Counseling the Clergy
The stress of religious life in a secular society can be overwhelming to priests, nuns and brothers. House of Affirmation, a Catholic therapeutic community, offers psychological insight along with sympathy for the religious vocation as it helps residents explore their conflicts.

By David Mehegan
Boston Globe
New England Magazine
August 15, 1982

Sister Laurene Burns, 50, had been abbess of the Monastery of St. Clare in Minneapolis for xx years. For some time she had been having difficulty with a certain sister in the monastery, and she found herself "worn out with the tensions." Then in late 1978 she heard about a leadership symposium at the House of Affirmation in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, an international therapeutic center for clergy and religious. She decided to attend, hoping to find some way to deal with her sister.

On the second day of the symposium, she met the center's executive director, the Reverend Thomas A. Kane, and he shocked her by suggesting that she undergo an assessment, which might lead to her returning to the House as a resident for therapy. "I was one threatened lady," she remembers. "I was a leader and a strong lady. Me? Therapy? Impossible. I'm needed at the monastery, I'm up for reelection, I came here to help my sister.

She consented to the assessment, though, and was invited to become a resident. Later Kane told her that she was one of only two people he had ever met who he was sure was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "You had to get help," he told her, "or you would have gone over the edge."

The community of Catholic religious professionals today—priests, nuns, and other religious—is in crisis. "Crisis" in this instance does not necessarily mean mortal illness. It means a point at which some change can no longer be postponed.

More than 10,000 priests and more than 46,000 nuns have resigned from religious life in the last dozen years. The resignation rate has abated, but new vocations have continued at a very low level. There were 48,000 American seminarians in 1966, but this year there are 11,500. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston accepted 50 new members in 1959. This year they have 2 novices. The two seminaries in the Archdiocese of Boston produced more than 50 new priests in 1956. This year they ordained 11. Humberto Cardinal Medeiros last year called the declining number of priests "a grave danger for us and a source of profound sadness for the Church."

Priests and religious are intelligent, educated people, and the exodus has loosed powerful tides of reflection among those who remained. What really caused ninety-six American Jesuits, for example, to resign from the order in 1970 when only seven resigned in 1965, and only two in 1958? It did not seem plausible somehow that the birth control issue, or the elimination of nuns' habits, or the use of Latin in the Mass, or the dropping of the rule against eating meat on Friday could account for it.

Some blamed forces outside the world of religious life. The Reverend Joseph M. Becker, a Jesuit sociologist, published a study in the periodical Studies in Jesuit Spirituality that cited an array of general cultural trends as possible causes of the "vocational collapse," including such things as rapid social change, existentialism, the development of modern psychology, modern art, relativist moral philosophies, a decline in respect for authority, and changes in the class composition of American Catholics.

Others agreed that these developments played their part, but doubted that religious leaders could explain it all by looking outward. Two other Jesuits, William Connolly and William Barry, responded to Becker in the same issue of Studies: "Somewhere in our consciousness we knew in the early sixties that something was seriously wrong with the Society [of Jesus]. Too few men spoke of prayer as a joyous experience. Too few spoke of prayer at all, except, as in the case of Mass, litanies, and the office, in terms of law or rule. Too many men lived in a fear of various authorities that was clearly immature. . . . The Society was in crisis, and the crisis centered on a lack of religious vitality."

Connolly and Barry were not the only ones thinking these thoughts. Church thinkers at many levels of the hierarchy are becoming aware that for priests and nuns to survive today (and by implication, for the celibate way of life itself to survive), they must be, as some of them put it, "fully human," must have the capacity to face and express depression, fear, anger, fatigue, inadequacy, religious doubt, and frustration. They must be free, as well, to have intimate personal relationships with their colleagues and with lay people, both men and women—to have rich emotional lives of their own.

Priests and religious have always had such feelings and needs, but in the past they usually felt constrained to deny or repress them as inappropriate to their calling. Often this repression had devastating consequences. In the past ten years, these consequences have come more and more to light, most visibly, perhaps, in the wave of resignations and the catastrophic drop in new vocations, but perhaps most poignantly at House of Affirmation.

