03 January 2014, The Tablet

A priest is found dead in his car after three days, what does this say about the lives of Catholic clergy?

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.

What do you think?


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User comments (6)

Comment by: Paxi
Posted: 16/01/2014 13:16:09

This article brings makes me see how different countries deal with clergy housing. In Africa, there are still many vocations, so priests still live about two or three in a rectory. So when one is out, most likely it will be realized and they can easily reach out. In USA, I have visited many parishes and seen that actually some priests can stay like the whole week without talking or seeing each other.

This comes from the fact that many families raise up children with the idea that each one is independent and thus you take care of yourself. Growing up, they still remain independent to the extend that no one wants to be seen poking their noses into other peoples lifestyle. So there is need to raise up children to understand that they are a family and looking out for your brother or sister is part of being part of their lives. If someone was brave enough to reach out to this priest, then they would have saved him. Again we don't know all conditions that led to his death. So I would reserve my comment.

Comment by: Paul Heiland
Posted: 14/01/2014 09:13:17

@ peterdeva: Your use of the word "loner" constitutes an unintentional slight. In common Englsh usage, it permits the response: "oh, that explains that then". Unfortunately, it doesn't, and is moreover insulting to the person concerned. The underlying medical condition is in most cases one of the forms of autism. Neurotypical society expects communicational signals the autist is unable to transmit. Autism is an interactional disability. The word "loner" loads the blame for this onto the aggrieved party. This amounts to pushing those affected into a virtual ghetto, which really helps nobody. By the way, autism is a condition and neither a psychosis nor a neurosis, and is more widespread than we think.

Comment by: Kippy
Posted: 07/01/2014 21:07:41

Where I live, if the priests lived together, one would have an hour commute, and his parish is already bigger than Rhode Island. Anyway, the thought of the empty houses made me think of a priest of my acquaintance who turned most of the rooms in his large rectory into a badly-needed daycare center. It would not necessarily have helped at Christmas, but it gave many people a new familiarity with their priest and brought a great deal of life back into the dusty rooms.

Comment by: peterdeva
Posted: 07/01/2014 17:03:06

Christopher Lamb makes some interesting and accurate observations about the solitary life style of the clergy. Before we do too much heart searching about the death of Fr Williams and how it might have been avoided or whatever we should remember that whatever support systems are in place there will always be priests who will not avail of them. Some dioceses have Ministry to Priests, all have deans and deaneries, some have informal support groups through friendships. I am sure that all our bishops will do their best to be approachable but nevertheless whatever the structures there will be priests who are 'loners' and will seek to maintain their privacy. Some priests will never visit the homes of parishioners for a meal lest they be accused of favouritism. Fr Williams is not the first priest to die alone and I doubt he will be the last. What I am surprised about is that he lay in a supermarket car park for so long without being discovered. These dasy theya re usually quick with a parking ticket. Was there no CCTV?

Comment by: Alan Whelan
Posted: 06/01/2014 12:11:05

Thank you for this timely blog.

Back in the time of Cardinal Hume I had the awesome experience of visiting Catholic Churches at weekends to make pulpit appeals on behalf of a lay missionary organization. I visited over one hundred and twenty and invariably was invited to Sunday lunch in the presbytery. It was amazing to see the living and poor dining conditions endured by many clergy. On one or two occasions I felt compelled to speak to the relevant VG and express my general concerns. On the other hand forty years ago I lived for a full year as a research student in Fr Michael Holling's presbytery in Southall, where there was always a large number of people, clergy and lay, sharing meals together. There is no need for our priests to be left isolated and we must find good ways of giving them social support. Good VGs and deans can play a meaningful role in this monitoring and support mechanism. Loften local religious houses also do excellent outreach and socially supportive work.

Comment by: Ted Rogers
Posted: 03/01/2014 19:40:42

If living alone,I suggest priests of 2 or 3 adjoining parishes should live together and commute to their own parishes for services and office hours. If necessary a central house should be established. Ted Rogers. SJ.

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