Priests need real “friends” too, says pope

Being a true friend to priests and seminarians is a great gift the laity can offer to the Church, Pope Francis said on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Addressing lay men and women from Serra International , a group dedicated to promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the pope lamented that the word “friend” has become a bit overused today, especially on social media…

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Pope Francis is right. True friends really care about each other.

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I wish a stronger point were made. I am a single woman and one of my dearest friends is a priest. We have to go to ridiculous lengths to prevent even the possible impression of impropriety, even though, in several decades of friendship no impropriety has ever occurred.

If we wanted a sexual relationship, we would have married years ago…we were friends way before his ordination. We didn’t, end of story.

I am not a threat but single women are often viewed that way. Married women, also, often act like I am after their husband, as if any man would do. It’s so dumb. I often want to say, “honey, he’s no prize”. I am celibate by choice, not because I can’t get anyone. If that changes, I’ll date single men who are not priests.

My dearest friend doesn’t come into my home. We haven’t seen a movie together…ever. if he were to plan a group trip to Rome, I could not go…someone might notice how well we get along and start a rumor. It’s pretty sad.

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That really is very sad.

I often get the impression that priests lead lives that are at times quite isolating. It’s difficult to live your life in a fish bowl as it were.

As a married woman, I am also keenly aware of the issues surrounding friendship with priests. I don’t think people are above starting rumors about married women getting too close or seeming too friendly with priests.

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Besides that, I have heard priests complain that those people who invite them for social events, etc are not really cognizant or understanding of the priest’s schedule, and will invite them for times when they can’t go, such as Saturday afternoon when the priest has to hear confessions and say Mass. I have the same type of problem with my own work.

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I feel a bit sorry for priests at time. It must be difficult to sort out who is actually a friend and who may be befriending you because you are the nice parish priest. That in itself could lead to a priest putting up defensive barriers to protect himself from too many people wanting a piece of his personal time. It could also lead to people who genuinely like the guy, and who might under normal circumstances become a friend, standing back from the priest and not wishing to be one of what can seem sometimes like many people wanting to impose on the priest’s private life.

I think it’s understandable if priests wish to keep their circle of friends to include other priests and people they grew up with before they became a priest. Personally I would not like to be in a position where I would be questioning whether a person likes me and wants to be with me because I am me, or because I am their priest.

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That’s pretty much what I see. Priests might also be somewhat friendly with people they work with every day, such as the staff who work in the parish office, or the sisters who teach the children, or the deacons.

There are a lot of issues with priests just befriending people from the parish. As a matter of prudence, the priest can’t really let his hair down and complain to parishioners about other parishioners, or have deep conversations with parishioners about his faith struggles or life struggles. Not only would that stuff get around the parish, but it would cause people to be leery of the priest. Priests might also have concerns about being seen with a single woman, or being around minor children. And the priest is time-limited and can’t be everyone’s buddy, meaning that some people are likely going to feel slighted that they don’t seem to get the same amount of time or attention from the priest, and other people are going to be flaunting all over the place that Father is their personal friend. I have seen all this stuff happen.

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Yes…I am sad for good priests who cannot even take the neices and nephews for an evening to let their sister and her husband have a date night, less it appears scandalous.

This string reminded me when my late father asked a family friend, a Christian Brother who joined us for Christmas Eve dinner, about his new car. Brother jumped up and grabbed his coat and hat, so excited to talk to another man about cars and took Dad for a spin. The car was quite basic, and may have belonged to the community, but it had been a very long time since he had a new car, and he really enjoyed it. A couple months later, Dad invited him to the Chicago Auto show, and Brother had a blast seeing all the new cars and having a Chicago hotdog. This man had been a family friend for sixty years and we never knew he had worked on cars with his dad, who had been a mechanic, before seminary.

People in vocations are people. It can be interesting to learn the parish nun was a champion swimmer, that the nursing home chaplain served in Viet Nam, or that the deacon is also an accomplished painter.

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There’s a new priest at the parish I grew up in who I could easily see myself getting a beer with (even if he did go to my rival university, haha). But I live far away now so there is no chance of that. I do have a hard time imagining how any laity could start a friendship with a priest after he is ordained. It would seem kind of awkward to me.

