'Priests are not superheroes, but men' - In wake of clerics' suicides, French Church tackles thorny problem of clergy mental health

“Priests are not superheroes, but men”: In wake of clerics’ suicides, French Church tackles thorny problem of clergy mental health

In wake of the wake of the tragic suicides of priests, the French Church is tackling the thorny problem of clergy mental health.

– “Were we, those in charge, able to listen to their suffering?”, asks bishop after priests take their own lives

This summer, on August 21 and 23, two priests took their own lives in the French dioceses of Langres and Metz.

One, Jacques Amouzou, had for two years been under suspicion of having behaved inappropriately with a woman to whom he gave spiritual direction, while the other, Thierry Min, was known as a dynamic and active priest who nonetheless battled the demons of loneliness behind closed doors.

“Were we, those in charge, able to listen to their suffering?”, tweeted Bishop of Troyes Marc Stenger after the priests’ suicides, in a show of the widespread soul-searching that is taking place in the French Church after the deaths.

For his part, in comments to La Croix Archbishop of Poitiers Pascal Wintzer reminded priests of the vital need for them to “cultivate friendships outside the diocese” as one way of shoring up their mental health.

“It is essential to cultivate friendships with priests or laypeople outside the diocese, for example, those one meets during one’s years of study. Even if we are all overwhelmed, we must make time to go and see them”, Wintzer recommended the clergy, adding that for those priests in his diocese who are battling depression he doesn’t hesitate to recommend psychotherapists known to the local Church.

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– “The trap for a priest is to give more than he receives”

Priest Raymond spoke to La Croix about the crisis of exhaustion he suffered in 2015. “The trap for a priest is to give more than he receives”, confessed the cleric, who felt “I was chewing myself up inside, I closed in on myself”.

That trap for priests of not being able to say ‘no’ due to the demands on his time and energy and due to the duties of his vocation is only magnified by the reluctance of many in the Church to recognise crises of mental health for what they are – not just moments of fatigue or overwork – and to trust the secular discipline of psychotherapy.

There are signs, however, that that Church distrust of therapists and psychoanalysis is finally changing, and mental health professionals are becoming involved in priests’ lives already in their seminary years, as Father Stéphane Joulain told Vatican News in a September 11 interview.

The psychotherapist and Missionary of Africa denounced the tendency among the clergy of thinking that having to consult a mental health specialist “must be considered a failure in relation to one’s spiritual life”, and also reminded priests that they “are not superheroes but only men, and that human nature is fragile and sometimes needs support”.

In fact, for priests to resort to therapy when they need it “makes them better companions for the People of God”, Joulain insisted.

– Risk factors: “narcissism” on social networks, ignorance of one’s own limits…

Among the risk factors for mental health problems among priests, Joulain pointed to the danger of “narcissism” on the internet and social networks – “when the heart of the message and the presence in cyberspace is no longer Jesus Christ but the priest himself” – and the lack of community life for diocesan clerics.

The White Father also called on priests to be conscious of their limits, and to recognise that they “cannot be everywhere” and that they will sometimes disappoint people or themselves with respect to priestly ideals.

Therapy can act “as a good spiritual guide” for priests, helping them properly orient their priorities, Joulain explained, encouraging clerics to to reflect on how they can “delegate” certain tasks in parish life and learn how “to be more available to others”.

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“Discovering your own limits is very important” in the life of a priest, Joulain stressed, adding that for clerics to cultivate a healthy inner life “there is all this work that has to be done, and priests often don’t raise the alarm when they see that they are reaching their limit”.

More stories on Novena on mental health:

Need a habit to get through trying times? Take a lesson from monks and try solitude

Pope shares recipe for happiness: “Patience, poverty, service, consolation”

More stories from the Church in France:

French Bishops’ head ‘gets it’ on rights for women, laity: “The Church cannot act as if humans were children who must be held by the hand”

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.
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