, like hell, wow, real suffering, and from priests, for years. But nothing that would fit the hopelessness of the worst scenario of real loneliness above. And I guess that’s the key, having hope. Hope isn’t just about the future, it’s about a future which is already tied to one right now. Grace turns to glory, as Saint Paul says. We already have one foot in heaven. We walk at risk of going to hell, and yet walk in the presence of the living God, with an angel guardian who sees the face of God in heaven right now. Of this I am and have always been absolutely convinced, that is, about the angels. Their wit and humor and mirth and love and justice and IRONY is unstoppable and does not in the least tolerate any loneliness. Never! How can one be truly lonely with such love and goodness and kindness and friendship at all times and in non-stop solidarity?
So, a bit of discernment, a bit of spiritual direction from a good fellow priest would be good. Priests themselves speaking to each other about the spiritual realities of being an alter Christus, of acting in the person of Christ, speaking of the experience of the Holy Spirit when preaching, speaking of the dynamics of the family of faith from the point of view of being a priest with Jesus… these are all things that only priests can do together. If the laity were to help out their priests when they see him withdraw, becoming distant, whatever — you’ll know it when you see it — hey! Why not arrange, if it is a big enough parish, for priest get-togethers, which the laity put on for the priests, maybe doing the barbecue or supplying what’s needed and letting them alone? In one diocese there were 40 Hours celebrations, which would be staggered on different weekends, ending Sunday evenings. All priests are invited to the meal after. Really nice. Good priests can get to know each other. This is extremely helpful.
Perhaps this sounds a bit mean, exclusive, you know, “good” priests and all that. What about the liberal ones, who deny doctrines and morals of the Church? Let me be the prophet and say that once those good priests get to know each other and get the plot, as it were, really understand, they will naturally want to invite the liberal crowd so as to bring them over to the side of Christ. This is how it works.
Loneliness, real loneliness, in not acceptable, not for one second, ever. Amen.
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