ASK FATHER: How to deal with a priest who has a difficult personality?

From a reader…


Dear Father Z, I have a question about how to deal with a priest who has a difficult personality. He can be very rough and impolite in his language, even during Mass. He is known for loud public outbursts of anger, criticizing and even humiliating the priests under him in front of others, and the priests under him sometimes mention during meetings with the laity their difficulties with this priest. Personally, this priest once mocked me publicly for requesting items to be blessed. Today after Mass, he accused my young children in an unfriendly way of not saying their prayers after Mass, which was not true, and furthermore he had no way of knowing whether they had said their prayers or not. (I was not present.) My question is, as a layman, how to relate to such a priest? I understand everyone can have a bad day, but this is a pattern with this priest. I know some people might say, “find another parish”, but what if there is no other parish? What if, for example, you live on an island and this is the only parish you can go to? I try to take his outbursts as an occasion to be patient, and I pray for him. But it is scandalous, and now my children are afraid to go to this parish. I feel especially badly for the kids, who are confused by the example of a priest who behaves quite unfriendly and even rudely in public, and when he turns his criticism on them, they don’t know what to do. I do not mean to speak ill of him behind his back; I want to respect his priestly office, it’s just that I am confused about what to do and I hope you can help. Thank you for any advice you can give. God bless you!

This is a tough one.  I consulted with a few priests and bishops.  Here are some comments I received back from them.


The questioner seems most sincere and willing to cut the priest some slack.  I can’t think of any better solution than for him to make an appointment with the bishop out of concern for the priest.  He could explain confidentially what’s been going on, so that the bishop or his delegate can be proactive in helping the guy.  Better this than having to remove the guy after a blowout or some embarrassing situation.

If I was on the bishop’s end of such a situation, I would appreciate the heads up.  As you know, it could be that the assignment is a bad fit, or alcohol, or something else.


If she is willing to do it, she should ask to see the bishop.


Obviously it can’t be allowed to go on. If the grownups can put up with a lot, the children cannot.

A wise elder pastor once said, when you’re not sure what to do, document, document, document. Gather up stories with names and dates and develop a pattern. That should demonstrate that what’s happening is not simply a priest having a bad day. It may point to a type of dysfunction such as alcoholism, or may point to his own troubled upbringing.  Then several men (perhaps a woman) need to set up a meeting with the priest. It’s a confrontation/intervention. If he’s unresponsive then it goes to the bishop. Follow subsidiarity and keep it local rather than to escalate right away to the chancery.

If the chancery does not take note, keep documenting, avoid the pastor, pray for him, and learn to suffer well. God is working out some mysterious plan. God may be driving the faith deeper into our hearts by suffering, purifying our yearning for affirmation, inviting is to share his own rejection. It can be spiritually fruitful. God will eventually take your part.


I can’t do any better than these answers except to add: Pray for him.  It is hard to be angry in a bad way with someone for whom you are praying. Perhaps take on some mortification for his sake. Ask your and his guardian angels to help him on their level of action.

And, yes, if the priest doesn’t modify his ways after you present your case to him, go to the bishop.  The suggestion to document is very important.

NOTA BENE: I will be quite restrictive about comments under this post.  Frankly, I would appreciate responses from priests.  If there are some lay people who have been in a situation like this and it was handled either poorly or well, that might be instructive as well.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JustaSinner says:

    I always dedicate the first decade of my nightly Rosary to someone difficult/has it out for me and others/has gravely offended me. Mary always helps…

  2. BW says:

    As a lay person who has experienced this sort of thing before, I’ll keep my response simple and brief.
    A. Protect your children’s faith – even if that means driving a long way away for another Church/Priest. As a parent, your key role is bringing your children up in the faith. That includes a healthy respect for priests and the authority of the clergy in general (difficult for adults to respect a priest like that, speaking from experience).
    B. Discuss the problems with others to build a picture; but avoid gossip. Summon up the courage to be better and try to see what frame of mind the priest comes from.
    C. Pray for that priest. Offer up your sacrifice and trial of faith for his struggles.

    Once the situation is resolved – God willing – do not speak of it again, lest it become gossip. But continue to pray for the priest. (In our local situation, the priest in question retired after another year or so).

    As for contacting the Bishop etc, I can’t possibly comment.

  3. Antonia D says:

    If the original poster is a man, besides the other suggestions, maybe it would help to befriend the priest, make sure he has social outlets, help to lower his stress levels… see what may be going on from a friend’s perspective. He may need some guidance from strong, virtuous, faithful men, which he may never have had in his own life.

