During the Second World War this term referred to Japanese pilots who went on suicidal missions, where death was certain. The Kamikaze pilots flew their bomb-laden aircraft straight into enemy targets. Then we had the LTTE suicide bombers, like the one that assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It gave rise to a host of fidayeen warriors, who cared not for life or death, because they had been brainwashed into believing that they would be rewarded in heaven. All these suicidal missions were ideologically driven. They were not acts of depression or self-defeat.

Sadly, today, with three young Catholic priests committing suicide in a span of a few days, the term Suicide Mission has assumed a sinister new meaning – that of “missionaries” committing suicide. Including the one late last year, they have all been in the southern States of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra and now Tamilnadu. There was no lockdown to blame for the first case, in Karnataka.

I have been reading the comments in the Catholic media on these cases. A number have blamed the lockdown, and its resultant frustration, for these deaths. Others have attributed them to loneliness, celibacy, or improper seminary formation. There is some merit in all these explanations.

I live in Kanpur that has a little over 4000 Catholics. In recent years 6 Catholics have committed suicide, all male. 5 of them were married, and the sixth, a young man, was in love. Three of the married men were in failed marriages, and the other two had financial problems. So marriage, per se, is no solution for suicide. Commentators please note!

On three occasions I have saved people from suicide. The first time was in 1974, when I had to quit my job in Bombay and rushed home, to save somebody from suicidal tendencies. In 1980, when I was living in Jyotiniketan Ashram, Bareilly, a newly married young man, whom we had helped, threatened suicide by jumping in the well. I called his bluff and dared him to do so. He didn’t. The third time was in 2002 when my parish priest phoned me at 3 a.m. to say that he was going to jump off the school roof. I reached out to him in time and saved him. The important point in all these episodes is that the concerned persons had expressed their suicidal intentions, thereby saving their lives.

This begs the question. Of the four relatively young priests that recently committed suicide, did any of them give a hint or indication of their intent? Very often such persons test the waters, by dropping hints. Was anybody attentive to them?

Another factor, peculiar to men, is that they think that a display of emotion, or crying, is a sign of unmanly weakness. They bottle up their emotions, allowing the build up, as in a pressure cooker. Suicide then becomes the safety valve. Unfortunately, by then, the goose is cooked. Men, be they married or celibate, must express their feelings. Those who argue, fight, laugh or cry are less likely to be suicidal. It is the “strong silent” types that are potentially dangerous. Still waters run deep. The shortest sentence in the Latin translation of the Bible is “Dominus Falvi” (the Lord wept) – cf Lk 19:41. At the death of his friend Lazarus too, Jesus wept (Jn 11:35). 

When we recall self-inflicted death, how can we not think of Jesus? He chose to die, though he could have prevented it. He did it for a supreme cause – the salvation of mankind. Yet, one of his close associates, Judas, also chose to die at the same time. Realization had dawned on him. He too wept and repented. But he did not wait to hear Jesus say “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Too quickly, Judas had moved his gaze from the Crucified Lord, and died in despair. It is a warning to all of us who profess to be Christian, celibate or married, male or female, young or old; we cannot and should not take our gaze off the Crucified Lord. This is in the spiritual realm, not something that can be handled by a clinical psychologist.

Not that there are no psychological reasons that could contribute to despair – like loneliness, frustration, a sense of inadequacy or an inferiority complex. Such persons would show withdrawal symptoms – a loss of appetite, being abnormally quiet, avoiding company etc. Those who notice such withdrawal symptoms in others should be quick to reach out to them in empathy.

A word of caution here. Commentators have said that some of these priests were very jovial. Again, please remember that clowns are usually the saddest people. Their clowning is a mask for their actual feelings. They are playing the game “kick me, if you can’t love me”! If their joviality is a form of self-flagellation, then be warned.  

Today there is much talk of the Corona virus. We should also know about social viruses, spread by the media, that are highly contagious – something that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his book “The Tipping Point”. I will quote two of his case studies. He found that the rate of suicides in tiny Micronesia was 7 times more than in the USA. It was a contagion there. He says, “As suicide becomes more frequent the idea itself acquires a certain familiarity, if not fascination, to young men, and the lethality of the act seems to be trivialised. Especially among young boys, the suicide act appears to have acquired an experimental, almost recreational element”.

He quotes David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California. “Immediately after stories about suicides appeared, suicides in the area served by the newspaper jumped”. Such a “contagion is neither rational nor necessarily conscious”.  In another instance, “News coverage of suicides by self immolation in England in the 1970s prompted 82 suicides by self-immolation the next year”.  The signs are ominous.  The virus has already spread in the Church in India, especially in the South.  The next priest about to commit suicide may be closer and swifter than you think.  Beware.

