It appears that a growing number of priests and young religious sisters have ended their lives in the past few years. How do we understand this growing phenomenon of suicide especially among the radical followers of Jesus? And how do we respond to this situation adequately?
Each human being is a product of the society we are living in. If there is anything permanent in a society, it is change. We need to realize that our society is always changing and these changes affect human beings for better or for worse. The candidates who desire to become a priest or a religious is coming from this same society. Consequently when we try to understand why there is a growing number of young religious or priests committing suicide we need to keep in mind the type of society that they come from.
We are living in a capitalistic, consumerist and to a large extent a patriarchal culture. What are some of the values promoted in such a culture? There is cut-throat competition everywhere. A person is valued depending on the wealth s/he processes. Today’s generation can be aptly called as moral orphans since ethics and morality do not fit in this world view of reaching the top by any means. The present generation is growing with the sole aim of suc cess at any cost and are not taught how to face failures in life.
It is important to keep in mind that it is from this same society that a young woman or a young man decides to join the religious or priestly life. She spends at least four to five years of training before she makes her first profession/vows. She is not only taught the basic understanding of Christian faith, to read and interpret the Scriptures, how to pray, especially how to meditate and contemplate besides learning to pray with the community. She is also given classes relating to religious life in general and religious vows in particular. During the time of formation, they are taught to lead a disciplined life. After her first profession, the young sister is assigned to a community and her formation continues for the next five to six years until she makes her final vows/profession.
On the other hand, a candidate to priesthood spends at least eight to ten years in his religious/priestly formation before getting ordained as a priest. What is most important during these formative years for both priests and religious is to help them to build a strong personal relationship with God/Christ. This relationship is deepened, strengthened and sustained through quality time spent daily in personal prayer and meditation. During the formative years, the daily schedule of the formation house ensures that each formee spends at least one hour in personal prayer. But once they are out of the formation set up, many abandon personal prayer.
In a normal community, each one is expected to find time for personal prayer. But the big question is how many are faithful to personal prayer and thus strengthening one’s relationship with God. When faced with difficulties of any sort, misunderstanding, serious illness, broken relationships, rejection or failure, it is one’s deep faith and trust in God that helps one to tide over these situations.
It is true that each one’s workload has increased and everyone is struggling to find time. And most of the times what goes out of one’s time schedule are the time for personal prayer. Nothing else is sacrificed. We are faithful to our social networks, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. We do not miss our meals either. Time management and a disciplined way of life must be insisted from the beginning. According to me, the lack of faith and loving relationship with God is the key reason for many ills facing priestly/religious life today including the tendency to end one’s life. The remedy, therefore, lies in our faithfulness to God and a strong resolve not to miss our daily appointment with God, no matter what happens.
Another factor that needs to be taken seriously is the motivation with which the candidate is entering religious life or priesthood. Often the motivation may not be pure in the sense that one comes with the pure motivation of following Jesus radically or are convinced of their mission as that of being at the service of people especially those on the margins of society. Young people may join just to get a good education or for their safety and security. If they do not get what they came looking for, then they are not able to face any disappointment in life.
As I already mentioned the candidates joining religious life/priesthood come from a society that gives very little importance to human life whether it is one’s own or others. There is a considerable degradation in our society with regard to the preciousness of life in general and human life in particular. Violence and killing has become the new normal. Every day we are bombarded with news of killing and murder and also of suicide. Once again the preciousness of our life and our responsibility to preserve it has to come into our conversations and exhortations.
We also need to give serious thought to our recruitment policy of taking young boys and girls at the tender age of fifteen or sixteen. Once they make their first vows and are in their religious dress, it is difficult for most of them to go back even if they find that they are not called for this life. Because of the societal taboo, many parents discourage their children to leave and put pressure on them to stay on. This could be another reason for some to take the extreme step.
Finally, we need to humbly admit that all is not well with the way we live religious and priestly lives today. We have very few role models for the young ones to follow. We are also plagued by individualism, nepotism, regionalism, etc. in our communities. Each one is carrying their own baggage and brokenness. Even the young come with their own brokenness and wounds. Therefore the question is how do we respond to this situation?
I think the response should begin in our families itself. It is i mperative to ensure an environment at home and in our society which promotes positive well-being. Parents and schools not only prepare children to be successful but also mentally and psychologically prepare them to face failures as well. It is also vital that organisations and governments receive support to promote mental health education and promote coping skills in youth. We must advocate for better policies and implementation of resources for mental health. We must view suicide as a condition needing treatment, not as a punishment. Mental health education and resources for dealing with symptoms of mental health should be taught and promoted from an early age. Doing so will provide an avenue for the maintenance of dignity and help-seeking behaviour.
Coming specifically to religious/priestly life, we need to find ways to help young ones to fall in love with God. We need to make it mandatory that all will have a spiritual accompanier. As Fr. Victor Ferrao pointed out in his reflections , we need “to educate them instead/or along with the existing curriculum, alternative sciences promoting life, stress management, handling relationships, responsible freedom and personal liberty.”  Fostering dialogue between community members is very important. The community, especially the community animator need to create time and space for the young religious to share their concerns openly. Finally, i f we know someone who is feeling emotionally distressed, we need to tell them that we care for them and are ready to help in any way possible.
(Published on 23rd December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 52)