Being alone does not work

My son, Michael has recently introduced me to Netflix and I have recently watched a series of films about the ‘Unabomber’, Theodore Kaczinski, who sent mail bombs through the post that killed three and injured many over a number of years. During the films I saw a moment where the psychological analysis of this man referred to his attempt to live his life in ‘emotional self-sufficiency.’ This moment hit me between the eyes.

As a boy who was encouraged away at the tender age of 11 into a junior seminary and then onto novitiate and senior seminary, so that my life from the age of 11 until I was 24 was spent in cloistered garths, both physically and psychologically, I recognised the condition of emotional self-sufficiency straightaway. How does a child deal with all the emotions of his life when he is separated from his loving parents and surrounded by kind but emotionally neutral priests?

Emotional self-sufficiency is a destructive notion. We need the interplay of one another and the learning processes that enable us to move into emotional inter-dependence if a healthy life is to ensue. This was lacking to me in the environs of my growing up years, in those catholic processes.

In later days, when the modern world had made its presence felt, and when Vatican 2 ideas had begun to infiltrate the system, I heard ‘talks’ given about the importance of celibates having sexually mature lives, about the importance of being able to have close friendships with people of the opposite sex. I had to laugh inwardly to myself. How is this supposed to happen for men who have obediently followed the rules and kept sexual issues far from their lives!

I remember one summer spending a month on supply in a parish and finding the parish priest slumped on the floor in his bathroom. I had been sent to hold the fort, though I did not know it, and discovered by accident that the PP was alcoholic. He was a lovely man and a gentle soul and I found him laid out. Looking back now down these many years I think he was, like many of us, simply expected to live an emotionally self-sufficient life.

I remember too how a fellow Redemptorist gave a lecture to us about the importance of renewal, of going for new courses to refresh ourselves. I found myself blazing mad with anger. Why? Because I had languished for six years in a seminary that did nothing to address my intelligence, and whose very system blocked my emotional and sexual development, so that I wasted six years of my life. Then I am being told that I must go and study again!

You cannot teach emotional inter-dependence. It is something you learn from being allowed to live life. Too often we accentuate the intellectual at the expense of the emotional and relational. During my time as a rector of a small seminary I remember a student who was intellectually very bright but emotionally very moody and difficult. He reminded me of myself! He negotiated life through his intellect and found his own confidence by relying on his clever abilities. It did not make him easy to like.

But he found his way. He became a priest, realised quickly that he was in the wrong shop, forged a life in politics and became for a while a member of the British parliament. His name was David Cairns. I was delighted to see how rounded his life had become as the years progressed. I remember him with great affection.

We all need to be emotionally inter-dependent. It is what makes our humanity possible.

Brian Fahy

23 March 2018

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  1. Mary Vallely says:

    Very true, Brian. There are many who are intellectually gifted but emotionally stunted. There has always been far too much emphasis on academic intelligence when it is only one of many intelligences. The ability to know oneself and to relate well to others requires another sort of intelligence which is the most important of all, in my opinion. How much better the world would be if human relationships were made a priority in education!
    How often have we seen people appointed to jobs as Head Teachers, Bishops/ Cardinals, consultants, politicians, Prime Ministers/ Presidents who lack basic human empathy and thus alienate those who are supposed to be in their care.
    Thank goodness the days of confining young men and women to seminaries or convents before they have had a chance to develop as all- rounded human beings are nearly over. It is tragic to see lives wasted. We all know of priests who ended their lives getting some sort of comfort out of alcohol because they were never trained to accept their emotions and shown how to give and receive love.
    It is always heartwarming to read your wise words, Brian. Thank you. Wishing you and yours the blessings and joy of the Resurrection.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Further proof of the futility of seeking renewal in the church via young men’s celibate vocations to the priesthood. Everyone has a calling to a life of service of others, but close companionship is essential to human happiness and maturation – and nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus deny that to his own closest followers. Had he done so Paul could not decades later have referred to the other apostles as being accompanied by their own wives.

    Clerical celibacy was always all about augmenting the power of the clerical institution – and it is no accident that the latter became blind to not only its own abuses of power but to the Gospel critique of both religious elitism and any abuse of power in the wider social context. Still today we receive a bloodless Gospel commentary from most of our clergy – totally unrelated to the abuses of power that compose our daily diet in the media and are typically part of our own life experience.

    Who has ever heard in church, for example, that the Easter story is the greatest of all revelations of the injustice of the human phenomenon of bullying – rife now in all social contexts, from the workplace to the classroom to the Internet?

    Did seminaries teach instead – in their ‘hidden curriculum’ – that bullying – abuse of power – was the norm, and that the seminarian just needed to get on with it, keep his head down, and keep an eye out for a clerical patron further up the chain of command?

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Mary, there is deep truth in every sentence you have written. We have just recently been discussing with other catholic friends what a great shame it is that so many priests cannot relate in an adequate way, even, to other people.

  4. John Murray says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the main contributor and the comments that follow. I think celibacy as a mandated Gospel charism for clergy is a contradiction in terms. For the small percentage who live the gift of celibacy as a truly eschatological witness in their lives, it’s wonderful. However, with the revolution in mass communications, we are now getting a ‘high definition’ view of the shadow side of imposed celibacy. Too many good men have struggled and often failed. I’m not talking about the perpetrators of abuse, but about those who have either left ministry or compromised their personal integrity by living double lives. This can’t be healthy for those men or for the people they serve. In the longterm, it’s counterproductive and the church is now paying a heavy price. It’s easy to lose the trust of the faithful but mighty hard to get it back.

  5. Frances Burke says:

    It has to be extremely difficult to live the life of a priest. The responsibilities and expectations placed on those shoulders has to been a heavy burden at times. Expected to be available to parishioners at every whim, expected to be in ‘good spirits’ at all times, expected to have all the answers, expected to run a parish effectively, expected to toe the party line, expected to be a perfect human being, expected to live a celibate life.

    A couple of years ago I was at the months mind mass of a friend’s husband who had died tragically. The mass was celebrated at the family home by the local parish priest and an elderly concelebrant who was a family friend. It was obvious that the concelebrant was struggling during the mass, and he excused himself and disappeared out the back door as soon as it was over. I also had found the mass very upsetting and decided to get some fresh air. When I went outside I saw the concelebrant alone, huddled by a wall, in obvious distress. I went over to him and instinctively gave him a quick hug. This was done in full view of others, and it was met with some quizzical looks.

    Many months later my friend said that the priest had told her he found that gesture a great comfort. She was amazed that I had done that and my response was ‘Sure why wouldn’t I, isn’t he a person like ourselves?’

    I find it very sad that a small gesture like a hug, which is freely given and gladly accepted within the secular world is denied to those who are sometimes in great need of one. I find it sad to think that this compassionate man was going home to an empty house with no one to share his feelings with and get comfort from. I find it very easy to understand why some clergy turn to alcohol as a means to cope with their isolation.

    ‘You cannot teach emotional inter-dependence’. How right you are there Brian. Emotional intelligence can only be gained through life experience and there is no school, college or seminary on earth that can teach it. We need the give and take of close relationships and the rough and tumble of life experiences to knock the edges off ourselves, so that we can become our polished best.

    I was brought up to believe the ‘love one another’ message of Christ. With each passing year this message becomes more relevant and urgent. I feel for those clergy who may have wished for a close personal relationship in their life but were denied that opportunity. I think being denied that opportunity is a very cruel and ungodly thing to do to another person.

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