I appeal to all the bishops, especially in the southern dioceses, to call clergy meetings, to openly discuss priest suicides.  Talking about it would automatically reduce the risk.  This is the approach that Alcoholics Anonymous follows. And Bishops, please note that if any priest does not turn up for the meeting, he is your prime suspect, and you must reach out to him immediately.  I plead with you to take my suggestion seriously.  You may save a precious life.

Now to vocation promotion and seminary formation.  Rather than a subjective opinion, I will quote from the Vatican II document “Decree on Priestly Formation” (OT) and “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” (PO).  Having been the founder Secretary of the “U.P. Regional Youth & Vocations Bureau” from 1979 – 82, OT is one of my favourite documents.

In his introduction to the Decree, Alexander Carter writes, “A seminary is not a lumber mill or a smelter.  It cannot take a raw youth and, after subjecting him to a few approved processes, turn out a neatly fashioned or keenly honed priest” (Abbot edition, Pg 436).  So the seminary is only a refinery, not alchemy.  It can convert crude oil into refined oil, but it cannot convert iron ore into gold.  This is why I have always stressed the importance of discernment at the entry level itself.  The army or the IAS have very strict entrance tests, knowing too well that once a person enters the system it cannot be easily removed.  The reverse is true of vocation promotion.  Most follow the Don Bosco model of catching them young and innocent.  To that one may also add – immature and ill informed.  Once they enter the seminary (formation) system every attempt is made to make the aspirants conform, often deforming them in the process.

When somebody very close to me went to join the army he passed all the tests, and was sure to be selected.  Just 30 out of 90,000 applicants remained.  On the last day the Service Selection Board the commander told them that none of them had been selected, because they were too intelligent for the army, and they lacked the killer instinct!  Shocking, but true.  The army only wanted pliant, non-thinking candidates.  So too with our vocation promoters, they are simply looking for pious and docile young persons, probably an image of what they themselves were when they joined the seminary.

Back to Vatican II.  It stresses “right intention and full freedom” (OT No. 2) and again “Careful inquiry should be made concerning the rightness of his intention and the freedom of his choice” (OT No 6).  I daresay that both those factors are missing in a 15 year old joining a minor seminary.  I am of the opinion that minor seminaries should be scrapped.  Those above 18 may be allowed to “come and see” how priests live and work, and simultaneously pursue secular studies.  They should not be allowed entry into a major seminary till they are at least 21 years of age.  I am only echoing what the document says, “It is likewise the concern of bishops to decide, in view of the circumstances of individual regions, that the age currently required by general law for holy orders, be raised” (OT No 12).  It also warns about maintaining standards, no matter what.  “Necessary standards must always be firmly maintained, even when there exists a regrettable shortage of priests” (OT No 6).

I might here mention that there is no shortage of priests in India.  I am in the process of studying statistical data from Catholic Directories dating back to 1912. I found the latest comparable data in the 1998 edition.  The priest to people ratio in the world was 1:2444.  In Africa and the Americas it was double at 1:4476 and 1:4042.  In Asia and Europe it was a healthier 1:2619 and 1:1330.  But India took the cake with a stunning ratio of 1:649.  So there are no grounds for compromise because of an imaginary shortage of priests.  To the contrary, India has too many.

I will now touch on the last point of companionship or community life.  One commentator had even suggested that instead of living alone, priests should be in their parishes by day and return to a common “compound” by night.  He was not far from the truth.  “No priest can in isolation or single headedly accomplish his mission in a satisfactory way.  He can do so only by joining forces with other priests” (PO No 7)  “In order that priests may find mutual assistance …and be saved from the dangers which may arise from loneliness, let there be fostered among them some kind or other of community life” (PO No.8).  “Priests should not be sent singly to a new field of labour … they should be sent in at least twos or threes so that they may be mutually helpful to one another’ (PO No.10)  Jesus himself sent his disciples out in pairs (cf Mk 6:7).

Unfortunately, our bishops, in their inordinate desire to erect more churches/parishes, are spreading their resources too thin.  Instead of having two priests in one place they prefer to have one each in two places.  They are cleverer that Jesus, hence paying the price.  Notice that priests from religious orders are not committing suicide.  It is the diocesan ones.  This is because the religious priests are living in community and are expected to follow some norms of community living, like eating and praying together.

But our single parish priests become lords of all they survey.  If in the lockdown, they had nothing to survey or to lord over, they suddenly discovered that they were really nobody.  The balloon of self deception bursts, and they run for the rope instead of rushing to the crucifix.

Let us hope and pray that our bishops and priests will pay heed to Jesus and Vatican II.  Never mind what I have to say.  Else we will be reading about many more suicide missions.  May we be spared that agony and ignominy.

  • The writer was the founder Secretary of the U.P. Regional Youth & Vocations Bureau (1979-82)


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