And the main cause is that priests have to deal with so many difficult people

On my recent travels, last Saturday, I came across a discarded copy of The Times, which I picked up to examine the bridge column. An article by Anne Atkins caught my eye.

Mrs Atkins, you may remember, was the vicar’s wife who used to write an agony column for the Daily Telegraph. In this article she relates the difficulties faced by many Anglican parish clergy, citing her own husband’s experiences as a London vicar (he was the effective and energetic pastor of Parsons Green for some years). It is her belief that the clergy suffer from stress far more than many other professionals, and have a higher incidence of mental illness as a result. (One would link to the article, but it is behind a paywall.)

One must assume that as a vicar’s wife Mrs Atkins knows what she is talking about, and this leads me to wonder – are Catholic priests more prone to stress, and all the things that go with it, than the normal run of people? My answer, based on being in the midst of the clergy, thus purely on anecdotal evidence, is in the affirmative, though the Catholic case differs from the Anglican one in several important respects.

Firstly the matter of pay: Mrs Atkins describes how her own family were quite often strapped for cash, and what a strain this put on them, which one can well understand. Catholic priests are not “paid” in the same way as vicars – if you want to know how they are remunerated, there is an excellent description here. No Catholic priest is income-rich, as far as I know, but almost all are well looked after; the only exceptions would be those priests serving very small parishes, for whom, I believe, some extra provision is often made. So, as far as I can see, money worries do not haunt the Catholic clergy, though I am willing to be corrected on this.

Secondly, Catholic priests are celibate. They may have to worry about themselves, and that may be destructive, but they are spared worrying over the well-being of spouse and children, which, while being a great joy in many circumstances, might also be a huge burden. I should imagine undergoing marriage difficulties, let us say, while trying to run a parish, would be an intolerable strain.

It has been said that a great burden on the Catholic clergy is loneliness. (There was an article about this in The Tablet recently.) Here though the picture should be seen as nuanced. Many priests have family members living close by; they also have the company of their parishioners; and of course they should, indeed must, have friends. They do live on their own, but that ought not to mean isolation per se. It is really important, I think, for laypeople to show their support for their parish clergy. And indeed so many of them do.

The question of stress, I think, arises when the priest has to deal with difficult people, an experience that all priests will have at some stage or another. These difficult people will come in three classes: lay people, other priests, and clergy who exercise authority.

The difficult lay people are usually, though not always, lapsed Catholics. As such, they will not know their priest well, and he won’t know them; when difficulty arises, it is magnified because there is no antecedent relationship which might serve to calm matters down. Essentially the difficult layperson acts as a difficult customer in a shop: not happy at the service provided, and threatening never to return. In these circumstances the best thing to do is to observe the old mantra that the customer is always right. One can’t usually do much to placate this sort of person, and trying to score points is futile. Nevertheless, it is hard for the priest to put up with being the victim of what is known as “dump and run”; he has to bear in mind that it is not personal, and that the angry Mr or Mrs Jones, who does not know him, would have been angry with the curé of Ars himself.

Far harder to deal with are the practising Catholics who take up the cudgels against their pastors. Whereas angry Mr Jones will never be seen again, the parishioner who makes trouble for the priest may be an ever-present figure who makes Father’s heart sink on a daily basis. Just one or two such parishioners can be enough to make the poor priest’s life a misery. Anne Atkins writes movingly of the state her husband was reduced to, without giving its cause; I have known priests similarly reduced to nervous exhaustion: not being of a combative disposition, they were mercilessly bullied by parishioners.

What is the solution, if any, to the stresses and strains that the clergy face? I wish I knew, but I would hazard a guess that the best solution is support from friends and from other clergy, who ought to understand the sort of situations that the stressed out and depressed priest may be facing. The worst possible solution is to deny that a problem exists or to see the suffering priest as himself “the problem”.