|‘Overall, I am happy as a priest.’ Shutterstock photo|
The public image of priesthood has changed. Formerly, priests were envisioned as a kind of idyllic figure, serene and wise. In 1944 and 1945, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Going My Way” were two of the largest grossing movies of all times. These movies received a number of Academy Awards including best picture. Bing Crosby, with his velvet voice, played the saintly Father O’Malley. He was the “perfect” priest.
Today, details of priest offenders have been given blanket coverage in the media. The new image of priesthood is one of a lonely, dispirited figure whose unnatural lifestyle breeds psychological disorders and even sexual deviation.
In both instances, the image of priesthood is extreme and misleading. The Bing Crosby images were aimed at selling movie tickets and the modern scandalous ones at selling newspapers, yet each reflected a bit of the popular projections of the times. Neither of these images gives us an accurate picture of the men who minister to the people in parishes, schools, hospitals and elsewhere.
The former images came from a day when the Catholic faith was imbedded in many cultures such as Irish, Italian, French and German. Today, in our increasingly secular age, adhering to the Catholic faith is more a matter of personal choice. At times, the modern secular mentality slides into atheism and the Catholic faith is portrayed as a repressive authority that imposes life-denying “dogmas” on its believers. The result, especially in its priests, is thought to foster unhappiness, pathology and repression.
Can we begin to paint a more accurate picture of Catholic priests? The place to begin is with the priests themselves, using a more scientific approach. Therefore, I surveyed 2,482 priests (2,145 diocesan priests and 337 religious priests working in the dioceses) from 23 dioceses of all sizes around the U.S.A. The anonymous and confidential surveys were sent out to all the priests of the dioceses and the response rate was a solid 57 percent. Therefore, while recognizing the standard limitations of survey research, the results should be fairly representative of priests around the country.
Are Priests Unhappy?
One of the most striking findings of the survey was the overwhelming happiness reported by the priests. When asked directly, 92.4 percent agreed or strongly agreed, “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” When this striking figure is cited, there are some who object. “It can’t be true,” they say. However, looking at several other studies, this finding has been confirmed again and again.
For example, in March 2001, when the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) surveyed 1,234 priests, 88 percent of the priests strongly agreed with the statement, “Overall, I am satisfied with my life as a priest,” and 87 percent strongly agreed that “I am happy in my ministry.” Similarly, in the 2001 NFPC study of 1,279 priests, 94 percent said they were very happy or pretty happy. Likewise, a 2002 LA Times poll of 1,854 priests reported that 94 percent agreed, “Most of the time, I am happy with my life as a priest.”
Time and again, surveys of priests have come up with the same result: about 90 percent of priests say they are happy as priests and satisfied with their ministries. And when clergy happiness rates are compared with other vocations and professions in the United States, they come out the highest. For example, the National Opinion Research Center’s 2006 General Social Survey of 27,000 Americans found that clergy, of all denominations, reported the highest level of job satisfaction and the happiest life of any group in the United States. Likewise, when the 2001 NFPC results for priests were compared with all other age cohorts in America, they also came out on top.
Simply put, study after study on priestly happiness has found the same results. When asked, about 90 percent priests say that they are happy. And this happiness rate is higher than other professions or jobs in the United States.
Why Are They Happier?
The important question naturally surfaces: “If priests are happier than others, why is that so?” To look at the sources of priestly happiness, I ran a multiple regression equation, a statistical routine that will tell us which variables most strongly predict priestly happiness.
A number of variables surfaced, and the full results of this study are published by Ave Maria Press in Why Priests are Happy. One might summarize these variables in two general categories: mental health and spiritual/relational issues. Mental-health-related issues included such things as growing up in a dysfunctional family, having current mental health problems, sexual conflicts, and anger problems. The spiritual/relational variables included such variables one’s relationship to God, view of celibacy, inner peace, having close lay and priest friends. Regarding the mental health variables, priests were more likely to be happy if they were not suffering from psychological problems or had not had a dysfunctional childhood. In this regard, priests were about the same as the laity, or perhaps a bit better off.
The priests in this survey were given the Brief Symptom Inventory 18 (BSI-18) which is a standardized psychological test measuring depression, anxiety, and somatization with an overall combined scale called the General Severity Index (GSI). Since these conditions are most often encountered in psychiatric populations, they should be good initial indicators of overall mental health.
The results suggested that priests are about as psychologically healthy, if not a slight bit better, than the general population. When comparing the priests’ results to the norms for the general male population, priests scored slightly better, and the results were statistically significant. The BSI-18 uses T-scores with the norm being 50. The priest sample scored as follows: somatization scale = 48.89; depression scale = 48.95; anxiety scale = 47.48; and GSI = 49.11. These priest scores are slightly lower than the mean T-score of 50 and thus a bit better than the general norms.
These and other tests reported in the study indicate that priests’ level of mental health is probably slightly better, but not greatly different, than the general male population in the U.S. This is a good counterbalance to the suggestion that priests, as a group, are more psychologically disturbed. On the other hand, it suggests that priests are likely to have their share of human pathology, just like their lay male counterparts.
