From Stephen Rossetti, Why Priests are Happy,chapter 12
AveMaria Press, Notre dame, 2011
As a result of the findings of this study, I offer a few recommendations to vocation/formation personnel, to priests, and to bishops. These are not exhaustive. There is much rich material in this entire study for further reflection and study. Throughout, I have attempted to present as much of the data as I am able. I invite others to dig into this data and to offer their own insights, reflections, and recommendations.
To Vocation and Formation Personnel
- Get the word out: priesthood is a very fulfilling and happy vocation. The sometimes negative image of priesthood is largely a myth.
- During the formative years, work intensely with seminarians on their spiritual formation, fostering a direct, personal relationship with God. Seminarians study philosophy and theology; they often engage in a pastoral year and regularly are involved in pastoral work. These are important. But spiritual formation is sometimes left to the seminarian and his spiritual director as a hidden and perhaps even peripheral part of his preparation for the priesthood. While the relationship to a spiritual director must remain in the internal forum, the survey results suggest that spiritual formation is central and crucial to the well-being and happiness of a priest. The seminarian needs to be directly and intensively formed in the spiritual life. This ought to be a priority.
- Assist seminarians in their development of good friendships, and screen out seriously isolated men. The presence of good friendships is a key marker in the suitability of a man for the priesthood. An isolated priest is unlikely to do well personally, spiritually, and pastorally, Formation personnel should foster the development of healthy, chaste friendships and not call to orders any who cannot develop such life-giving relationships.
- Do not underestimate the impact of a dysfunctional childhood and a background of childhood mental problems on the future success and happiness of a priest. It would be unwise to “lower the bar” on taki candidates with a seriously dysfunctional history, even if the n for new priests is great. In fact, these research findings suggest some vocation personnel will want to raise the bar they are currently using.
- Screening prospective priestly candidates for a history of sexual pro-remains critical. There was likely a period in the recent history the Church when unsuitable candidates with significant sexual flicts were admitted to priesthood. The devastating results speak themselves. Direct screening for a history of sexual problems direct formation in a healthy, chaste psychosexual development essential for the health and integrity of the priesthood.
- Train the seminarians and young priests to see celibacy as a gift fromGod and as a personal grace. To accept celibacy simply because it is necessary for priesthood in the Roman rite is not enough for a truly fulfilled and happy priesthood. Perceiving celibacy as a gift from, God and a personal grace is important for the happiness and well-being of a celibate priest. These survey results suggest that direct training in celibacy will be one critical element of a seminarian’s spiritual formation.
- Do not overlook the presence of obesity in a candidate. What d candidate’s or priest’s obesity mean? It is possible that, for their weight problems are a symptom of underlying unr issues that need to be addressed. It is unwise to ignore the presence of obesity.
- Give thanks for your vocation to the priesthood. It is a wonderful life. Most priests are happy in their priesthood, very satisfied with their lives, and would do it all over again. While there are challenges, as in any life, the real happiness of our priests is remarkable, especially given the stresses of these past few years. It is a credit to the commitment and faith of our priests.
- Let people know about the joy of your priesthood It is time to break this “secret” of priesthood and to tell people about the true satisfaction and happiness of priestly life. This is good for vocations; it is good for the People of God to know; and it is good for priests to tell their story. As one priest wrote on his survey, “When we’re happy, we don’t share it.” Sharing their joy is an essential part of priestly ministry and the new evangelization.
- Give primacy to your relationship to God A priest’s relationship to God is critical for his happiness and priestly life. Without this rock, a priest will find himself in difficulty, the findings suggest. Many priests would likely benefit from even more time and energy directly focused on fostering a deeper personal relationship with God.
- Foster good friendships. The presence of good friendships for a priest is strongly predictive of having a good relationship to God. Having such friendships with other priests and laity is also important for your psychological well-being and happiness. Friendships, including priestly friendships, are integral to a priest’s life and ought to be a priority.
- The traditional elements of a priest’s spiritual life are important:
¨ Receive the Sacrament of Penance frequently
¨ Pray privately each day; consider a daily Holy Hour
¨ Pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily
¨ Regularly do theological and spiritual reading
¨ Take an annual retreat
¨ Foster a devotion to Mary
All of these were directly and significantly related to the psychological and spiritual well-being of a priest. Moreover, a number of priests wrote on their surveys how important their sacramental ministry was to them, especially the Eucharist. Thus, I would add to that list: deepen one’s love of and connection to the Eucharist.
- Priestly unity needs to be improved. Priestly unity is a big issue for priests. Many are unhappy with it and priestly divisions are harmful to the priesthood and to the Church. Priests say this area needs work, and it is only priests themselves who can improve it. It is time to listen to our brothers, especially those with whom we disagree, and to begin to mend the fissures in priestly unity.