In 1970 an outpatient program, the Consulting Center for Clergy and Religious, was established by the diocese of Worcester, with Sister Anna Polcino, M.D., as director. The program was designed to give clergy and religious a place to talk over their emotional problems. Polcino, a small, quiet, dark-haired woman with a crisp Philadelphia accent, had served for many years as a missionary surgeon in the villages and hospitals of Pakistan and Bangladesh. When arthritis forced her early retirement from surgical medicine, she went back to medical school and became a psychiatrist. "I had always been interested in the emotions," she says.

Polcino and Thomas Kane, a jolly, gregarious priest and psychologist who had joined her in leadership at the center, began to think the outpatient approach was inadequate. "We saw," Polcino says, "that many of these people needed a residential setting, though not a hospital."

The new program, incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and rechristened House of Affirmation (it is not a Catholic Church program, and it receives no church funds), was set up in a lovely old mansion on eleven wooded acres in Whitinsville, near Grafton. It accepted its first thirteeen residents in 1973.

House of Affirmation did no promotion, yet the demand for its services was soon overwhelming—far more than the one program could provide. Word spread rapidly, and soon it was accepting residents from as far away as England and Africa. In the nine years since its founding, it has experienced rapid growth. There are now three more Houses of Affirmation in the United States—in Webster Groves, Missouri, near Saint Louis; Hopedale, Massachusetts; and Montara, California, near San Francisco—and one in England, near Birmingham. There is also an outpatient center on Dartmouth Street in Boston. More than six hundred clergy and religious, including two bishops, have gone through the program, and there is no sign of abating interest.

The majority of those who come to House of Affirmation are men or women in their middle years who are suffering from exhaustion, nervous or physical, or from emotional struggles. Their symptoms are sharpened by their choice of career: a sense of doubt about their fitness for religious life, struggles with authority figures or with feelings of childlike dependency, feelings of isolation, loneliness, lovelessness, guilt, or hypocrisy, inability to have close relationships with people of their own or the opposite sex, and, very often, powerful conflicts about celibacy. They are people who can't go on in their work the way they are.

Residents at House of Affirmation usually stay from four to eight months, living at the House but coming and going as they please and undergoing individual and group therapy. The House tries to maintain roughly equal numbers of men and women, since its clients are usually underdeveloped in "heterosocial" skills. In addition to conventional psychotherapy, the program makes extensive use of nonverbal kinds of therapy—art therapy, yoga, movement therapy, and psychodrama—to help people get to the roots of their suffering.

The staff of House of Affirmation includes men and women, priests, sisters, brothers, and lay people. Most of them are psychiatrists or psychologists, or have some kind of special training in the helping professions. Besides their training, all have some background or special interest in religious life.

This blend of modern psychological training with a religious outlook is not accidental. It is the foundation of the program's "psychotheological" approach, which tries to combine modern psychological insight with an attitude of sympathy for the life visions and commitments of its residents.

In recent decades, religious professionals near to breakdown have sought help from lay psychiatrists, but often have found them unappreciative of, even hostile to, religious experience. "The value system of the therapist is important," Polcino stresses. "Many psychiatrists have the attitude that religious experience itself is a sign of mental illness—they don't admit it, but their values come through. I tell people who are considering a therapist that they have a right to know the therapist's values. It's not religious life that causes these problems," she insists. "But religious life can reinforce them in people who are not fully developed emotionally."

Not only individuals, but also whole communities, religious or secular, can be neurotic. "Some (religious* communities were pathological," Polcino says. "They had unhealthy rules and encouraged an infantile dependency." The Reverend Bernard J. Bush, S.J., director of the California House of Affirmation, wrote in the English Catholic magazine The Way, "We find that many of the neuroses we treat are aggravated by styles of spirituality and community life that encourage religious to be slavishly dependent, to intellectualize and mask the so-called negative feelings, and to try to be happy without giving and receiving genuine affection and warm love."

