Two years ago today a Priest,* under who-knows-what stress, took his own life. He had apparently had a ‘drink problem’ for some time; but that itself was, of course, symptomatic of the stresses of his life.
I didn’t know him personally, and there is obviously much I don’t know about him now; not least what exactly led him to do what he did – indeed as far as I know no-one actually knows the answer to that question.
What I do know is that he was a sensitive man, with some talent for poetry which could touch hearts, and I do believe he had a real spirit of prayer : I have read some of his prayers and am sure that they came from a prayerful soul., and I certainly know of one family to whom he ministered whose lives were very definitely – and significantly – touched by his prayerful exercise of his priesthood, and who remember him with great love.
I fully appreciate that Suicide is of itself a mortal sin; and at least one person, to whom he ministered to great effect, has therefore spent the last two years in great anguish of soul, convinced that he must have gone to Hell because he died by his own hand.
As I said above; I don’t know – and I don’t think anyone does – why he did it; but I am convinced in my own mind that a good priest would only do such a thing if he was under such stress, and in such mental distress, that he was not truly ‘in his right mind’; and that, accordingly, it is highly unlikely that it was a mortal sin.
The old formula in Coroners’ Courts was ‘suicide whilst the balance of the mind was disturbed’; and in my experience, that is true – few (if any) fully rational people commit suicide, and certainly not on the spur of the moment. Even many of those who plan for, and make, the journey to Switzerland for that purpose (which obviously implies quite a lot of forward planning) do so, I believe, under one or more significant misapprehensions which mean that their decision is not a fully informed one.
Further, of course, even with suicide there is nothing to prevent the possibility of a final Act of Contrition, in that last instant of conscious though, to cheat the Devil of his prey and bring the soul at last to Heaven. ‘Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I sought, mercy I found’; and I think every priest with pastoral experience knows that, even in the last instants of conscious life, true repentance is so often to be found that one can never assume that it was not there; not even in the most depraved of sinners.
Suicide is, of course, only a product of the Devil’s ‘culture of death’, and has nothing to do with the promise of Eternal Life which we have through the Resurrection of Our Blessed Lord : but I think there are probably few of us who have not at least once in our lives felt depressed and desperate enough to have at least glimpsed the possibility of ‘ending it all’; and even if we would never do it, understanding that possibility also allows us to comprehend how someone whose grasp on reality is impaired might just do it.
I do not know what agony of spirit caused that young priest to end his life two years ago; but I find it hard to believe that he hated God and sought to sin : rather, I think that whatever the problems were that he could no longer cope with, he believed and trusted, at least subconsciously, that his Blessed Lord could, and would, understand, and show him greater mercy than life apparently had.
‘To understand all is to forgive all’, the French say : God alone knows and understands everything about that priest’s life and priesthood; and we may pray that He, in that infinite understanding, will forgive him; and that in God’s love and mercy he may come at last to Heaven.
Please; of your charity in this Year for Priests, I ask you to say a prayer for his soul, and also to pray for any other priests who may be tempted to do likewise.
Requiescat in Pace.
(* I do not give his name only because I have no wish to hurt his family, his former parishioners, or his brother priests – several of whom I know were absolutely devastated by what happened.)