- Mutual priestly support is critical and should be fostered. Attend priestly gatherings. Create priest support groups. Support brother priests. Priestly gatherings such as annual convocations and Chrism Masses are important moments for priests and should not be missed. Priest support groups remain a helpful way to promote mutual support. As one priest wrote on his survey, “We need to spend more time together in prayer and fraternity.”
- Love and support the bishop. The bishop is an important person in a priest’s life. Priests ought to nurture actively this important relation-ship. Priests can attend liturgies and functions led by the bishop. Understanding his hopes and goals for the diocese can be helpful. Praying for him and supporting his leadership are essential. Also valuing the promise of obedience is an integral part of a solid priestly spirituality.
- Different ordination cohorts need to help each other. Today’s seni pastors need the younger priests. These younger priests are full evangelical fervor and profess a strong adherence to the faith. are the new breed of evangelical Catholics, and these gifts are m needed today. Welcome them and guide them. And these yo evangelical Catholics need to respect and listen to the older pri They need to be guided and mentored by them. These older need to teach the younger priests how to manage their lives prepare for a lifetime of demanding priestly service. As one wrote on his survey, the priesthood “needs more fraternity be younger and older priests.”
- Be aware of the signs of burnout. If a priest becomes aware of symptoms of burnout in himself or in another priest, ass and pastoral care are needed.
- When present, depression and anxiety need to be managed. The findings strongly suggest that priests who become depressed and suffer from anxiety are less likely to be happy and are more at risk for having problems or leaving priesthood. Symptoms of anxiety and depression cannot be ignored but ought to be dealt with in a direct and effective fashion.
- Learn to deal with stress in healthy ways. A significant percentage of priests, nearly one quarter, indicated that they have unhealthy ways of coping with stress, such as excessive food and/or alcohol consumption. Learning to deal with stress is important for many priests.
- Exercise and lose weight. Too many priests are obese and do not exercise enough. If you are obese, ask yourself why. Perhaps there are underlying issues that need attention. But regardless, physical self-care is important for your physical and mental health.
- Take your weekly day off as well as an annual vacation. A priest will be healthier and happier if he takes regular time away for rest and rejuvenation.
- Affirm your priests often. Their happiness, commitment, and faith amidst an increasingly secular world is remarkable and a testament to the power of God’s grace and their own greatness. Affirm them.
- Be encouraged that the majority of your priests love you, support you, and obey you. ‘While there are some important issues that need to be addressed regarding the relationship between bishops and priests in the wake of these last few years, the essential relationship between a bishop and his priests remains solid.
- Bishops are important to their priests. Bishops are tied together with their priests in a sacramental bond that is critical for their nourishment and happiness. The bishop’s first role for his priests is to love them. Do not underestimate how important you are to your priests. A kind word, a remembrance for one’s ordination anniversary, a hospital visit, a call upon the death of a parent, a birthday wish, and other such small acts of kindness are not small to priests.
- Make supporting priests’ spiritual lives a priority. This study consistently demonstrated the centrality of a priest’s spiritual life for his personal happiness and well-being. A bishop and diocese would do well to emphasize, support, and dedicate resources to the spiritual lives of its priests including fostering an authentic diocesan priestly spirituality. Religious superiors and their orders will likewise want to investigate ways of similarly emphasizing the spiritual life. Often-times, we leave the subject of developing a spiritual life to the individual. However, would not some institutional or group presbyteral effort be advisable? Ongoing formation programs might not just be continuing education efforts but might also include continuing formation in the spiritual life. `There are many possible ways for a diocese and/or a presbyterate to begin to emphasize the spiritual life such as highlighting the annual diocesan retreat, providing and training spiritual directors, focusing some annual convocations on the spiritual life, making the sacrament of penance a part of the annual priest convocation, praying the Liturgy of the Hours together, and a variety of other supports. These will likely be time, effort, and money well spent for the health of the priests and thus for the diocese or religious order as a whole.
- Priests need help with their workload. Most priests are not burned out, but a large percentage of them feels overwhelmed. This remains of great concern to priests today and needs to be acknowledged and faced directly.
- Priests need to know they will be dealt with fairly. In the wake of the crisis, a large percentage of priests is not confident that their human rights will be respected if they are accused of sexual misconduct. While we do not want to reduce our improving efforts to hear and respond to alleged victims, priests also need to know they will be heard and treated fairly.
- Younger priests today need solid mentoring and support. This includes priests up to twenty years ordained. They are at greater risk for burnout and thinking of leaving priesthood. It is difficult to adjust to a celibate, demanding priesthood today surrounded by a seculars sex-crazed culture. This is especially true for new young pastor* with only a few years of priestly experience. They are placed in these complex and challenging pastoral positions with limited experience and fewer personal resources. They need the special attention of the bishop.
