Belfast Telegraph

The real human cost of those who devote their lives to God

By Alf McCreary

The recent story in a Sunday newspaper claiming a Roman Catholic priest took cocaine in a parochial house in Banbridge raised many eyebrows.

This is a sad, human story, but it is also a revelation that life for those who take the cloth is a lot more challenging than many believe.

Some people will rightly condemn such behaviour as a bad example for the Church and parishioners, some will have sympathy, and yet others will feel a bit of both.

However, the story raises the question of what is being done to assist clergy in personal difficulties, and this week I discussed this issue with a Catholic priest, who is also a psychologist, on BBC's Good Morning Ulster.

In the initial coverage of the story, the emphasis was about how the priesthood deals with personal difficulties, but I have tried to widen the debate to include clergy of the Reformed tradition as well.

On the positive side priests and ministers can receive great fulfilment in a job where they can bring comfort, encouragement and inspiration to others, and where they are following their deeply felt religious vocation.

However, there are also downsides. A cleric has a difficult role in running a parish, dealing constantly with bereavement and illness among parishioners, and also dealing with his or her own emotions and challenges.

It was ironic that the death occurred this week of the accomplished Irish actor Frank Kelly who portrayed the rebellious and drunken Father Jack in that wonderful series Father Ted.

This, of course, was a total caricature but, like every good satire, it held grains of truth. The Father Ted series was hilarious, but it also showed the loneliness of many ageing men in the priesthood.

That is not to say that all older (or younger) priests are lonely, but I have met quite a few Catholic clergy who were in need of the family comforts and support that bachelorhood cannot bring.

However, those male and female clerics in the Reformed tradition who are married with families, also face their own special challenges. Many a time I have been annoyed by individual clergy whom I no doubt have annoyed equally, and this is all part of the rich tapestry of reporting on religion.

However, I respect all those who follow their vocation as clerics, irrespective of their theology. It is a difficult job, and it has an inherent loneliness that faces all leaders.

Clerics, in my opinion, cannot be everyone's buddy. They can be pastors and helpers, but in the end they stand apart, and they are held personally responsible for the leadership of all their flock, under God.

Some do it well, but others not so. Quite often the parishioners could do better, too, and some of the disgraceful, petty and un-Christian rows that simmer between Church people burst into the open, and do no credit to anyone.

A leading Presbyterian professor, now long deceased, once told me of the "blessed additions" to his congregation, but he also thanked God for the "blessed subtractions", including the trouble makers.

We are often critical of the clergy, and in many cases rightly so, but we must not place them on an impossible pedestal. They ought to aspire to be the best. However, like us, they could do better, but they are also human. I am sure God understands this, too.

Belfast Telegraph


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