I think men can by including the priest in a group. For example, ask the priest “do you golf? We need a fourth”, or invite him to poker night, or fishing. Of course, with the scandals, even men have to be sure not to look like they are looking for a date, but if a group of guys are going fishing for a day, could certainly extend an invitation…particularly if they know the priest a bit from volunteering at church.

Same with nuns…no reason a nun can’t be invited to lunch with the ladies, or to go to a cute town to the shops. If it’s awkward to ask one, invite two.

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You know, this was such a difficult thing for me when I entered formation.

It seems - well, here in the UK, anyway - that there is a massive hysteria (and not unjustified either, i’ll admit) when it comes to clerics and public relations.

I was quite consistently and strongly reminded that the human aspect of life is of pinnacle importance, however I found that sometimes the practice differed from the theory. The point of having friends, or being allowed friends, was a little contentious. Unfortunately, the policy given to me was that I had to make sure about things that made me feel like I was waiting to be caught out by having friends or social media, and whilst I was encouraged to have friendships and such, it was made nearly impossible for me to facilitate.

A couple of the policies were quite extreme, such as having legal representation and advice before having even a social media account, and having to remove fundamental elements of friendships from the interactions I might have with the ‘average Joe’, such as talking about and sharing personal difficulties, or concerns about life in general, and even asking for advice on issues I had. I was also told not to talk much about issues in the spiritual life, or in my own spirituality. The policy documents for the clergy I had to study, and the instructions they and my religious superiors gave were that these things should only be spoken about with spiritual directors or to senior members of the religious community. I was also never really able to, or given time to talk to parishioners and get to know anyone. I was also - quite pointedly - told by my superior not to be become too familiar with people, and that was only in becoming friends, there was absolutely zero chance of anything more happening, especially as I was talking for the first time to an elderly lady that was well loved by the congregation and community - I was rather taken aback at that.

Whilst I understood and still understand the reasoning for keeping these things private, and you aren’t allowed to truly get to know people and have to keep them at arms length, well… they’re not really friends are they? It’s good to talk about gritty things with people removed from the situation sometimes, that isn’t living the same path of life as you; they can offer very different perspectives, and interesting ideas on resolution (which, of course, may require discernment on whether all of them are appropriate or applicable to follow or take in to account). When I asked for permission to go for a quick pint on my afternoon off with the parish staff, I was told no. I spent my time in formation feeling isolated and alone. Particularly as I was half the age of everyone else in the community.

So what’s the point of me having said all this?

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Well. I think it’s only worth everyone noting, both laity and clergy, that yes, the Pope is right. DEFINITELY. It’s important for clergy and seminarians to have friends, and it’s DEFINITELY important that they’re not all from the same place or way of life. However, I feel that the Church has it’s own problems in manifesting this, and allowing clergy or seminarians in being able to use their own initiative and judgement to do it. LAITY: PLEASE make friends with clergy, it’s a good thing to do, and nobody should be alone. You’ll both learn so much from each other, and i’m sure you’ll both enrich each others live. but please bear in mind, it can be very difficult for people to be allowed to make friends, and whilst encouraged, on the other side of the fence, it’s a little bit of a different story.

CLERGY: PLEASE make friends with laity. They can be heroes for you, as i’m sure you know. They’re amazing. My most fond memories are of having been chatting to them, and having just a ‘normal’ time. You’re only human. Have a drink, have a laugh. Let loose, and please stop being so paranoid. I’ve seen so many priests, monks, and seminarians cut themselves off and be constantly on guard of and for themselves, and become burnt out. You have to be vulnerable sometimes too. You are in need of friends, sometimes, too. Embrace it. Not all heroes wear robes, and the heroic thing you might need is just to have a conversation - a normal, fun, or venting, or random small-talk conversation.

I wish that the official guidelines and practices of the church made it easier, and less pressuring about this and human formation. I know that a lot of it comes off the back of the awful, hideous things that have happened, but I can’t help but feel that this direction isn’t the best way to do it. It appears, and I’ve seen, and I’ve experienced, that you can’t really ‘share in each others’ lives, and accompany each other’ if you’re not allowed to do just that. I wish that the church and the Church was able to work in a more constructive way, a more human way, to being able to construct friendships, without feeling like you have to constantly look over your shoulder for scandal, and self inflict its stigma.