- Continue to make healing resources readily available. Some priests come from dysfunctional backgrounds and/or suffer from psycho-logical difficulties. Ready access to healing regimens is needed for them. Helping priests in difficulty manage depression and anxiety and other problems is important. The study suggests that priests do avail themselves regularly of such assistance. This is encouraging and ought to be continued.
- If a priest is considering leaving, first help him to assess his personal and spiritual life. A priest who is considering leaving priesthood may be suffering from burnout, depression, and/or anxiety. The priest him-self may be only slightly aware of these underlying feelings. Before a priest can discern his future, he must first deal with these realities, or else his discernment will be skewed and priesthood may be precipitously abandoned.
- Have diocesan programs to ensure that priests maintain a proper weight, exercise, eat healthy foods, have regular medical checkups, and take the proper time off. Physical self-care is sometimes overlooked by our priests who often live alone and are engaged in a busy ministry with increasing responsibility and fewer priests. Healthy living and sufficient time away, including sabbatical programs, will ultimately increase the availability of priests, not decrease it. If these healthy living programs come from the “top,” it gives the priest permission to take better care of himself.
The Secret of Their Joy overall findings of this study are clear and, when combined with similar findings in other studies, incontrovertible: Priests, as a group, are very happy with their lives and their vocations. They are among the happiest of any people in the country.
Priests also scored well on standardized psychological tests. They scored modestly better than general samples of the lay population on tests measuring depression, anxiety, somatization, and overall function-, ing. Given that such symptoms comprise the large majority of psych logical complaints in community and residential settings, these are g markers of the overall psychic health of priests.
In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, the issue of mental health the priesthood has resurfaced. Some would suggest that priests are chologically stunted or less healthy than others. But the results indi otherwise.
Moreover, the scores of priests as a group on standardized b measures were not elevated. In fact, they were markedly below se norms, a positive finding. Despite the challenging if not overwhel workload of our priests, they are bearing up well under the load by all measures, are actually prospering. Why are they not burned given their often excessive workload? Clearly, the great satisfaction their lives and ministry that priests report is important in unders their low burnout rates. In addition, their strong spiritual lives must also be taken into account; they find much nourishment in their relationship to God and in their spiritual lives in general.
This does not mean that there are no challenges or difficulties. Nor does it mean that there are no unhappy, burned out, or psychologically unwell priests. There are, and always will be, some of our number who are struggling. Priests are men not angels. And they are subject to all the frailties and temptations of any human life. Bishops and priests will want to continue to reach out to their wounded brothers and offer them love, support, and healing.
But the modern secular rumor that our celibate priesthood is an unhappy, lonely life is simply not borne out by the facts. The opposite is true. As a group, priests are much happier than their lay counterparts. I suspect the rumor that priests are dissatisfied is a projection of a secular mentality that has difficulty imaging happiness in such a celibate life of self-giving in faith to the Church and to the people. Moreover, the Church has a problem in getting this message out. As one priest wrote regarding morale, it is “good but this is not communicated.” As this priest is implying, it is time to spread the word.
Where does their happiness come from? The findings in this study noted that a combination of psychological and spiritual factors contributes to priestly happiness. However, priestly scores on psychological tests were only modestly better than the general population and could not account for their extraordinarily high rates of happiness. To account for their happiness, one needs to look into the pastoral and spiritual lives of our priests.
Regarding their pastoral and spiritual lives, there were many sources of support and nourishment experienced by priests, such as good friend-ships with other priests and laity and a personal love of their vocations and pastoral ministry, especially their Eucharistic and sacramental ministry. The centrality and strength of their faith and pastoral commitment were critical to understanding our priests. Often unseen to the public, the spirituality of our priests is integral to their peace, happiness, and, at times, joy.
Their relationship with God is very much alive and a strong source of their inner peace and happiness. Priests reported having a strong nourishing relationship to God, feeling personally loved by God, feeling a sense of inner peace and even joy, and being grateful for these blessings.
The impact of their spirituality on the rest of their lives was remark-able. A powerful predictor of priestly happiness was their relationship with God. One could conclude that a priest simply cannot be a happy and effective priest without having a solid relationship to God. And this strong relationship to God is one of the major reasons they are so happy. Priesthood is a human life, it is true, but it is more.
The words of Paul VI, which began this work, seem a fitting summary of so much of what this research found. It is striking to this researcher that a written survey and modern quantitative statistical techniques could cross over into the realm of the spiritual and affirm the insights on the scriptures spoken by one of our pontiffs over thirty-five years ago. While Paul VI’s words were speaking of the life of Jesus, they also directly apply to our priests as well. The life of a priest is simply that of imaging Christ, of being configured to the One who is in a loving relationship with the Father. Paul VI tells us what the secret of Jesus’ joy is and thus the secret joy of the priesthood as well:
But it is necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him. It is especially the Gospel of Saint John that lifts the veil . . . if Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father. (Gaudete in Domino)