A few years ago, I began making a list of questions for those responsible for the pastoral training of clergy. They included:
What is the etiquette when someone with a severe degenerative disorder and a broken left arm wants to blow their nose? Does one just fetch the tissue box, or should one take tissues out and hand them to the person? In this age when to touch someone is taboo, would it be acceptable to steady their right arm?
What is the response to the person who comes into the room and insists that they have been dressed in the wrong clothes all day and needs to put on their pyjamas? (There was no need to answer that one; the nurse appeared in the nick of time).
What is the appropriate answer to someone who tells you that they are a friend of Orpheus, that they are 86,044 years old and that they have been hung on a cross every night for the past 326 years?
How many times may one have the same set of conversations with someone who is confused? Is it reasonable to repeat the same set of questions for an hour every month, or is that just laziness? (Interestingly, the question routine elicited new, previously ‘forgotten’, information on a number of occasions).
The questions have turned out to be matters of mere detail compared to the challenges in a rural environment.
The murder and suicide case of a family in Co Wexford in 2007 seemed bewildering to a city listener. With serious concerns for the safety of the children of parents who had been to the undertaker to specify what coffins they wanted for themselves and their children, Gardai had asked the parish priest to call. He had done so and had expressed serious concerns, but nothing had been done.
It seemed odd that anyone would call clergy, until working in a situation where the statutory bodies simply do not provide the necessary services. There is a sense that people simply do not know who else to call so turn to the clergy as a last resort. Having responded to a call, and gone to the Gardai, there is a sense of hopelessness, for they have no more capacity to cope with psychiatric problems than has the ordinary country cleric.
Ordained in 1986, the pastoral training in college had included two days in a psychiatric hospital, during which time we attended a series of talks and meetings and never once met a patient. The first time on a ‘locked ward’ as a curate was a step into the unknown. Locked wards are very rare now; keeping people in the community is the preferred option, but seems chiefly a way of saving money, for the services go from thin to non-existent. When contacting a consultant about a situation, I was told that the area was a ‘black-spot’ when it came to psychiatric provision.
In the context of the collapse of the economy, there will be even less provision for psychiatric care; is there anyone who can tell us hopeless amateurs what we are meant to do?