Laurene Burns was 19 when she joined the Order of Saint Clare, an ancient monastic order, sometimes called the Poor Clares, that depends entirely on alms for its support. She was one of ten children, all but one of whom took religious vows. "I always felt that Mom would have been a nun if she could have lived her life over," she says, "and that we were projections of that desire."

She was seriously ill with rheumatic fever as a child, and partly as a result of her illness, fashioned an interior world that meant more to her than the world others live in. She never had close friends or took part in social activities. "I was more attracted to passivity," she remembers. "I had lived my life as an observer. I had become abnormally deep for my age, so it was the contemplative life that called me. I thought this kind of life was the only one into which I would fit and survive."

There was one obstacle, though. She needed a health certificate, and with her history of illness, that would be a problem. First she asked her doctor of many years, a woman with whom she had become close.

"She became angry. She said, What you need is boys, sunshine, good times. I didn't make you better so you could throw your life away.' I became enraged. You didn't make me better,' I said. You helped, but you didn't make me better, and you can't tell me what to do with my life.' I stormed out. Then I went to another doctor, an intensely devout Catholic who I knew would be more sympathetic to the idea. He said, I shouldn't think it would be so strenuous a life that your health would be a problem,' and he signed the certificate.

"There were no questions about my motives for entering—they blessed my motives. If you practiced mortification and kept the rule and worked hard, it was taken for granted that you had the right motivation. Do you know what it's like to run a marathon? It was like you were a spiritual marathon runner: The more inhuman you were, the more suited you were thought to be to live the life. Oh, I was their prize: young and intelligent and idealistic—they thought I was straight from heaven.

"My training in the novitiate was antihuman and highly spiritualized. If any two sisters were seen talking to each other, that was a particular friendship' and was frowned upon. Any pull of gravity between two people was not seen as a good. Everybody was caught up in contemplative zeal.

"When I had been in the community for nine years (her first, not the one she is in today), my dad died. Now, I worshiped my dad. He had had an operation the year before, and I had not known about it until my mother called me afterward. I asked her then, Why didn't you tell me he was sick?' She said, I didn't want to distract you.' It was as if she didn't want to engage any more of my emotions than she had to. When she called me later to tell me he was dead, I was just out of my mind with grief. But I wasn't allowed to go home for the funeral.

"That was in January. In June I was up for my final vows. Mom came to the solemn vows Mass. She was an absolute space, her eyes didn't even meet mine. I thought, I've lost Dad, I might as well give up Mom too. I went through the whole service devoutly. That afternoon, my superior took me aside and said to me, Your mother wants to enter.' I became hysterical. The superior said, It seems it would be a good thing. I can see from your response that there will be no possibility that you might become attached to her.' They admitted her the next week, in the midst of her mourning."

She later left the community in which she spent her early years, moving to another within the order which she found to be warmer and more human, the Monastery of Saint Clare in Minneapolis. Over the years she advanced in the order, and in the late 1970s her sisters at the monastery elected her abbess. Outwardly, her life was in order, but all was not well inside. "I was beginning to withdraw. I got so that I didn't want to see another sister

because every sister was a problem. There was one who used to talk to me about her terrible loneliness. I would listen to her, hearing her use that word over and over, and I would think, How marvelous to be lonely—I'm drowning in people. I didn't have the capacity to be lonely.

"I could speak so eloquently about spirituality and love. I was convinced that there was one thing worth living for—human, incarnate, unconditional love—so I got out my flag and went on a binge for this pearl of great price. I was caught up in the zeal for perfection.

"Then someone said to me, Laurene, you're so angry. You could kill someone for the sake of love.' I began to realize that I could talk about love, but I couldn't feel it. It was all out of the head, out of my power. There was this feeling, I'm an abbess, people look up to me. I can't feel anything, but I must be holy because I'm an abbess, because I'm doing these holy things.' But if it's dead, if a dead person is in church praying, what good is that?"

