Posted October 29, 2007
The Making of a Priest
by Carol Farthing, Ph.D.
In recent years, at SLI we are seeing an increasing number of priests for
evaluation and treatment who are in their first year or two after ordination.
The "making of a priest" requires an enormous investment of spirit, time and
money on the part of the diocese or religious order as well as the candidate.
When serious problems emerge shortly after ordination, the situation is
deeply disappointing and painful for all involved. Sometimes, these
situations are tragic. It is important to understand what problems these men
face and some of the underlying causes.
In working with these priests at SLI, we have noted some common issues that
may be helpful in the formation of seminarians and in the prevention of future
Underdevelopment and the need for more human formation
Some young priests seem developmentally "younger" than their
chronological age and lack some important skills for effective adult
functioning: an ability to cope with stress, to relate to others, to exercise good
judgment and to manage emotions. These men are able to function
reasonably well in seminary given the structure of study, clear rules and
expectations. After ordination, their lack of maturity becomes more apparent
as they fail to function adequately when they are on their own and have less
structure. One young priest was not able to cope with parish responsibilities,
felt put upon, withdrew to his room and stopped functioning. Another was
very socially anxious and hid from genuine connections with others. A third
young priest showed poor judgment in establishing appropriate boundaries
with parishioners, being overly personal with some and cold and distant with
others. Another expected his status as priest to earn him respect
automatically and scolded parishioners when they did not behave as he
thought they should.
Another area of underdevelopment is a lack of sexual maturity and/or
personal identity integration. Often external rigidity covers underlying
emotional chaos. It makes sense that an individual whose inner emotional
world is unknown, unexplored and frightening can make use of "all or
nothing thinking" and rigid rules to give a sense of security and stability.
This priest is ill equipped to handle the complex interpersonal situations that
priests face with parish staffs and with those they serve. Without a
reasonable level of comfort with one's own emotions, such as anger,
loneliness and sadness, it is not possible to have genuine empathy for others'
feelings. Successful adjustment to priesthood requires comfort with
feelings, with emotional closeness, clear boundaries and an ability to be
appropriately vulnerable with others.
Mild to moderate psychiatric problems or personality issues
This category includes emotional problems such as depression or anxiety
disorders and behavior problems with alcohol or other substances, sex, food,
money or some other addictive behavior. Often these men have a history of
untreated childhood physical, emotional or sexual trauma and can be
successfully treated with therapy, appropriate medications and recovery
programs. Good history-taking and psychological evaluation prior to
seminary can be crucial in identifying those in need of treatment. Therapy
before or during seminary and a demonstrated period of recovery from
addictive behaviors should precede ordination. If a candidate does not make
progress in therapy or cannot maintain sobriety, postponing or denying
ordination must be considered.
Severe psychopathology or personality pathology
Occasionally, we see a newly ordained priest whose problems are so deep and
severe that there is little hope that even intensive therapy or other
interventions will lead to sufficient change and growth. One priest harshly
lectured parishioners and severely reacted if his ideas were not welcomed. He
responded rigidly to feedback and when there were multiple sources of the
same feedback, he was convinced of a conspiracy against him. His paranoia
blinded him to the need for change. Fortunately, few men with this level of
severe psychopathology are ordained. However, the suffering experienced by
all involved makes these situations tragic.
Given our experience, we offer three recommendations for formators and
Pay attention to your "gut" feelings
You may experience the candidate as exceptionally na´ve, unusually rigid,
extremely uncomfortable interpersonally, or have a vague sense that
"something" isn't right. Check out your perceptions with other formators and
take shared concerns seriously. Often we hear at evaluations that our
conclusions put into words the perceptions of formators.
Pay special attention to difficulty with feedback
The ability to receive feedback, consider it and make changes in behavior
when appropriate is key for priestly formation as for all human growth.
When individuals remain too defensive to make use of feedback, growth is
stunted. If a candidate is unable to profit from feedback, continuation toward
ordination should be questioned.
Take action early to address concerns.
Confronting someone about personal problems is difficult. Early on, there is
the hope that the problem will get better over time. Later, the thought can be
"well, he's gotten this far; perhaps the problems are not so big." It is better to
face the pain of taking action early and before ordination. Dealing with
problems becomes harder, not easier, after ordination.
Carol Farthing, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, is the Associate Clinical
Director at SLI.
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