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Once I had to deal with a priest like this – not mean, but very abrupt and given to outbursts. It turned out that he had excruciating back pain but didn’t want to complain about it.

    Once people found out what was going on, they were able to make allowances, and I think his meds for the back pain finally got adjusted to a good place.

  5. Son of Saint Alphonsus says:

    #3 seems like the way to go. I would add that any intervention should be preceded by much prayer and done as gently as possible, at least in the beginning. There is something he is battling, and though that does not excuse his behavior, it could be a cry for help. He’s obviously suffering greatly. Few people are truly mean. He needs help, not condemnation. Pray, be gentle, be firm, and act as soon as possible. And thank you for caring enough to take action. God bless you.

  6. Bthompson says:

    The Lord’s command in Mt 18:16ff is all the more important to follow in a case like this.

    Knowing myself, and human nature in general, I know I utterly hate it when people go above or around me to complain to other priests or the Chancery. At such times there can be a real temptation for the one criticized to harden one’s heart or disregard the criticism entirely. Indeed, in some cases it would not be unjust or improper to do so, especially in cases of anonymous, spurious, or manipulative complainers, or merely to assert one’s right to be treated justly.

    I think a priest who is squarely in the wrong, and possibly has personality issues, might be even more likely to dismiss criticisms not brought in the spirit and method of My 18:16ff. I.e. he might seize on the violation of the Lord’s teaching as an excuse to disregard your complaint or rationalize that you are the problematic one.

    Now, he might not graciously receive criticism given in the proper manner either, of course, but at least if you follow Mt 18:16ff impeccably, you can know you were just to him even when he was unjust to you, and you will be able to hand the matter over to the bishop with a clear conscience.

  7. I want everyone to know that comments, good comments, are coming in on this.

  8. FrPavegs says:

    Le this priest may be difficult to deal with he is still a man. We ought to confront people with charity and patience when they are unpleasant or when they conduct themselves in an uncharitable and impolite manner. Sometimes more traditionally minded Catholics have difficulty with this when its a priest due to their reverence and love of the priesthood, and a desire to be deferential to priestly authority; though a priest does not have the authority to be a jerk. Many responses above suggest meeting with the bishop, which may be warranted at some point, but have you talked to the priest about this? Consider our Lord’s instructions in Matt 18:15-17. As a priest I have always appreciated it when one of the faithful comes directly to me with a concern over something I said in a homily or some other context before going to the pastor or to my Bishop; most of the time it can be resolved between us. Unless the priest has committed some grievous act or obviously serious delict or heresy or something, approach him first, and if that does not work go to the Bishop. Pray for him, and give him the opportunity to do what is right.

  9. swvirginia says:

    I had a very similar problem some years ago with our pastor (now long gone). He had a drinking problem that he did not hide very well, and was prone to angry outbursts. My wife and I simply tried to keep a low profile and use his temperament as a teaching moment for our children, who often saw his misbehavior. The breaking point for me was when, during a sermon, he made some very critical and completely unjustified comments about a certain family in the parish that was obviously us. My teenage daughter fled the church in tears from the humiliation. I wrote to the Bishop and described several incidents in some detail, including the sermon incident. He was removed a few months later and to my knowledge, has never been placed in a parish again. The last time I checked (some time ago), he was a hospital chaplain.

  10. Philmont237 says:

    I think situations like these often develop due to a lack of Leadership training.

    I am a former Active Duty Air Force Officer, and am currently a Reservist. I also used to teach Leadership at Air University. Many of the lessons taught to Air Force Officers can and should be taught to seminarians, because Leadership (I am capitalizing it on purpose) is a universal discipline that we ALL need to have some competency in.
    I believe that a part of every seminary’s curriculum should be lessons on Leadership. Yes it is important to learn philosophy, theology, Latin, and everything else already taught in seminary. However lessons in Leadership are sorely lacking. I would recommend a short Organizational Leadership curriculum with the following courses: Negotiation and Conflict Resolution; Team Building; Strategic Planning; Communication; and Operations.
    Adding these lessons to a seminary’s curriculum could help prevent, or at least lessen, situations like the situation asked about in this post. Parish priests would benefit greatly from this, but so would more “academic” priests, priests that skip the parish and go straight to the diocesan office (who could definitely use some tact sometimes), or brothers on their way to leadership positions within a monastery.
    These are essential skills for every priest to have, and they simply are not taught these in seminary.

  11. gsk says:

    As I age, I increasingly see the point of a well-done fraternal correction. Rather than seeing the collar as a reason for more forbearance, it can [at times] be the reason for less. These aren’t “bad days,” as described, they reveal a rough, boorish temperament that will drive people away from the Church. If this kind parishioner has nowhere else to go, then that applies to many others as well—especially those with less reverence for the priesthood and perhaps a diminished sense of a Christian’s obligations. It will eventually bear the marks of scandal to the children that they are to be treated that way, just because the man is a priest.