Vatican II, in the document called Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, had adjured the Church to make use of "the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology." But this was not easy - psychology and sociology are, after all, modern ideas. The post- Reformation world, Becker writes, "had shut out the innovating heretics, both Protestants and Modernists, by high walls spiked with anathemas. When the besieged garrison fought, it was under the banner of unchanging tradition. In the Syllabus of Errors (1864), the final error that was condemned read: The Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile and adjust himself to progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.' "

It is possible to exaggerate the influence of this attitude, but it existed subtly at all levels, and it expressed itself especially in the methods of seminary and novitiate formation (the Catholic Church's term for professional training). The Reverend Dennis Sheehan, rector of Pope John XXIII Seminary, says, "It would have been unheard of twenty years ago to have a psychologist on a seminary staff." Aspirants to religious life were not trained to despise the world, but they were trained in an exclusivist, monastic style, and were urged to avoid emotional entanglements, especially "particular friendships" with one another.

There was, in addition, a sense of fixity that pervaded attitudes toward religious truth and practice. Virginia Sullivan Finn, assistant to the dean Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, recalls that when she taught in another seminary in the early days of Vatican II, "students were told not to ask questions in class or discuss the lectures." The Reverend Chris Keenan, a Franciscan priest on the Weston faculty, explains, "Faith in the old Vatican I formulation, coming out of the rationalism of Kant and Spinoza, was defined as intellectual assent to doctrine.' It was all from the head up. The idea was somehow that if you know it, you do it."

This is the way seminaries and novitiates were, but they are changing. "One of the most significant changes in seminaries," says the Most Reverend Alfred C. Hughes, auxiliary bishop of Boston and rector of Saint John's

Seminary, the main college for priests of the archdiocese of Boston, "has been a shift from a posture of self-enclosure to one of openness. When you move in that direction, your system is in dialogue with what is going on in the world."

If the pre-Vatican II sem-inaries tended to keep priests on their pedestals, many sem-inaries and novitiates today go just the other way. The first year at Pope John XXIII Seminary, for example, is devoted to exposing the candidate to every kind of priestly work situation: at the Pine Street Inn, at Walpole prison, in an inner-city parish and an affluent parish, at a hospital. He is thrown into situations where he must work collaboratively with clergy and lay people of his own and other faiths.

At the same time, the candidate works with a formation director and a spiritual director to help him face his real reactions to his experiences and also to help maintain his spiritual outlook on them, so they are not just compulsive do-goodism or an ego trip. Through this process the candidate is forced to surrender every immature motivation, every vestige of illusion about the nature of the ministry and the celibate life.

The seminary also subjects the candidate to an intensive process of psychological testing, to find his strengths and weaknesses - his "growing edges," as the spiritual director, the Reverend John Grimes, puts it. Grimes describes the issues the process deals with:

"Does the person have a very structured background or training? That person will go out of his mind as a priest, unless he can develop his flexibility. What if he is a person who needs an authoritarian format, with clearly marked-out boundaries? He will have to learn to deal with a collaborative situation. Suppose he has a high need for autonomy, for doing things his own way. Can that person share his life with people, or will he be a loner? What if he is extremely gregarious and needs to be with people all the time? Will he find sustenance in a personal relationship with God and with solitude?"

The data are compiled and assessed and then shared with the candidate; he is encouraged to reflect on his strengths, weaknesses, and learning experiences and to face the question: "Do I love this work? Do I find real fulfillment in it?" "The young man has to ask himself," says Hughes, " What are the things I like about the church, and what are the things I don't like, and can I deal with the things I don't like?"'

This examination of the self, of all one's ambivalences, ideals, and powerful feelings, is a practical necessity. Prospective members of celibate religious life can no longer be promised honor and deference from the world. They must, therefore, be offered the hope of a happy life. The Reverend William Barry, who is in charge of formation for the New England province of the Jesuits, says, "We believe that people who take on religious life will only be happy if they believe that this is the way God wants to love them. If they take it on as the obligation of a demanding God, the danger of resentment is very strong."

