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The well-being of priests in times of crisis

People of faith turn to their religious leaders for comfort, spiritual counsel, guidance, and emotional support during times of crisis. Fr. Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu observes that although priests are called to accompany their parishes, they often do not receive the psychological, spiritual, and practical help they need to continue their ministries. He says that the COVID-19 offers an opportunity to rethink the pastoral approach.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just another moment in history. It will be remembered as a moment that changed the world and caused every sector of society to rethink, to adjust and to find different ways of living.

Although many see this pandemic as something that does not affect them, it is very much a part of every person and all institutions, including the Church. In particular, it prompts the Church to have serious conversations about health and wellness, the adequacy of the Church’s pastoral response, and public health and safety. Above all, the Catholic cleric needs to receive formation that enables him to respond to the signs of the times.

Clergy and Wellness

The late Fr Ephraim Mailula OMI told a story that when he was a young altar server in Pretoria, his parish priest was the priest-on-call at the Pretoria Central Prison – or more specifically the C-Max section where death row prisoners were held. When a prisoner was to be hanged, he would be allowed to meet briefly with a priest. Fr Mailula’s parish priest accompanied these men spiritually to their death.

Fr Mailula remembered that they would drive to the prison with their parish priest. Upon arrival the altar servers would remain in the car and the parish priest would go inside. When he emerged, he would get into the car and open a flask of whiskey and drink several gulps.

This story reveals the hidden stresses and trauma that priests experience. During this pandemic, many priests find themselves under a lot of strain. The faithful look to them for prayers and support as more and more people test positive for COVID-19. In some cases, entire households have tested positive for the virus and there are instances where people are quarantined alone in their homes.

A priest cannot divorce himself from this pandemic. Every time yet another panicked parishioner calls, he is faced with the fear that this virus is getting closer to him too. He too, is saddled with the anxiety of thinking not only about his own safety, but also that of his family, friends and parishioners.

During this pandemic, many priests find themselves under a lot of strain.

Some might say that priests are trained to work in a variety of challenging conditions and they also have the benefits of a solid spiritual life. Yes, a priest can draw a lot of strength from his faith. But he is not necessarily trained to work in different circumstances. Most priests are trained to understand their pastoral output as primarily a parish-based ministry. Without the usual parish activities, what does his pastoral life really look like?

No priest, except maybe those who have lived and worked through war times, can claim to be equipped for this moment. Not only does he have to worry about his parishioners and the virus, but he also is the lone guard at the parish who needs to keep the lights on without the comfort of regular income.

Perhaps the most frightening thought is what happens if the priest contracts this virus? Provisions are in place for healthcare and hospitalisation. However, when it comes to home-based care and/ or recuperation, I am yet to read a guideline that deals with what happens to priests who contract the virus or how they can be assisted during their quarantine.

This might seem like a minor issue because priests often have wonderful parishioners and friends who are concerned about their wellbeing. However, this does not negate the fact that the Church has been lacking in its understanding of the wellness of its priests. This includes psychological wellness and like everyone else, some priests might need psychological intervention because of the high numbers of people in the parish, friends or family who are infected by COVID-19 and the anxieties of families that have the additional burden of financial duress during this time.

The Church has been lacking in its understanding of the wellness of its priests.

Priests can benefit from debriefing sessions as they respond to COVID-19 and other challenges they encounter during their ministry. The story of Fr Mailula’s parish priest offers us a glimpse of a priest who numbed himself with alcohol every time he left the C-Max section.  This is neither a healthy nor sustainable solution.

Broadening Pastoral Care

The opening words of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) ring true especially during this time:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. (Gaudium et Spes)

One anxiety that COVID-19 has exposed is the state of hunger in our communities.  Many people survive through small trade, domestic work and other informal work that gives them just enough to put food on the table. When the lockdown began, so many people could not survive.

It was sad to see street vendors being arrested for contravening lockdown regulations. Those vendors needed to ensure that there was food on the table that evening.

Many parishes had to relook at what they can do to assist those without food during this time. Sadly, the Church’s responsibility to the poor has dwindled in many parishes. The Christian duty to assist the poor does not have the prominence it needs in the life of a parish, deanery and diocese. Furthermore, most of our vibrant organisations or sodalities do not do enough charitable works.

The Church has also not invested enough resources, training and time in the area of multimedia. The virus and the lockdown has compelled parishes and all leaders of faith communities to use the media to reach the many people who are now mostly housebound. It is rather strange that in the early days of print media, radio and television, the Church was a leader in using these platforms to widen their evangelisation.

The virus and the lockdown has compelled parishes and all leaders of faith communities to use the media to reach the many people who are now mostly housebound.

The lockdown has restored this practice. All forms of media have been used to send messages, home-based reflections for families and individuals, live streaming masses and other devotions and liturgies. Although these are no substitute for physical gatherings, particularly the celebration of the Mass, they have been effective in fostering community and connection. Even telephone conversations have regained their popularity. Many priests are supporting patients with COVID-19 through phone calls, Skype and WhatsApp.

COVID-19 has given the Church new insights into the plight of those, who through no fault of their own, cannot attend the liturgies in their parish. There should be a new compassion for those who are sick and housebound, and for those who, because of the work they do, cannot attend Mass every Sunday.

Despite this, lockdown has made it clear that a visit to the home of a housebound person is not enough. Those who cannot attend Mass need more than a visit to connect with the rest of the community.

Formation of the clergy

Clergy and religious leaders are not getting enough communications and media training. The current seminary formation does not have courses on media, on social media, on creative writing and other media platforms. This needs to be incorporated urgently into the teaching and training schedule for clergy and religious leaders.

There has also not been adequate pastoral support for professionals who need spiritual support to help them in demanding professions, particularly health workers and the support staff in clinics and hospitals. This pandemic has forced the Church to look at herself once more and to ponder on what it means to be a Church today. This is not a conversation about the abrogation of the Church’s practices in any way, but rather an enquiry into lessons that have presented themselves for the Church to respond comprehensively to the times she finds herself in.

Administrative skills

One of the most distressing experiences for clergy that has emerged from this pandemic, especially those who run parishes and programmes, is that they are not trained in human resource management, let alone basic labour law. Many people work for the Church as unregistered domestic workers, cleaners, gardeners and other support staff. With the loss of financial income, many jobs are in jeopardy. The Church has sometimes also been guilty of underpaying workers. Priests have to make difficult decisions about cutting salaries or dismissing staff. Some workers were not even registered with the Unemployment Fund (UIF) and therefore do not qualify for the UIF grant that government has made available.

One of the most distressing experiences for clergy that has emerged from this pandemic … is that they are not trained in human resource management.

Many parish priests are assisted in these matters by professionals who give valuable advice. Ultimately, however, the burden of responsibility still rests on the priest and many have had to learn difficult human resources skills on the job. The same is true for almost every other facet of the running of the parish and its staff.

COVID-19 has brought great pain and distress to many people. However, as a Church, we should not miss the opportunities provided by this disruptive moment to find novel ways to operate as we adjust to a “new normal.”

The Church will have to discuss, think and implement measures to ensure public safety and hygiene. The poor condition of buildings, the appalling state of lavatories and ablution spaces especially in poor, rural and township parishes will have to be corrected urgently. There is no going back to how things used to be. The conversation is not just about when can we get back to Mass, but rather when we do get back, are we ready for that “new normal”, whatever it looks like?

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.