Although modern secular portrayals often paint the priesthood in a negative light, the results of a new study reveal that Catholic priests are among the happiest people in the country.
A thorough scientific evaluation conducted by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at The Catholic University of America, shows that priests as a whole are highly satisfied with their lives.
The study, which includes data from a 2009 survey of 2,482 priests from 23 dioceses and a 2004 survey of 1,242 priests from 16 dioceses, is the basis of Msgr. Rossetti’s new book “Why Priests Are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests” (Ave Maria Press, $18.95).
Msgr. Rossetti, a licensed psychologist, told Our Sunday Visitor that at first the study’s findings may seem surprising or even counterintuitive.
But the results, he explained, are in line with secular studies and social science research conducted over the past three decades.
“Studies consistently show that religious people, those with a strong spiritual life and a religious faith, tend to be happier, more well-adjusted people,” Msgr. Rossetti said. “Frankly, the reality is that religion is good for you, psychologically and spiritually.”
That is especially true for priests, he said. In the study, priests tested slightly higher on standard psychological evaluations than the average person, and reported one of the highest rates of satisfaction with their work of people in any profession.
That may come as a surprise in the wake of so many negative stories about the priesthood.
“News of the death of the priesthood is greatly exaggerated,” said Msgr. Rossetti. “The fact is that there are a lot of wonderful priests in this country, and they are doing just fine.”
Being happy, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that priests have an easy life. Msgr. Rossetti noted that priests today are often greatly overworked, yet on a standardized test they have slightly lower measures of burnout than the average working person.
“That’s an apparent contradiction. Priests are overwhelmed with the amount of work that they have to do, but they are not burned out,” Msgr. Rossetti told OSV.
The reason, he explained, is that burnout is not simply a measure of the amount of work one has, but also incorporates factors such as job satisfaction and personal support.
“So if you have a lot of good friends, you have a good spiritual life and you like what you do, you are probably not going to burnout,” he said.
That’s been the case for Father Scott Hastings, pastor of St. Leonard Parish in Madison, Neb.
Father Hastings told OSV that while his work can sometimes be stressful, burnout is not really a concern as long as he focuses on the blessings of priestly life.
“I see my work as a gift from God. ... Some days there are things that I don’t enjoy, but prayer lets me see the Lord’s hand,” Father Hastings told OSV.
“Staying close to him in work and prayer is what prevents burnout. Of course, knowing one’s limits is helpful, too,” he said.
Joy of celibacy
Another common myth about the priesthood that Msgr. Rossetti’s study dispels is the perception that without spouses or children, priests are likely to suffer from loneliness.
In reality, the results show no correlation between celibacy and loneliness, and the vast majority of priests say they find the celibate life to be a grace.
According to Father Kurtis Gunwall, vocations director in the Diocese of Fargo, N.D., the assumption that priests are lonely is widespread and is often an obstacle for those discerning a vocation to the priesthood.
“The general public and most Catholics have a misconception that a man cannot be happy without sex, marriage and a family,” Father Gunwall told OSV.
“Those are joyful things but they are not the ultimate source of true happiness,” he said.
Father Gunwall said that he often explains the joys of celibate life by likening it to a marriage.
Though some may face the temptation to be unfaithful, those who focus on the love of their spouse can remain happy in their commitment to be with only one person.
“And neither do I struggle with keeping my love and commitment to God and his Church in place,” he said.
Msgr. Rossetti also noticed another interesting connection in his results — that priests who spend more time in prayer are even less likely to report feelings of loneliness.
“I think that loneliness is not merely whether you are married or not. Loneliness is a measure of inability to really connect at a deep level,” said Msgr. Rossetti. “I know lots of married people who are really lonely.
“But those who pray more tend to connect with God on a deeper level, and that helps them to connect with themselves and with others, so these people are living more deeply interpersonal lives,” he said.
Even with the study’s encouraging results, Msgr. Rossetti said that there are still areas of concern that priests should be aware of.
Although the percentage of priests experiencing severe burnout is low, many still have excessive workloads, he said, and divisions over political and social issues may pose a threat to priests’ sense of unity.
The best thing priests can do to avoid potential pitfalls and continue being happy, he advised, is to focus on living out their vocation to the best of their ability.
“I found that when priests live priesthood well, when they live it the way it is supposed to be lived, they are happier people,” Msgr. Rossetti explained.
“That is true of all walks of life. In your marriage or your job or whatever you are doing, when you live it right; with integrity, with honesty, with good Christian values, you are going to be a happier person,” he said.
And as priests continue living joyfully, he added, he is hopeful that opinions about the priesthood will change.
“The reality is that being a priest is a wonderful life, and I think more people need to know that,” Msgr. Rossetti said. “It is the best-kept secret in the Catholic Church.”
Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.