Since the mental health of priesthood and laity are probably similar, it is unlikely that such mental health variables will account for the considerably higher rate of priestly happiness. However, the other general category of variables, spiritual/relational variables, did surface some remarkable findings.
Spiritual and Relational Lives of Priests
Priests were asked directly and in several ways about their relationship to God. When given the statement, “I feel that God loves me personally and directly,” 96.5 percent agreed/strongly agreed. For the statement, “I feel a sense of closeness to God,” 93.2 percent agreed/strongly agreed. “From time to time, I feel a joy that is a grace from God” elicited 94.9 percent who agreed/strongly agreed. And for the statement, “I have a relationship to God (or Jesus) that is nourishing for me,” 96.1 percent agreed/strongly agreed.
Priests reported being very positive about their relationship to God, and this is clearly having a direct impact on their lives, including their level of priestly happiness. The correlation between “Relationship to God” and happiness as a priest was very strong (Pearson’s r = .53).
Moreover, on many other spiritual variables, the results were likewise strong. For example, 87.4 percent agreed/strong agreed with the statement, “I feel a sense of inner peace.” Not surprisingly, inner peace was very strongly correlated with priestly happiness (Pearson’s r = .57) as well as with their relationship to God (Pearson’s r = .55).
Also, if priests viewed celibacy as a gift and as a calling from God, they were much more likely to be happy priests. The correlation of the celibacy questions with priestly happiness was likewise strong (Pearson’s r = .47). Fortunately slightly over 3/4 of the priests saw celibacy in such a deep spiritual light, thus positively contributing to their satisfaction with priestly life.
Priests also reported strong relationships with others as well. Over 76 percent agreed/strongly agreed with the statement, “I have a good relationship with my bishop.” This is remarkable when one considers that a recent Conference Board survey of 5,000 American households found that only 51 percent of Americans liked their supervisors. This, too, positively contributes to priestly happiness. The Pearson’s correlation between a priest’s relationship with his bishop and his overall happiness was a significant r = .38.
Priests also reported strong personal relationships. They said they had good lay friends and priest friends. Of the 2,482 priests surveyed, 93 percent agreed/strongly agreed with the statement, “I have good lay friends who are an emotional support for me personally,” and 87.6 percent agreed/strongly agreed with the statement, “I currently have close priest friends.” These two variables were also strongly predictive of priestly happiness; when the questions regarding close friendships were combined into one variable, its correlation with priestly happiness was significant (Pearson’s r = .35).
My study and several others consistently show that priests report a very high level of happiness and satisfaction. In fact, it is among the highest of any vocation or profession in the United States.
The results of my study suggest that it is not their level of mental health that is making the difference. Priests might be slightly healthier, psychologically speaking, than their lay counterparts, but not markedly so. Thus, we cannot look to these kinds of factors to explain priestly happiness.
The strongest predictors of priestly happiness were spiritual and relational values: inner peace, view of celibacy, relationship to God and relationship to others. In fact, the variable relationship to God was also the strongest predictor of inner peace and similarly one of the strongest predictors of having a deep integration of celibacy.
It is likely that the strength of a priest’s relationship to God is the single strongest contributor to his personal happiness as a priest. In short, a priest with a strong relationship to God is a happy priest!
At the same time, priests reported strong human connections with other priests, with the laity, and with their bishops. John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis speaks of the priest as a “man of communion.” The great majority of our priests are just such men and these interpersonal connections are also strong contributors to their priestly happiness.
Secular society paints the portrait of today’s priest as a dysfunctional, isolated and unhappy man. Every statistical study cited herein suggests otherwise. In fact, while priests’ psychological health is similar to others’, their strong spiritual lives and interrelationships land them among the happiest people in this country.
Can there be any better witness to the truth of the Gospel message than a happy priest? Here is a man who has promised to give up many human joys. He works long hours for little pay. When he goes home at night, he seems to be alone. And yet there is a joy and a peace that quietly suffuses his life in an unseen but very real way.
A priest seems to have little, and so our secular world assumes he must be unhappy. Can there be any stronger challenge to modern atheism than a happy priest? The people of today strive to be happy, yet they often fall short. They are seeking happiness in the wrong places. The secular atheistic message promises human fulfillment and happiness, but it cannot deliver. Its message is a lie.
As we share our own lives in Christ with others, and as they sense our inner peace and joy, it will be an attractive witness to everything that Jesus taught. Our happy priests must be one of the spearheads of the new evangelization. The proof that the world is seeking is written on the hearts of our priests and on the hearts of all the faithful who come to know Christ’s joy. It is time for us to share the joy that has been given to us so that this same joy might be in all and that it might be complete. TP
MSGR. ROSSETTI, D.Min., Ph.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse and Associate Dean for Seminary and Ministerial Studies at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, Why Priests are Happy, is available from Ave Maria Press at avemariapress.com.