Anxiety, Depression, Despair, Prayer, Priests, Spiritual Warfare, Suicide
A couple days ago a friend messaged me and asked me to pray for a priest, Fr. “V”, in his diocese who is having doubts about his worthiness to be a priest. Then, today, I read with sadness an article from the Catholic News Agency that a Kansas City, Missouri priest took his own life yesterday (KC Priest Harkins remembered as ‘A good man and a good priest’). The story alludes to the possibility that Fr. Harkins suffered from depression and anxiety which may have led him to suicide.
I don’t suffer from depression or anxiety nor have I ever had thoughts of committing suicide. Unfortunately, however, I have had two friends who succumbed to the pressures of life and took their own lives. I understand that, for someone like me who does not suffer these conditions, it is nearly impossible to know what it is like to be in their shoes. I give thanks to God that I don’t know.
But, there are two things I share with priests about which I do know: a love for our Lord, and the spiritual warfare that we wage against the devil because of our pursuit of holiness. They go hand-in-hand. As the former gets stronger, so the devil works harder against it. Priests, by the virtue of their vocation, are the devil’s prime target. If he can create chaos among the shepherds, the sheep will get lost. Often, the battle waged by the devil can be debilitating and when we feel we have lost that battle, it can lead to depression and anxiety.
A parish priest’s role can be unbelievably difficult and thankless. He is expected to be not only a shepherd of his parishioners but also the parish CEO, finance manager, HR director, activities coordinator, facilities superintendent, IT manager, and wear many more hats. While he’s trying to take care of business the best way he knows, his boss, the bishop or archbishop, often pulls him away to support the overall diocese. Having been a manager in the corporate world, I know how difficult it is to wear all those hats. It’s impossible to please everyone and when you can’t, they default to thinking they can do your job better than you can. Employees don’t always air their discontent, but that’s not always the case with a thousand or more parishioners who have no inhibition about complaining that something is not to their liking. All too often priests get bombarded with suggestions from well meaning parishioners on how to run the parish more effectively; requests to spend money on special interests; threats to withhold their time, treasure and talent if they don’t get their way; innuendos that they aren’t as good as the previous priest; and scathing letters of complaint to the diocese. It can be discouraging and cause a well meaning priest to doubt his ability and choice of vocation.
In many parts of the country we have too few priests to go around. They may have more than one parish. A pastor may have a Parochial Region and have the responsibility for overseeing an Associate Pastor or Parochial Vicar. Add all of the responsibilities of running a small business, and there is little time left to attend to the flock. The priest feels his inability to be there to care for the spiritual needs of the parish and begins to doubt his worthiness. The devil laughs. He doesn’t really care that the sheep are not being fed as long as the shepherd despairs over their hunger.
The responsibilities of overseeing a parish are enormous and the time commitment can be grueling. With masses to be conducted every day of the year, it’s difficult for a priest to take a vacation or get a day off. Even when they do schedule a day off, they often get called in to hospitals for anointing the sick, for conducting funerals, for impromptu confessions, among other things. And, because of the shortage of priests, the luxury of a week’s vacation may only be realized if a substitute priest can be found to offer daily masses to the faithful.
In my work life I knew the feeling of loneliness of being at the top of your organization. You know your employees but you can’t afford, nor have the time, to be close friends with them. Often, employees choose to be detached from their boss because they know they’ve not given their best shot. It’s no different for priests. Parishioners don’t talk to their priests because they think they’re too busy, or because the priest knows what their sins are from the confessional. It can be a lonely profession.
And finally, another thing priests and I have in common is that we are men and we are born with the God-given gift of sexual desire. As husbands, we take a vow of fidelity and chastity to our wives, to use that gift in a loving, self-giving way for the purpose of procreation. Yet, through our concupiscence, which the devil fully exploits, it can often be difficult to harness our natural urges. The devil is a master of taking something good and turning it into an evil under the disguise of goodness.
A priest’s bride is his Church and to Her he takes a vow of chastity. But, just because he’s a priest doesn’t mean he loses his humanness. No, just like us regular men, the innate desire remains in him and has to be controlled. Just like us, priests may have to take cold showers from time to time. And, just like us, we sometimes fail. We feel ashamed and we seek forgiveness through reconciliation. But, it’s not shame, rather the doubting of our faithfulness and love, that the devil desires.
So, why would anyone want to be a priest, you ask, when the road is so rough? Well, he has a secret weapon called “love “- something the devil detests. A priest discerns his vocation because he has an undeniable love for Jesus and a desire to commit his life to Him, along with a strong desire, born from love, to lead others to Christ. In the throes of despair, however, from constantly fighting the mind games that assault him, the power of that love can diminish and may ultimately be depleted. Fortunately, it has a rechargeable battery fueled from our love, yours and mine, through our prayers that provide the supernatural energy needed for the recipient to persevere. Every one of us needs prayers to sustain us but nobody needs our prayers more than our priests, bishops, deacons, religious, and, most of all, our pope.
Won’t you join me in praying every day for our spiritual leaders, those who are at the forefront of spiritual warfare with the Enemy? Let’s be loving, encouraging and grateful for our priests and let them know how much we appreciate them. Let’s offer up our sufferings – those things we do not like, did not choose, cannot change and do not understand – and unite them to the Cross of Christ for the benefit of our friends, and our enemies, but, especially, for our priests and religious.
Please share this post. Priests all across the country and around the world need our prayers, especially in many third world countries where they are being martyred for their faith. Thank you.
“Heavenly Father, may Your love and mercy be with Fr. Harkin, and with all priests like Fr. “V” who, through the wickedness and snares of the devil, are losing hope and abandoning themselves to despair. Pour Your grace upon us, O Lord, by reminding us daily to pray fervently for the Pope, our bishops, priests, deacons and religious, and all those who, through their love for You, are working to grow in holiness. Amen.”
(Please Pray for Our Priests, was first published on the blog Reflections of a Lay Catholic)
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