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SÃO PAULO – At least nine priests in Brazil have committed suicide in 2021, raising concerns about the mental health of clergy in the South American country.
Among the key factors that can lead to suicide are work depression and burnout syndrome, and priests face an excessive workload and an institutional culture that many times can provoke loneliness.
Another element seems to be connected to the strong and fast response of the Church in cases of suspicion of sex abuse and harassment. Fearing social media scandals, some priests – guilty or not – are apparently facing difficulties in dealing with the Church’s new protocols.
The most recent case happened on November 7, when Father José Alves de Carvalho, 43, was found dead at the parish house in the city of Bom Jesus, in Piauí State. De Carvalho had been recently accused of abusing a 14-year-old girl, which resulted in his ad cautelam suspension of orders the day before of his suicide.
The Church’s alleged mismanagement in cases like De Carvalho’s was harshly criticized in a text that began to circulate on social media after his death. Attributed to an unidentified “Father Simeão”, its central message is that the priests should love themselves more than the Church.
“Brothers, any priest can face a situation like that. A denouncement, even without any evidence, if addressed to a diocesan bishop can cause the same suspension imposed to Father José,” said the post, which was shared by dozens of members of the clergy and lay Catholics.
“I think about brothers I met who were suspended and couldn’t do anything. Brothers who are and have always been innocent,” the text went on.
The author said that the Brazilian Church’s structure does not have “the time to nor prioritizes the priests’ care” and mentions the several hardships faced by members of the clergy.
“We are businessmen and employees in a cassock. It’s not enough to love the Church. That’s not enough to keep us alive in face of so many priestly challenges that the current era imposes to us. The best the Church can do is to pray for us. It rarely harbors us, rarely listens to us, does not know how to take care, does not have time to love,” the article said.
Father Lício Vale, a psychologist and expert in suicide, said some priests seem to be suffering from something like a “punitivism paranoia,” since the Church assumed a rigorous stance concerning the punishment of abusers.
“I think the Church is going through an adaptation process. From a culture of not punishing abusers, it’s moving to total rigorism. That is an important process, given that offenders must be punished. But priests who had been wrongfully accused have to be compensated – including with public reparation,” he told Crux.
The fear of falling into public disgrace seems to be driving some clergy to despair, Vale added.
“I think we will soon reach a balance. Until then what we really should do is to identify a tendency to abuse during the initial formative years. Given that we have a lack of priests, such problems many times are ignored. But sooner or later they will come to the surface,” he said.
In fact, according to Vale, major factors currently leading priests to mental distress must be dealt with during seminary.
“Young priests and seminarians are the fruit of an era of egocentrism and unrestrained pursuit of success. Careerism is everywhere now. The seminaries and the Brazilian episcopate have to rethink the priests’ formation, and accentuate fraternity instead of competition,” he said.
A careerist model of education and priesthood generates difficulties in establishing a daily life based on communion with others, either with priests or lay members of a parish.
“It also impedes a priest in accessing the dimension of self-help,” Vale added.
Entirely focused on his regular duties, the priest forgets to take care of his own spirituality, his physical and mental health, and his communal life.
“The symptoms of burnout syndrome and work depression include continuous sadness and fatigue, procrastination, insomnia, and a difficulty to work. We can easily identify such problems among many priests,” he described.
In the opinion of psychologist Ênio Pinto, who has been working with priests for decades, most seminaries today have mental health professionals, but at times they lack the necessary scientific parameters to really help seminarians during their formation.
“The Church must develop a more critical view of mental health. Many times, it has a naïve understanding of such issues, including its criteria to decide sending a priest to seek professional help,” he told Crux.
The Bishops’ Conference’s Secretary General, Auxiliary Bishop Joel Portella Amado of Rio de Janeiro, has been following the cases of suicide among priests. He said the Church needs to rethink the way priesthood is experienced.
“If the image of the priest as a Super Man may have been helpful in the past, it is not anymore. Priests need to develop a mystique of fragility,” he told Crux.
Amado considers that the priests’ suicide is part of a greater crisis in the Brazilian society, “where we experience a great amount of frustration and a general lack of references and realizations.”
He emphasized that each priest has to be part of a “formative and priestly community.”
“Priests need to learn how to live and share with their communities. Many have the idea that priesthood implies loneliness, but that is a mistake.”