    The one to approach the priest first (I think, according to Saint Paul, it’s treated in a subsidiarity fashion) should be a man of good character, his age or older, perhaps a businessman who can treat it as a matter of policy, rather than making it personal. Prayer beforehand is essential, and many can support him throughout with prayer and sacrifice. We know the fallout from cranky nuns in the classroom, and this threatens the same effect in coming years.

  12. roma247 says:

    I cannot emphasize strongly enough to the original poster how important it is to speak up about this to the proper authorities, and to encourage others who have been harmed and scandalized by his behavior to do so as well. It is not wrong to seek to right a wrong as serious as this, just because he is a priest. We are talking about souls, and the faith of children. To be silent is a grave danger.

    That doesn’t mean you have to carry on an open campaign against him or speak ill of him behind his back. Just speak the truth in charity. Perhaps if enough people put their foot down, then something will finally be done.

    And if nothing changes, be prepared to go elsewhere, whatever sacrifice that may entail. A priest who serves himself instead of serving God and His people is extremely dangerous for the faith of your children. Praying for you and all in your parish.

  13. APX says:

    Since children are being impacted by this, also review the Diocesan Safe Environment Policy, since it usually deals with things other than sexual abuse of minors. It will get the Bishop’s attention.

    In my diocese, this would be considered a violation of the Diocesan Safe Environment Policy and would not be tolerated. It’s a liability to the Diocese.

  14. TonyO says:

    Many good comments and suggestions, but some are at tension with others. I don’t know if this is a help or not, but I offer it:

    (1) It is not “gossip” or “going behind the priest’s back” to raise the issue with others as a backcheck on your own observations. You have EVERY RIGHT to consult with others, and to take counsel from those who are wise and prudent. The more so if the action at issue was public, but it’s not limited to that. Gossip and detraction are easy sins to indulge in, but it just isn’t gossip if the driving purpose of your discussion is to understand the behavior and to correct misconduct that is harming you, your family, or the parish, and you need to be able to discuss with others to achieve those.

    (2) If you confirm (by such consultation with others) that what you seeing is (a) a real pastoral problem, and (b) not a momentary blip, you should take counsel for how to address it. The preferred way (in keeping with Mt. 18) is to meet with him one-on-one, as the first step, but even this might be contra-indicated in some cases. (E.G. if you yourself cannot hold your temper and remain in charity with the priest if he is recalcitrant.) If the one-on-one approach does not produce results, by all means get 2 or 3 together, especially someone who the priest knows is not “out to get him”, someone older, prudent, and able to be judicious in tone, even in trying conditions (part of the Leadership skills mentioned above).

    (3) Yes, indeed, document everything, including as exact a report as you can manage of any meetings directly with the priest, written up immediately after the event. If possible, get 2 or 3 written accounts of events that were seen by other people. Get down dates, make a timeline. Practice describing things without venom or passion. Facts and words spoken, more than impressions and feelings.

    (4) Eventually, if the prior intervention doesn’t work, certainly go to the bishop. Bishops – even poor ones – don’t want problem priests creating dissension for no good purpose. But sometimes, there is little the bishop can do short of removing said priest, and that’s not likely to happen these days of priest shortage. So, temper your expectations, too. If the bishop manages to nudge the priest’s behavior just a wee bit toward the good, that’s a win even if not everything you ought to get.

    (5) I think, skip 2-4 if any of the acts at issue involve sexual or financial misconduct.

    (6) Going elsewhere is fine, if you need to, but if that means your new “parish” is 80 miles or 2 hours away, you won’t be folding into daily parish life, and that’s a detriment too – you have to weigh and balance the goods to be achieved and the evils to be suffered. In this day and age, it is nearly impossible to find a parish and a pastor that doesn’t promote some small element of modern nonsense, (even if relatively light promotion), so it is almost necessary these days to train your children to be wary at all times, yes, even of priests and bishops (and popes, apparently). Since this is virtually unavoidable, you might well just buckle down and start it with this priest as an example (especially if no other option is tenable). And anyway, this is kind of the normal operating procedure DURING the period you are going through 1 – 5 above, so it should be in your toolbox regardless of what else you are preparing.

  15. Gaetano says:

    Having done three years of Professional Military Education as a civilian federal employee, I cannot emphasize enough the need for good Leadership (and Followership) training.

    The one solution I have yet to see in the comments is calling out the priest directly on his behavior. This avoids creating a “triangle” where you’re stuck waiting for a third party to act.

