Sad Priest: Photo: File

The Problem of Suicide Among the Catholic Clergy: Alarm Raised Given the Increase in Some Countries

Priests also cry and suffer from mental health problems. Alarm in some countries the increase in suicides.

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(ZENIT News – Porta Luz / Madrid, 07.03.2023).- Priests are men of God and have the particular, as well as powerful, assistance of the Holy Spirit that, regardless of how fragile and sinful these priests are, acts in them and through them to offer all God the Father’s sacramental graces, source of salvation won for all humanity at the price of the redeeming Blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

But priests also weep and, according to several studies, since the beginning of the 21st century, they are suffering from exhaustion, burnout, loneliness and other psycho-emotional fragilities that are increasing, generating in some of them mental health problems and alarm in countries  where an increase is observed in the number of priests that resort to suicide.

Hence, the Need to Address the Issue of the Mental Health of Seminarians and Priests Is Ever More Urgent for the Church. As Father Giovanni rightly points out in an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica (click to read), stress and loneliness strike priests equally. In this connection, the exhaustion and the sensation of inadequacy are symptoms to watch. “It is a malaise that is destined to grow, as priests often have several parishes to administer, without residing in any of them, and to administrative tasks are added canonical, civil and criminal responsibilities,” writes Father Cucci. 

Some Sample Surveys

Presented in France on November 25, 2020 was a study funded by the French Episcopal Conference and Mutualité Saint Martin on the health of the 6,400 diocesan priests under 75 years of age who work in the 105 dioceses. 

When asked in general how they feel, the vast majority answered “well” or “quite well” (93.3%); however, 40% felt a low grade of personal fulfilment and malaise in relation with  the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, often due to management problems; two out of five priests have alcohol problems and 8% are addicts. However, what worries the Bishops most is that 2% of their priests  suffer gravelly from burnout: 7% experience high-level of fatigue” and 76% weak -level of fatigue; only 15% seem to be exempt. 

Studies have also been carried out in Italy on malaise among priests. Research carried out in in 2005 in Padua (one of the diocese with a greater number of priests, 806 at the time of the research), showed results very similar to those found in France. Revealed from the interviews are two large antithetical groups (12 priests in each one): ”all goes well” in the first group, whereas the second feels “exhausted,” with high levels of depression, lack of involvement and little personal fulfilment. There are other categories, which are less numerous, but who feel themselves in a quite similar situation as those that are “exhausted.”

 Figures That Are Disturbing

Father Giovanni Cucci’s essay also mentions some disturbing figures: “For some time now, there has been a striking increase in suicides among priests in Brazil. During the year 2018, seventeen priests took their life and an additional ten in 2021.” And he continues . . . 

“Already in 2008, research carried out by the Isma Brazil organization, based on interviews with 1,600 priests and men and women religious, pointed out that the main cause of stress in religious life was the absence of privacy, time and adequate space for self-care. The Episcopal Conference of Brazil also initiated investigations. The experts consulted pointed out the excess of work, the lack of leisure, loneliness and loss of motivation among the possible factors  that lead some religious to suicide (…) However, from the interviews carried out the most common problem revealed is depression. A young priest  in a country such as Brazil, where he can face a lot — too much — pastoral work, can even suffer, let’s say, from a hyper-responsible attitude, which easily leads to activism, which in turn becomes stress, and then anxiety and depression. And he is often alone and cannot look after himself.”

The situation doesn’t improve when moving to Europe and, more specifically, to France, as research on that nation reveals. “One of them — writes Civiltà Cattolica referring to priests taking part in the survey — confessed that he was not a shepherd with the smell of sheep, but with the smell of gasoline… Many do not have free days. Although the situation is not as dramatic as in Brazil, there have been seven suicides of priests in four years.” 

From this point of view, Italy also is not immune: research carried out in the country  brought to light a generalized malaise among the priests interviewed. The causes? “Burnout, although the majority of them did not use this term and often don’t even know it; instead, specific external causes are detected (multiplicity of commitments, the complexity of the problems, the feeling of being ‘functionaries of the sacred,” who give aseptic services to indifferent faithful).”

The Solutions

Nevertheless, the Jesuit periodical attempts to hypothesize solutions: from the broadening of community life, perhaps with the presence of families, to the involvement of women in the formation of priests.  Nor must “the most difficult cases” be excluded, including “periods away” to spend them “in a more protected context, always keeping the possibility to relate with those in charge of the diocese.’

And also regarding solutions . . . on March 14, 2023, in the portal of the Episcopal Conference of Brazil, Monsignor Messias dos Reis Silveira, Bishop of Teófilo Otoni (Minas Gerais), wrote a lengthy article with a high impact title: Remedy for Priests’ Suicide (click here to read it).

Assertive, Monsignor Reis Silveira  begins by acknowledging that when a priest commits suicide, the only thing some do is to look for someone to blame, and not commit themselves. “Whose fault is it? The Bishop’s? The Superiors’? The Presbytery’s? The priest’s? The family’s? The Church’s? The system’s? The questions succeed one another almost always without vivifying answers. The facts are repeated,” laments the Bishop. 

Suicide is the culmination of a process of illness that, little by little, converts life into an unbearable burden for the person facing his difficulties, crushed by the impossibility of coming out of the suffering,” says Monsignor. “It’s not a free and uncontaminated rational choice. It’s the only viable way in the logic of a sick heart to do away with suffering and, who knows, to be happy, even if it’s after death,” he points out. 

Aware that it’s a complex problem, which must be addressed from multiple spheres both spiritual, of ideal professionals in mental health, as well as each member of the Church, Monsignor Reis Silveira alerts that it must be the priority of every Bishop  to safeguard — as every good father would do with his children — the wellbeing of his priests. 

“Behind a priest or a religious agent there is a human being with all the vicissitudes, weaknesses and virtues of human ‘nature’ (. . . ) A priestly lifestyle without attachment to the presbyterate, without communion, without care of physical, emotional, relational and spiritual health, leads to death. And this has become the great challenge of our mission as Bishop Pastors, as carers of the flock, from the initial formation to the permanent. To generate confidence and to help  to heal hearts is a path that cannot be taken for granted,” alerts Monsignor Reis Silveira.

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