January 13 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Combating loneliness in priesthood and parish

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS looks at the solitary life of many priests and parishioners, and a possible canine solution - Fr John Bollan

The schools are now back in their stride after the Christmas break. I know that, in some parts of the country, they only started back this week. In our neck of the woods, however, they returned for the Thursday and Friday of the previous week. In educational terms, there’s something to be said for those couple of ‘buffer’ days, to allow everyone to settle in to the rhythm of working again after all the festivities. We began the term with our first Friday Mass in the school, a sort of pre-Epiphany celebration to get us back into the swing of things. As they all filed into the hall for Mass, I could tell there had been some tears and bubbling during the day—and that was just the teachers!

Over the weekend, I felt pretty tearful myself as I watched a clip on the BBC about older people discussing their experiences of loneliness. In the space of a few interviews, I felt that a whole world of loneliness had been opened up and, with it, a particular kind of suffering which often goes unacknowledged. One of those who spoke made the very good point that you don’t have to be living alone to feel lonely. She was using her own experience as a carer to her husband as an example of how a change in a relationship can lead to feelings of isolation and even helplessness.

It was one of those affecting pieces of news which left me thinking ‘what more can I as a priest or we as a parish do to help the lonely in our midst.’ This is part of a wider ongoing conversation I have with myself from time to time. I’m occasionally struck, usually in preparing for a funeral, to learn that the deceased was once a very active member of the parish. Then, often after the death of a spouse, they simply dropped off the radar.

Often, it’s more to do with an inability to face coming to Church alone than a straightforward loss of Faith, but then the situation gets compounded by frailty and becoming housebound. So, in effect, someone for whom the Church was a huge part of their lives end up disconnected, unattended—dare I say forgotten?

In the business world, such a falling through the net would be described as ‘a systems failure.’ To be clear, though, I’m not suggesting this is anyone’s fault. The failure, the slippage, is on the part of society as a whole and I fear the Church is often caught up in that. I’m a perfect example of this. The fact that I get worked up about it and resolve to do something about it is hardly ever carried through into action. Most times, the good resolution falls victim to a shrinking pastoral attention span: before I act upon it, the next matter requiring my attention is pressing (and often holding the doorbell). Of course, the answer is that it’s not simply a matter for me to address as a pastor. This is one for the whole parish. I don’t think it’s a situation which requires a steering group or a strategy, just an awareness of what’s happening and a kind, yet unobtrusive interest in the people around us.


And what of priestly loneliness? When I was a student in Rome, I was very fond of the prayers and meditations written by the French priest, Michel Quoist. One I was less fond of but found myself going back to repeatedly over my student years was A Priest: A Prayer on Sunday Night. It speaks of the priest at the end of a busy day, as he reflects on the demands of his vocation, his solitude and his need for both consolation and company.

In the end, of course, it is Christ who keeps him company, giving him rest and reassurance. I must admit, though, as a student, I felt more like reaching for the gin than the Lord as I read those words. It was a little too Eleanor Rigby for my tastes: I didn’t recognise Fr McKenzie or any of the other lonely people. And therein lies the problem.

Back in those days of the late 80s and early 90s, our priestly formation was entirely focused on the life of the community (which was no bad thing, of course). But we weren’t really formed for a future—which was upon us all too quickly—where we would in fact be living alone.

I was amazed to find that Michel Quoist’s meditation was actually written in the 1950s but, here in Scotland, there must be very few diocesan priests today who are not living a similar life to that priest pouring his heart out on a Sunday night. Solitude is a healthy part of the spiritual life, but loneliness, especially of a prolonged kind, never is. We take comfort in the Lord, naturally, but there can be other sources of consolation or distraction which are less salutary.

For the record, I rather enjoy my own company and, while I loved living with other priests, I have grown accustomed to being home alone. I can please myself, play loud music, not worry about taking that last slice of cheesecake in the fridge, but, nevertheless, I am aware that I may be slowly changing into a bit of an ‘odd fish.’


Not that I am completely alone, of course: I have the constant, wet-nosed companionship of Jasmine, my Cocker Spaniel. It is simply impossible to feel lonely when you have a dog, especially one as demonstrative in her affection as Jasmine, giving you cuddles. She has even been compared to those face-hugging creatures in Ridley Scott’s Alien movies, never happier than when she is obstructing your breathing with her snout.


I have found owning a dog has been a great way of engaging with the parish. I walk her all round it, ‘beating the bounds’ of Bow Farm and meeting parishioners, non-parishioners and should-be parishioners all the time. The kids from the school shout and wave, delighting in telling me in class that they saw me and Jasmine out for a stroll.

She is a beautiful dog. In fact, she is almost the most beautiful dog in Inverclyde. During the autumn, she was entered in The Greenock Telegraph’s Pet Idol competition. From an initial pool of a 100 four-legged, winged and, well, fishy pets, Jasmine was the runner-up.

While I was gently encouraging my parishioners to vote for Jasmine (anyone who says I threatened folk with excommunication is exaggerating), it was only in the final round that word got out that a parish pooch was in the running for this coveted title. And so, the Catholics of Greenock were mobilised.

Our own Little Sisters of the Poor got behind Jasmine and orchestrated a campaign which got her near—but not quite near enough—the eventual winner. The winner was another dog, or at least I think it was a dog. Although I blotted out the details, I vaguely recall it having some sort of heart-rending backstory which obviously appealed to the Tele’ readership. It

certainly had little to do with looks, let me tell you. I wasn’t at all put out at losing the £500 cash prize which Jasmine had agreed would rest in my account on her behalf.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to make the photo shoot to pick up our runner-up prize of £50 in pet vouchers. I was genuinely double-booked that afternoon and it had nothing to do with my reluctance to shake the winner by the paw and congratulate the owner. Although there’s just no living with me sometimes, I’m not that bad. Yet.

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