The psychological frailties of certain priests, often linked to relational tensions and the risk of emotional loneliness, are taken into account in an increasingly serious way by the Catholic Church. While the place of psychology in the training of priests once aroused a certain suspicion, today it is often regarded as a precious resource for living a balanced and lasting priesthood.
Cyprien Viet – Vatican City
Recent events in the Catholic Church, in France but also in other countries such as India and the United States, have been marked by several suicides of priests. Each individual story has sometimes intimate and unknown causes, but a progressive awareness is emerging in the Church as to the need to pay more attention to the psychological weaknesses of priests and religious, in a context of social and media pressure which is a source of exhaustion for many.
Psychological support units have been set up in certain dioceses, and more and more seminaries are introducing interventions by psychologists, and sometimes personalized support, in their course, in order to help seminarians identify their own limits, even if it means interrupt their journey. The challenge is also to help future priests to cope with the psychological difficulties of the people for whom they will be responsible.
Father Stéphane Joulain, member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa, commonly called the “White Fathers”, is also a psychotherapist. He explains to us how the Church tries to develop psychological support for her ministers of worship, helping them to find a realistic balance, especially in their relational life.
In the traditional mentality of the Church, psychology has sometimes been underestimated, seen as contradictory with the development of the spiritual life. How can it be integrated today into the path of priests?
First of all, this involves involving mental health professionals in the training of future clerics. So we meet people, we talk to them. And then the formators remain attentive to what the seminarians may experience, and if they perceive that some need more specialized, more specific help, they will provide them. Unfortunately, what remains a big stumbling block is that for many future priests and even for priests, to have recourse to a specialist in mental health is to be considered in a situation of failure in relation to one's life. spiritual.
This brings us to an essential point… But the priests themselves, beyond their personal frailties, are confronted in their lives, particularly as parish priests, with people who have mental difficulties. Can the fact of having been followed in therapy help them to apprehend these profiles with more accuracy, balance and efficiency?
Yes quite. From the moment they have taken this path themselves to have been accompanied and helped, to know that they are not superheroes but that they are only men, and that human nature is fragile and sometimes needs support, this makes them better companions for the People of God. They know how to be attentive to this dimension, without trying to spiritualize everything. So yes, certainly, if a priest or a seminarian takes this journey, it will make him or her someone much more attentive to the sufferings of the People of God.
One of the most common phenomena in our modern or post-modern society, which concerns the entire population but also priests and religious, is the sometimes excessive use of social networks, with all the narcissism that can be associated with it. … Is this question of self-image and the difficulty of showing oneself up to what one would like to represent, is it a central question today in the difficulties of certain priests and in particular of certain? young priests?
Some young priests are the children of their generation, so they were born with social media, it's part of their identity. I can see it with us, our young colleagues are very present on social networks! There is a dimension of apostolate and evangelization in these circles that should not be underestimated. There is work that is done by some that is quite admirable. But the problem is when the heart of the message and the presence in cyberspace is no longer Jesus Christ but the priest himself. That is a difficulty, and then social networks tend to amplify only the positive things, to idealize the positive aspects, so that digs something into the narcissism of people, but like any tool there are shadow areas and light areas.
The ecclesial and community bond is often in question. We can notice that sometimes priests live together in the same presbytery without speaking to each other, without sharing their meals, without understanding each other, sometimes because of a generation difference … How to succeed in generating empathy and listening among the priests themselves?
It must begin at the house of formation, at the seminary. If we don't instill team life in seminars, it won't work in everyday life afterwards. Much effort has been made in this area, but then it will depend on the individual's relationship to his ministry. Will he consider that the others are there to work with him and that he is there to work with them, but not only that they are also there to support each other in the life of a priest, because it is a life which is not easy… Very often, we religious have become more accustomed to community life, while for diocesan priests it can be more difficult for some. But great efforts have been made to set up, for example, life teams, or priests of the same generation, who have undergone the same training, meet regularly to exchange views.
Many priests sometimes feel guilty, due to a lack of availability, for not having been able to react well, for example to a grieving family or other people in pain. How can the psychotherapeutic approach help to overcome this feeling of guilt, in relation to this notion of "following Christ" and the sometimes more complex human realities that present themselves to any priest?
First, it will help us to accept this limit, that the priest cannot be everywhere, and that he will sometimes disappoint people or himself in relation to the ideals he has. Psychology will help him make this point of truth about reality. It can also, just like a good spiritual accompaniment, help him to orient his priorities. If the priest realizes that he spends a lot of time hue and dia in meetings for lots of things that do not necessarily require his priestly vocation, he will have to think about how he can delegate certain things, in order to make oneself more available to others.
The problem is, a lot of the young people who come into the ministry are full of energy, they will go in all directions, until the moment they crash, because they can't go on like this anymore. And this moment is not negative: this is the moment when you discover your limits, and this is where you need to be supported. Because discovering your limits is very important, it allows you not to transgress them, in the other, at home … So there is all this work that must be done, and the priests, very often, do not shoot the alarm bells when they see that they are reaching the limit, or the limits.
There are cells that have been set up to accompany priests, with psychologists, with social workers, because, even if we often speak of young priests, there are also elderly priests who sometimes experience situations of human distress. So there too, the dioceses must be very attentive to this, and several dioceses, in France but also elsewhere in the world, have set up these cells which are there to accompany these priests who are in a situation of human, spiritual or suffering suffering. psychological.