"There was a girls' high school on the West Coast," Hughes recalls, "that was staffed cooperatively by three orders of sisters. Every year there would be one or two applicants to the novitiate of the same one of the three orders. When they looked into it to find out why all the applicants were to the one order, all the girls said it was because the sisters in that order seemed happy with one another."

There may be agreement about all this among formation specialists, but remodeling the religious professional is easier said than done. For one thing, not all lay people want priests or sisters to change. It is a lot easier for people to deal with a priest or sister who is a die-stamped product, however inhuman that might be. Virginia Finn says, "There's the feeling that if you are on a pedestal, you are no threat to my life, because you are so different from me that I don't have to look to you as an example."

And the image of the "failed priest" as an object of scorn persists among the laity. Kane says, "When we opened House of Affirmation, we had a great celebration. Cardinal Medeiros was here, Cardinal Alfrink from Holland. But recently, when we were allowed to do some fund-raising for the first time, I

went to certain distinguished Catholic lay fraternal groups to ask for their support. Their response was one of embarrassment, sort of We would rather not talk about people like that.' "

The upheaval in the church during the last fifteen years did not simply reduce the numbers of priests and nuns. It also ignited an unfinished but irreversible process of wary groping between clergy and the people they serve, a search for a more authentic relationship, one based on more than respect for trappings, symbols, and unexam-ined formulations. Keenan quotes a priest acquaintance as saying with frustration, "I'm trained to answer questions that people don't ask any more.' "

One religious in his 30s describes the kind of tension in moral counseling situations that often resulted from the new atmosphere: "People today are intelligent, and the priest or religious is also intelligent. But if you are part of the structure, you must transmit the official answers. Yet the sexual issues are so weighty, and the solutions offered are often so trite, that you both know they aren't going to work."

This groping has put a tremendous strain on clergy, especially those already on shaky emotional ground. Bernard Bush of the California House of Affirmation writes, "when one's identity is defined in terms of rules and structures, and those rules and structures are called into question or changed, the person who is unsure of his or her more basic identity experiences an acute emotional crisis."

This crisis and the sometimes unhelpful posture of the laity are not peculiar to Catholicism. There is something universal about the ways in which people manipulate their priestly class. They don't want to have to struggle, themselves, with ultimate questions of meaning or wisdom. They are too busy or too afraid. They want someone else to take care of it, to ingest the frightening raw material of existence and to spit out for their use the well-masticated nuggets of meaning.

One of the hardest things for a priest or religious to face—and this is a common issue at House of Affirmation—is his or her need to break free of the smothering expectations of lay people, to say, "I can't give you a pat solution to the meaning of pain and evil," "I have no panacea for your agony," or "I have limits—you can't make that demand on me." It isn't always a superior who prevents the minister from doing this—it is also the desperate need of the ministered-to. The pain of others can be tyrannical.

It was such a crisis that brought Declan Donegan to House of Affirmation. An intense, bearded, Irish-born brother of the Order of Saint John of God, Donegan worked with parents of profoundly retarded children in New Jersey. Over time, he began to be overwhelmed emotionally. "I was deeply into the role of brother," he recalls. "There was the feeling that you have to have inexhaustible ability, that you can't run out of solace or energy, that you must be a bottomless well on which others may draw. I did not understand that I was not personally responsible for all the handicapped kids in South Jersey."

Priests and religious are supposed to emulate Christ, whose example the church describes in the words of Isaiah (53:4): "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." But part of the therapy at House of Affirmation involves drawing them to the realization that they can overdo it. "We urge them to face their anger," says Kane, "and if they slip into God- talk - Oh, it's my duty to unite myself with the Way of the Cross' - they'll be challenged. The priesthood is not worth killing yourself for."

The release of the emotional life of priests and religious implies another epochal change.

