Burden of Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church


01 December 2016 | by Megan Cornwell

Catholic priests are feeling under pressure, and increasing numbers are suffering from depression and anxiety. But support for clergy with mental-health problems is patchy and piecemeal

In September a 65-year-old priest in Essex told his bishop he was unable to take on responsibility for another two parishes, after the elderly clergy looking after those communities had either retired or died. He felt overwhelmed. He was celebrating four Masses every weekend, providing support to local schools, hospitals and hospices, and there was no other priest in the diocese available to assist him.

The problem is not confined to England and Wales. In Ireland, the dwindling clergy numbers and the resulting malaise is so extreme that, according to the Association of Catholic Priests, suicide has claimed the lives of at least five priests in recent years.

Over the past few decades, Catholic priests have come under enormous psychological strain in Britain and Ireland. The fallout from the scandal of child sex abuse has certainly been a big factor, but the decline in church attendance, the collapse in vocations and the Church’s fading influence and prestige – the wearying effects of creeping secularisation common to all the Churches across Europe – have added to the sense of being embattled.
Parish priests are often arranging more funerals than baptisms or weddings; churches are closing; dioceses are being restructured; and bishops are spending more time on administration and less on pastoral care. Change management is difficult at the best of times and, sure enough, the cracks are starting to show.


I am indebted to the U.K.’s Roman Catholic newspaper the ‘TABLET’ for this sad indication of clergy burn-out amongst their parish clergy in the U.K.

In a national Church, mirroring that of the Institutional Church of England, the obvious decline in numbers and influence is making itself felt by the proliferation of the number of parish units being pastored by a single clergy-person – a situation not limited to the U.K., but perhaps more noticable in a Western democratic country that still claims to adhere  to basically Christian principles in its legal and social systems.

While the Church of England still struggles with matters of gender and sexuality; the local Roman Catholic Church struggles with a manpower problem (it does not ordain women) and if the situation continues for much longer, there may be a real crisis of management of the population and plant that survived from the past – never mind the prospect of building plant and congregations for the future.

The lack of sufficient priestly vocations in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.K. is replicated in most Western countries, where women’s emancipation has brought a new understanding of a woman’s true place of (near) equality in the community. Fortunately for the Church of England, women have now been given the first indication of their proper place amongst the clergy and bishops of the Church – a factor that has helped to counter the slowing down of male clergy vocations.

Fortunately for the Church of England (and also in Anglican Churches around the world), women have now been given recognition of their proper place amongst the clergy and bishops of the Church – a factor that has helped to counter the effect of a slowing down of male clergy vocations. This is now deemed, in most Anglican Churches, to be a proper reaction to the fact that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female” (cf. St.Paul). The priesthood of Christ, represented in the celebration of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, may no longer be considered to be a solely male provenance. But as Christ was ‘fully human’, he is fully representative of all humanity – not only the male of the species – and, therefore, can properly be represented by a woman in the celebration of the Mass.  

Here in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Roman Catholic Church seems not be suffering the same lack of parish clergy to service the needs of its congregations – due, mostly, to the ready recruitment of foreign clergy, many of them of Asian origin, where vocations seem to still be forthcoming. Here, as in the U.K., there is a shortage of local vocations to the R.C. clerical orders, but because of the ready access to overseas clergy, the gaps are being filled – but no without some difficulties with initial cultural, including language, barriers.

Another problem for Roman Catholics is the canonical requirement for clerical celibacy – a status that has not, so far, been able to be changed – even though a number of  married Anglican priests who moved into the Roman Catholic Church as a response to the ordination of women as priest in the Church of England, are now in positions of clerical responsibility in Roman Catholic parishes in the U.K. while still married.

At this time there seems to be no shortage of Anglican vocations, including among them a goodly proportion of women, who have equal access to clergy training and employment.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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2 Responses to Burden of Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church

  1. murraysmallbone says:

    I have thought for many years that a mutual and equal recognition of Ministry in resource stretched Dioceses would not only be sensible, but the positive synergies thereby created would be beneficial to the whole Church Catholic.
    The sins of our fathers are visiting us, thanks to pope Leo x111, with the help of cardinal Manning (ex Anglican) Anglican Orders are not recognised by Rome.
    Our English cathedrals (Anglican) should be open to use by stretched Roman Dioceses as a first step.But the English Roman hierarchy would be scared stiff of “drift” to Anglicanism. Which is actually already happening in many Anglo-Catholic parishes by roaming Catholics in search of liturgy and music.

    Jesu mercy! Mary pray!

  2. kiwianglo says:

    Dear Murray “If only ……”

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