    Sometimes people are having a bad day.

    Sometimes they’re crushed under the burden of so many things being difficult.

    Sometime they’re hurt and lashing out.

    Sometimes they’re a bully and need a figurative (not literal) smack in the face.

    I favor the “commend in public, criticize in private” approach wherever possible. Even if it is merely taking them aside for a moment.

    If the problem is truly malignant, at least it may make them think before they repeat their bad behavior.

  16. As unpleasant and intimidating as the prospect may be of this, my recommendation is to confront the priest directly and privately. It would be prudent for the original commenter to bring someone else along; and I would seek out a man who is mature and not prone to be intimidated.

    It isn’t an easy needle to thread, but the approach should be both forceful and charitable. Don’t tiptoe around.

  17. tzabiega says:

    Approaching a priest whose behavior appears wrong and commenting on it to them in the kindest possible way is always best. People, including priests, are too sensitive these days, and a lay person should not be afraid to make a comment when necessary because they are afraid it will hurt the priest’s feelings. Many priests may not realize their bad behavior. A diocesan priest I know who was cocky and even rude the first two years after his ordination (I attended daily Mass at his parish at the time) is now one of the most wonderful pastors 10 years later, best known for going out of his way to help people with utmost courtesy and kindness. I thank God for all the people in my life who had the kindness to tell me the truth about certain parts of my behavior so I could change them. Those are true friends, not those who smile and pretend nothing is wrong while criticizing you behind your back. And by the way, there is nothing wrong, if the priest refuses to change, to threaten him with writing to the bishop without necessarily doing so right away. That may shock the priest into realizing that this is not trivial. Better for him and for everyone if the report to the bishop is done when all other avenues have been exhausted.

  18. TiberSwimTeam says:

    I sent the question to Father Z, and I want to thank him and everyone for your comments and advice. It is really helpful. As an adult convert, I still have a lot to learn about how to relate to priests and about parish life. Right now I am considering two lines of action: (1) communicate directly with the priest, or (2) reduce my family’s involvement in the parish, and just go there to receive sacraments.

    My situation is complicated because it is a non-US location, and something like a “diocesian safety policy”, a “parish code of ethics”, or a “child protection policy” is unknown here. Moreover, I myself am a foreigner in this context and my language skills are limited. This priest has been in his position for at least 20 years, and I am a relative newcomer to the parish (attending for about 5 years). Thus, there’s a lot of history and long-term relationships within the community I don’t know about. All I know about this priest’s behavior is what I’ve witnessed, and I see the effects on his subordinates and the flock: people are stressed and afraid of him. Therefore, is it really my place to stage an intervention or take the lead in confronting him?

    About the two choices of action I’m considering:

    (1) Maybe I should write a short letter to the priest to explain my concerns. I don’t want to make him defensive by making a legal case. The point is to make a Christian appeal. I’m not sure it can be called a “fraternal correction” because as a priest and head pastor he is my superior, and I am not sure it would be a correction per se. The message, to be expressed diplomatically, would basically be: “your pattern of behavior is harming the community, please stop it.”

    However, I am afraid this might only make things worse for the community, and for me personally if he then gets angry at me. But, this kind of confidential, personal communication seems like the right first step for addressing this situation.

    (2) Instead of taking action to try to remedy the situation, my family and I could continue to frequent the sacraments at this parish but otherwise recede into the background to reduce exposure to the toxic environment. My wife tried to get actively involved in catechesis and education of young kids in the parish, but this priest then singled her out for bad treatment, and she has since withdrawn from those kinds of activities. This would be a kind of “survival mode”.

    I have talked honestly with my kids about this difficult situation, because with all due respect to the priest I don’t want to excuse his behavior or cover it up. The kids are right that something’s wrong, and as their dad my job is to protect them. We agreed to pray for this priest during our daily family rosary.

    If there is some other choice of action besides the two mentioned above that might somehow improve the situation, I’d love to hear it. It doesn’t seem right to me to jump over his head to a higher authority at first. If it becomes known that I “tattled” on the priest, it could create conflict with the priest and division within the community. To be honest, I’m afraid I would be blacklisted and become persona non grata.

    Personally, here is what I think would really help the community. If this priest were to inform the community that he has become aware that his behavior has been harmful, if he apologized for it and asked forgiveness, and said he is working on it and wants to do better, and then asked for our prayers, I think it would have a huge positive effect for everyone. I think it would be tremendously healing and people would rush to support him in whatever ways possible. He would gain respect and sympathy from his flock. What a relief that would be, and we could move forward building up a positive community.

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