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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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The story of a 42-year-old priest found dead in his car outside a supermarket near Luton is sad enough. What makes it even sadder is that it appears to have taken three days for his body to be found.
While we do not yet know the circumstances of Fr Joseph Williams’ death – it is understood he died of natural causes – the fact he was undiscovered for that period of time says something about the life of the single, celibate priest.
His bishop, Peter Doyle, said of the incident: “I think it makes people feel guilty that we didn't look or that we didn't find him, but it was unavoidable and it's just one of those things.”
Had he been married or living in community could Fr Williams’ going missing been spotted earlier?
Today, most clergy live on their own, often in large presbyteries that were built for groups of priests.
It is hard not to imagine the single cleric experiencing pangs of loneliness when he closes the door at the end of the day.
Bishop John Crowley, Cardinal Basil Hume’s former private secretary, recalled that Hume, who had spent most of his life as a monk of Ampleforth, had been miserable on his first Christmas day as Archbishop of Westminster.
“When all the public duties were over and everyone else had gone home to family or simply disappeared from view, he wandered across to the upper library of Archbishop’s House and cried there like a child for sheer loneliness,” Bishop Crowley wrote in Basil Hume: Ten Years On.
It would be a mistake to say that priests are lonely simply because they are celibate. Many will spend Christmas with family and have close friends who provide a support network.
Being celibate does not mean being an old-style bachelor and should mean a priest is available to a wide range of people.
But a priest also needs to be offered a community of support in return: from fellow clergy, parishioners and his bishop.