CW86: ‘Not Good for Man to be Alone’: Reflections on COVID-19 from a Catholic Parish Priest

By Revd Rob Taylorson

The proclamation of the book of Genesis ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (2:18, NKJV) is a sound foundation for a COVID-19 lockdown anguished cry of lament. It shows up the flaws in any attempt to live with ‘self’ alone at the centre of our perception of everything else. The human spiritual nature is incomplete without others. As Christians, having received the revelation that our essence is made in the image and likeness of the Trinitarian God (Genesis 1:26-28), the awareness that we are made for relationship is profound. As with God’s divine life, the relationship dimension of human life is deep and essential.

The life of priests

Today’s Catholic parish priests in the UK generally live alone. I am currently blessed to share accommodation with another priest, but much of my 31 years of priestly life has involved domestic solitude. The incompleteness and vulnerability of the solitary state is usually mitigated by the central day-to-day focus of communal worship, relationship and human/divine interaction which centres on the celebration of the Mass, the gathering together as the body of Christ in the Eucharist.

Most priests normally celebrate between six and ten masses each week. In city parishes this would include school masses and perhaps prisons, convents or hospitals; in rural parishes it more usually involves several church congregations. These celebrations are the springboard for taking Communion to the sick and other pastoral visits, for further community prayer activities, for awareness of the needs of the community and wider world through shared intercession and conversation. The Mass gives spiritual nourishment from the Word of God and Sacrament to the parish community.

The effects of COVID-19 restrictions

COVID-19 restrictions have deprived us of much of our incarnate interaction with others. For many Catholics the loss of the Eucharist is an added deprivation. Yes, Mass is celebrated in church buildings, but – depending on the restrictions in place at any given point – with limitations on the size, or complete absence of, the congregation, often only in front of a live stream camera. Jesus’ words ‘unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you‘ (John 6:53) bring an echo of sadness in times when the Eucharist cannot be shared. Lacking the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood we are weakened. We, as Church, lack a central element of life.

Stress and anxiety have intensified for most of our communities: jobs and businesses disappear; socialising and other activities dry up. Lockdown is widely recognised as having contributed to a rise in domestic abuse, and the National Board of Catholic Women’s booklet Raising Awareness of Domestic Abuse has been acclaimed as timely. As with other denominations, many Catholic groups have developed and intensified pastoral schemes for supporting the needs of others. My own parish has seen a big increase in the number of parishioners who are getting involved in local food banks or volunteering to shop for, or deliver prescriptions to, those who are shielding. Social phone calls have also increased.

Priests’ lifestyle means that for them domestic arguments and violence are unlikely. Neither are we going to be made redundant, though for some their parishes’ financial viability is challenged by the current diminished weekly collections, so financial worries have increased. My own diocese, in addition to inviting priests to discuss any parish financial problems with the diocesan finance department, has circulated reminders to priests of the availability of counselling services for clergy. It is good to be reminded of them.

Surveys of priests through the years have generally indicated that their level of happiness is higher than that of the general population. This does not mean, however, that we are immune from the stresses and frailties of life; the frailty in mental health which has grown in the general population in the last six months is a reality for us too.

Just as in wider society, pastoral care concerning human mental frailty has in recent years become a more prominent issue in Catholic circles. One good example of this is the Catholic Mental Health project (; their COVID-19 resources are good and worth using beyond denominational borders.

The formation of priests and the human person

One of the changes in the formation of priests in the last thirty years has been an increased awareness of, and formation in, a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. Following worldwide meetings with bishops, in 1992 Pope John Paul II issued a document of clergy formation, I Will Give You Shepherds (Pastores Dabo Vobis). It explored four dimensions of priestly formation: human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual (faith seeking understanding), with the human dimension being the basis of the others.

Of course, scripture, theology, biblical languages, prayer and liturgy, canon law, church history and a myriad of other subjects and activities still make up the usual six-year full-time formation for the Catholic priesthood. The fullest revelation of God, however, is in the person of Jesus Christ. This includes his desolation in his passion during which he makes the words of Psalm 22 his own: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). The faith we have and share is faith in a God and God-revealing human person, who is Christ, and is lived by a person (fully human) who is myself, Christ’s follower.

Lifestyle changes bring the need for more support

Forty years ago, many rural inhabitants of the UK knew their neighbours well, with their work, social life, extended family life and prayer life all located in one community which often became a strong support network. This network is generally weaker today as different dimensions of our lives frequently involve different geographic communities. In many villages household size, too, has reduced as the proportion of young families diminish. More supports are now needed.

A similar changing scenario has occurred with Catholic priests. Training for the same diocese formerly meant a large group living together, cheek by jowl, for six years whilst in formation. The friendship bonds formed often produced golfing partners, holiday companions, and ready-made support networks lasting till retirement (usually aged 75) or beyond. In addition, larger parishes usually had several priests living together in the same household, so friendship support continued to grow through living in company with others.

Such support is now weakened. First, the number of priests currently in training and being ordained is less than a fifth of what it was forty years ago. Second, with parish amalgamations and clustering making much larger pastoral areas, the geographical distance of priests from each other is greater. Third, priests living together are now a rarity. In the same way that society needs to actively forge support networks and mental health awareness, so too priests.


Revd Rob Taylerson

Parish priest in the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham and trustee of the Arthur Rank Centre

 This article first appeared in Country Way 86: Mental Health & Wellbeing, February 2021. Go to for more information about how to subscribe.