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I have some concern about how priests are admonished at times. I can understand that as in a high position in the private sector, one shouldn’t share dirty laundry about their bishop or brother priests, and should turn to brother priests or assistants such as the church secretary about demanding/difficult parishioners calling with gripes. However, for example, when my friend was in seminary he got “in trouble” for being friends with me though we weren’t dating and he was still discerning. I felt at the time as a 20 year old, and still today, if he had wanted a romance at that time, well, that was the time to figure it out…before vows. He didn’t, of which I was well aware. I was dating someone at school.

I think church leadership needs to deal decisively with abhorrent behaviour, and also let priests run their friendships. Ultimately, it’s a bit like a parent trying to control a 25 year old. We can’t, and trying only causes pain.

Indeed, you’re very right. Dirty laundry ought not to be aired, that’s truly the thing I understood. On other things I feel like - controversially for the Curia, and the higher-ups - perhaps, the worst thing they can do in some of these things is tighten the reins. They need to be let to, as you’ve said ‘run their friendships’. If issues arise, then issues arise and they need to deal with it as it happens, or we’re running into an issue where culpability and condemnation runs on what could have or nearly happened. It feels like a juvenile/short-sighted or knee-jerk reaction. Indeed, it can, and does cause pain. It’s a very true issue of human formation that has reared its head after the reforms, and I feel they’re perhaps too afraid to fix it.

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Members of the clergy are as human as the rest of us. That means they need human interactions and friendships. It doesn’t have to be “scandalous”, unless people with gutter minds make it so – and that’s their problem.

Unfortunately, the cases of real abuse that got covered up have caused nearly everyone to be suspicious of any kind of friendship between a cleric and members of his flock, and even between himself and his own relatives. No matter how casual or how innocent, some folks are going to find it dubious. And that can lead to a real sense of isolation and even loneliness.

That children are taught at an early age to perceive a religious as someone above being human, this example comes to mind:

I attended Saturday morning Catechism classes in my youth. Apparently, the diocese had made special arrangements for an ice cream truck to come by one day and give everyone in the school an ice cream bar (all of the same flavor), which was a real treat. I recall one of my classmates asking Sister if nuns eat ice cream. She replied, “Of course, we do! We’re people, too, and we like ice cream just like most everyone else.”

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I agree. Despite the Pope’s comments, I believe the prevailing ideology is that priests should avoid personal friendships with women close in age to themselves. I have read articles about this stating priests should not talk on the phone, enter the home, dine alone in a restaurant, etc. with a woman. I have read they should avoid lengthy counseling sessions with women.

I think such silliness only gives greater mileage to rumor mills by giving weird credibility such as, “well even if nothing is going on, he should know better”. People don’t presume I’m having an affair with my friend who is a professional pianist, nor my friend who is a carpenter, both of whom I dine alone with, who stop by my house to help with projects, and so on. But if I have dinner with my friend whose a priest, “must be an affair”. It is a sin to bear false witness so why do we coddle that behaviour?

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I think the Pope, bishops, and priests are sometimes dehumanized because of their vocation. As in: a person forgets that other than being a priest at a parish they are also a human being. They get sad, lonely, tired, happy, etc. People usually show them great respect but they don’t necessarily show them humanity or compassion or interest, and only ever receiving respect can become exhausting, or so I would think.

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Maybe Priests should cultivate some Jewish or agnostic friends who they can be around without having to stay in ‘Priest mode’

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This call for help makes me want to ask - aren’t priests friends with each other and if generally not than why not. The Apostles were great friends with each other.
Not to mention that REAL friends in life are very rare. Very rare. So yes priests need them so do lay people so do pagan people so do all people. It’s not something unseen or newly discovered.
I find much more inspiring when a priest explains to us that even if we have no friends, if we have God as a friend we have all the friends we need ever. This is the type of priest I would discuss more about my spiritual life with, someone who guides not someone who is still searching. Sorry if I sounded mean didn’t mean to. But yeah priests can pull you forward, I have met some. They are not un-human or super-human, they are human. Because of the fall maybe we forget what being human is and we replace it with a moaning image of excuse and procrastination.

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