While flying back from a recent speaking engagement at a parish, I found this vignette in the book Everyday Saints, which describes Church life under Soviet Communism:
A brief digression. Once there was still-young bishop who was remembering past years. He remarked that the Church administrators of his generation had defended the interests of the Church at the cost of their livers. He said this and wept - whether it was because he felt so sorry for himself, or because he really had begun to have liver problems.
But I will never cast a stone of aspersion on such bishops and priests. First of all, of course, that is because I myself am not without sin. But second of all, all these bishops and priests simply had no choice but to entertain these important government bureaucrats and overseers for religious affairs at their ecclesiastical refectories. And these priests, who had no choice but to abuse their livers with Party visitors for the good of the Church, were the ones who were not only taking care of the economic and political and administrative support system of the Church, but they were in fact the ones giving Fathers John, Cyril, Naum, and Adrian the opportunity to serve, and to spread their blessings to the millions of parishioners and pilgrims who were coming to their churches and monasteries. So let us not criticize them, please, for they did their job as best they could.
While the threats are less immanent, still today many clergy do suffer from alcoholism problems aggravated by the social expectations people have that the priest 'drink' with them. Of course, this does not include the meals that are often prepared, and the watchful eyes of the host to make sure her work is complimented with the socially-important cue of the third helping.
I have not seen many priests in the US drink themselves to death, but I have seen a fair number whose lives and ministries were cut short by those meals. Cultural Americans (those raised outside a single ethnic group within the US) are usually OK with someone passing up an alcoholic beverage, or even a meal. It is the immigrants, and those who follow in their footsteps, that get hung up on 'performance culture' issues where they feel they are judged not only by what gifts they offer, but how these gifts are received. Therefore, they are not as much cooking and 'performing' for the priest as they are for the entire community. No one wants to be branded the cheapskate.
It gets silly at times: I was doing house-blessings one year with a very early Great Lent. Of course, the immigrant families expect to cook a meal for the priest. I told the people 'no meals,' but they simply would not hear me at all.
So after Meatfare Sunday, I announced to the parish that there was 'no meat' after this day, and I made sure to specify that 'meat' includes beef (in both recognizable and unrecognizable forms), pork, chicken (you would not believe how many Wednesday night dinners I have been served by people exclaiming "But, father, chicken isn't meat!"), lamb, goat, walrus, dog... you get the idea.
The next day, I go to bless a house, and am (socially) required to sit down at a large table. The hostess laughed about my speech and how entertaining it was. Then she came out with a large plate of lamb! I was speechless, and she saw my surprise.
"Oh, is it Lent? I forgot... let's eat!"
Wolves don't move that fast as the crowd of guests (read witnesses to the hostess' performance) dove into the platter. One of the guests, who knew the 'routine,' dished me a piece, saying, "Here, father, just pretend it is fish." We looked at each other, and both knew what was going on.
In Romania, I experienced the same thing... but with alcohol. During my last visit, I accompanied Metropolitan Teofan of Moldova as he visited his deaneries. At each one, we stopped for a 'feast.' While I have no problem with meat in general, and was more than willing to indulge to my hosts' delights, the drinking part was troubling.
The Metropolitan advised me that you cannot refuse the drink, but you also don't necessarily have to drink it. What amazed me was how many rounds they went through at lunch, then got in their cars and drove home!
My sense is that cultures do need to change. Drinking is no longer what it used to be, because societies, especially those with ancient roots, are no longer what they used to be. Even the beautiful mountains of Mare Mureş are not immune to cell phone towers and internet service. The pace of life is speeding up everywhere, and with this comes more and more stress.
The excesses of 'city life' are spreading, and with them come man's need to 'relax' from these stresses. Drinking helped ease the pain of decades of oppressive Communism, and now it is being used to deal with the uncertainties and pressure of modern materialism.
Things will change. It is only a matter of how ugly the process will be.
As a Church, I believe that it is our duty to lead people out of the meat-grinder of modern stress through the spiritual path to God. This means preaching to the cultures we are in, and calling for reforms.
We don't need to demand that our priests and bishops destroy themselves for the sake of social expectations. If we do, then we are hardly Christians. We should not want to love our clergy, and ourselves, to death.