Priests Battle the Pouring Dark of Loneliness

The temptation of loneliness can haunt priests alone at their parishes, but a variety of priestly fraternities are giving them ways of finding community with brother priests to sustain them.


WASHINGTON — Parish ministry in the 21st century sees most U.S. diocesan priests living alone, working all day to care for the needs of their flock. But stalking many diocesan priests by day, and prowling in the pouring dark of the parish residence by night, is the enemy they call loneliness.

It’s a desperate battle that some priests and bishops are trying to solve.

“You can use the rope to swing by it, or you can hang by it,” Father Brian Carpenter said of the challenge of living alone in an assignment. The priest of the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., is by nature a “raging extrovert,” and he said adjusting to his assignment in rural Owego was “very difficult” for the first three months. Both he and the pastor, Father William Moorby, have to minister to the clustered Blessed Trinity and St. Patrick parishes at four worship sites that cover a large swath of territory. This leaves them each living alone in separate rectories close to five days out of the week.

In the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., Father Nicholas Reid has a similar challenge as the pastor of a rural community of 400 Catholics in Freeburg. He has just close to three years of ordained priesthood under his belt, and he said his rural parish is a “wonderful place” to undergo his first pastoral assignment, but “it can be tough.”

Living alone at a parish is an experience that seminary talks about, but seminarians live in community and only come to know what the experience is like firsthand as priests. Some priests end up as casualties of isolation: where the temptations of loneliness can lead to addiction, burnout or seeking intimacy in all the wrong places.

“The danger is that a guy can get caught in a depressed state and not know where to turn to help,” Father Carpenter said.

Dioceses appear to have uneven approaches to dealing with the challenge of loneliness for priests. Father Reid said his diocese incorporated discussions on loneliness and living alone in its five-year continuing-education program for priests; when asked, Father Carpenter could not recall the topic ever being discussed in his diocese’s one-year continuing-education program.


Prioritizing Priestly Fraternity

Both priests have a deep love for their ministries, but said the key to living out a healthy, integrated priesthood means engaging in priestly fraternity, developing a strong prayer life and integrating themselves into the life of their communities. They also take a day out of each month to meet with their spiritual director, who can help identify spiritual dangers or potential unhealthy behaviors or areas. The sacrament of reconciliation is also frequently received.

The key to these isolated priests’ battle is maintaining relationships with fellow priests. Both Father Carpenter and Father Reid said that belonging to priest support groups, such as Jesu Caritas, are essential, in their experience.

In these groups, they meet once a month with fellow priests to spend a Holy Hour in prayer, share a common meal and catch up. It has become a staple in both of their lives. When Father Carpenter cannot make the two-hour drive to meetings, he uses Skype video chat to be present.

“It’s been a real blessing,” Father Reid said.

Father John Trigilio, president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, said priests must make priestly fraternity a priority.

“Priests who live alone still need their brother priests,” he said. “They may not live with others in the same home, but they need the fraternal support only provided by one's peers and colleagues.”

He explained the temptation of loneliness manifests itself in priests in a number of ways. One is burnout from neglecting their health and spiritual life, leaving them vulnerable to various addictions and temptations. Another is the “virgin martyr” syndrome, where the priest gets caught up in a “romantic dream” of neglecting his own needs to tend for his flock. The reality, he said, is that this kind of priest develops into an “odd, eccentric or just weird” man, because he “no longer has healthy interaction with brother priests and with well-rounded members of the laity.”

A related danger is self-ostracization or “Lone Ranger syndrome,” when a solitary priest feels alienated and embittered from diocesan politics and withdraws further from his bishop and brother priests.

Father Trigilio said that “ongoing formation” in all four pillars of a priest’s clerical formation — spiritual, theological, pastoral and human — “are essential to healthy, well-balanced clergy.”

And the Bible’s injunction that “it is not good for man to be alone” applies to priests, as well as the laity.

“Jesus sent his disciples out, two-by-two, not one-by-one,” said Father Trigilio. “When priests live alone, they need to pursue some fraternity to maintain their balance.”


Oratory: An Urban Opportunity

However, others are responding to the Second Vatican Council’s call for diocesan priests to live a “common life or some sharing of common life” and voluntarily follow the evangelical counsels — a tradition reaching back to St. Augustine in the fourth century.

Father Joseph Illo, chaplain of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., said that loneliness extends beyond rural outliers. Priests in some of the most populated urban centers in the nation are also living alone.

“The reason priests don’t live together is because they don’t think they can,” he said. “They don’t think they would get along, and they don’t have a structure they think they could submit to.”

Father Illo is working with San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to establish a community of diocesan priests in a “society of apostolic life” known as an oratory, where they will live together under a common roof, with a superior and have a rule of life that includes common prayer, meals and activities for priests as they go out and perform their tasks in the diocese. So far, there are eight established oratories in the United States.

“We’re taking a proven structure of the Church for parish priests to live together, and we’re submitting ourselves to a rule with fraternal charity and common prayer,” he said.

The oratory priests will be incardinated into the Oratory of St. Phillip Neri in Rome and are ultimately answerable to the Pope. But they remain diocesan priests doing diocesan work and are accountable to the local ordinary. Father Illo said the oratory will not start in San Francisco until August, but he is already received inquiries from priests and seminaries all over the country.

But a hybrid form of oratory, where priests live together in fraternity, but under the authority of the diocese itself, is also taking root in the U.S. The Companions of Christ in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis have 20 diocesan priests  who live for the most part in households, close to their parish assignments and under a superior. They are a “public association of diocesan clerics,” answerable to their bishop, living out the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.

“I think it is a healthy way to live,” said Father Jon VanderPloeg, superior of the Companions of Christ.

He explained that Companions has its roots in a group of young men, who felt they had to choose between living in community or diocesan priesthood until they were shown this way of life. They are getting ready to ordain two new priests this year, and a similar group has already started in the Archdiocese of Denver.

The Companions’ life is very different than just “living together,” and the rule helps the priests enter into “relationship with one another, sharing life deeply,” their superior explained. It is a fraternity of deep relationships, where the priests “can really walk with each other and help each other and go deep into what the Lord’s asking.”

Said Father VanderPloeg, “Even to have someone else who knows your weakness, but is walking with you, is such a strength.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.