Once you come down off your pedestal, put aside the security of your role, and speak to people as peers, you are forced to renounce your power over them.

In former times, a priest or religious could think it a duty sometimes to be a bully. Though some still do, they find the laity less docile all the time, and they must face the question of whether the convenience of iron- fisted leadership is worth the murderous effect it has on relationships. Chris Keenan says, "We are all coming to an awareness that we hold one another's self-image in the palm of our hand. What is the justice, the rightness, in our relationships? Do we empower, or do we overpower?"

In a sense, with the coming of the House of Affirmation movement, that epochal change is already under way. You can flee the terrors of existence, or you can face them. The consequence of facing them, without the artificial supports of arrogance, childlike dependency, or stock answers, is growth. "The experience of breakdown of hopes and dreams," muses Keenan, "can also be a breakthrough."

Laurene Burns lived at House of Affirmation for a year, meeting weekly with psychotherapist Richard Gilmartin. Among her several discoveries was her deep sadness at having thoughtlessly renounced the choice of having a husband and children.

"I was spiritualized at a very young age," she says. "It was as if my body was a necessary evil, something unclean and unworthy, that was supposed to be laid aside so that I could do this very clean thing, so that I could know God. It was as if I had been commissioned to be heroic and do the impossible.

"When I got into therapy and learned that the dirty burden I had been putting up with is very central and necessary and wonder-filled, I became enraged," she recalls. "I cried for months, for the first time in twenty years. I just didn't want to live. God, it was hard! Rich said it was hard for him to see me cry that way, and he wondered whether I was wallowing in this anguish because it was more comfortable. But it wasn't that. It was just that the grief, the desolation, the anger, were so big, the desirableness of having a man and a child were so big, and seeing that I couldn't have it now because of how old I was. . . . Everything seemed unutterably cruel."

After many months of facing the maelstrom inside her, she began to come gradually to a sense of rapprochement with her life. She was not, finally, embittered toward the celibate life or the religious calling, but deeply regretful that she had accepted them out of fear of life and revulsion from sexuality.

"I'm not about to throw out the baby with the bath—I think the message of the Bible is just terribly authentic," says Burns. "But celibacy has to be a positive choice, not something that is demanded. It is good to be human, whole, and sexually alive. People sometimes ask, Isn't there a lot of lesbianism in the monastery?' I say the greater tragedy is that there isn't—that there isn't any sexual identity. My sisters would be angry if I asked them, What is your sexual identity?' They would say, That's out of place here, that's not what this place is about.' But what is that whole powerful part of our personality? If we can grow into responsible emotional wholeness, then we can be responsible in relationships."

Of her own journey, Burns says, "We all struggle, some in one way and some in another. It is such a lonely struggle when you're in it, but there's still that human pull for growth, there's life in that feeling of death. Having a husband and a child is a wonderful and a beautiful part of life, but it's not the whole picture. I feel now I can accept my history. I'm still mourning, but I can see a purpose to the direction my life took."

Burns is no longer in residence at House of Affirmation, but she is living nearby temporarily while her therapy continues. She has strong feelings about the church—its beauty, its sins, its pain. "When I look at the church, sometimes I want to despair. God would love to be intimate with us, if we would only let go of our power. To have power is to have control, to have security. If the church were ever to let go of that, it would have to go through a kind of dying, as painful as my letting go of my churchiness.' But if they can let it go and move into a relationship, the treasures that would flourish would be truly awesome."

She plans to return to the Monastery of Saint Clare, when she is ready. "When I go back," she says, "I'm going to be lonely. But it's not going to be an impossible loneliness. I have a capacity to give, I can help form those low-key, beautiful women into a healthier stance. They will be the gradually renewing force in the contemplative life of the church, and I would like to invest in that. I'm looking forward to my future. I want it to be a quiet witness, simple and humble and full of gratitude and sharing. I was telling Rich the other day: When I go back to Saint Clare's, God will be there."


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