City Journal: Help Me, Father

Therapist-priest Jim Flavin is a different kind of clergyman—with a different kind of mission to get his brethren back on track.

The past five years haven’t been the best for local Catholic priests. No news flash there. The sex-abuse scandal, the subsequent cash settlements that sacked church coffers, the attendant parish closings—they’ve all combined to shrink the clergy’s ranks, leaving fewer priests to deal with more difficulties. From Southie to Sudbury, morale has taken an unmistakable hit.

What does come as a surprise is what the Boston Archdiocese is doing about it. Once infamously slow responders, local church leaders are now making some novel moves behind the scenes to tackle a wide range of priestly problems. This winter Sean Cardinal O’Malley tapped Father Jim Flavin, a licensed therapist, to both boost spirits and come up with new ways to help the nearly 800 clergy under the archdiocese’s charge. Now the Brockton minister, recently installed as the director of pastoral care of priests, is rolling out a series of wellness programs aimed at helping men of the cloth handle everything from hair loss and weight gain to depression and celibacy.

Flavin’s own background as a mental health expert aids him in comforting suffering priests, and it also gives the church someone with a bit of know-how in referring clergymen to local doctors for mental and physical woes. As Flavin points out, priests—like everyone else—have always needed help; it’s just that they’ve been trained not to seek it. “We need to say, ‘Okay, with all these things happening, how can we encourage more healthy lifestyles? More accountability with each other?’” Flavin says. “Things we didn’t deal with when our numbers were larger.”

Some of the issues Flavin is out to address are pretty pedestrian. The dwindling numbers of the ordained have exacerbated problems that had been easy to overlook. For instance, gone are the days when rectory housekeepers cleaned, did the laundry, and took care of meals. More priests are manning parishes solo. “We have guys in their 50s who’ve never cooked for themselves,” says Flavin, who’s planning culinary classes as well as courses on personal finances.

The lay group Voice of the Faithful, which has long railed against the archdiocese, applauds the plan, and church brass across the country are taking notice of the scope of the programs, says Father Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. Flavin says he’s already compared notes with church leaders from Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago—who realize that the recent history of the Boston Archdiocese makes his chore a tough one. “They said, ‘If you guys can make this work, it’ll be a piece of cake for us,’” says Flavin.