success stories

Researchers highlight changing priesthood

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

Specialists on researching U.S. priests said there are many changing trends in the priesthood today.

They highlighted different viewpoints of younger and older priests and lower support for lay ministry among younger priests as particular areas of concern.

In a four-hour session Sept. 9 at the Life Cycle Institute of The Catholic University of America, the researchers explored the findings of recent national studies of priests. The audience of about 100 included other research scholars, professors, diocesan ministry leaders, heads of various national Catholic organizations and several bishops from across the country.

Sociologist Dean R. Hoge, director of the Life Cycle Institute, said that as the number of active priests continues to decline the "fastest-growing category of persons in the Catholic community" is ecclesial lay ministers.

"We now have more lay ministers working in parishes than we have priests working in parishes," he said. "In the future a collaboration of priests and lay ministers will run the parishes. This is new."

He said that among priests ages 56-65, 86 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, "The Catholic Church needs to move faster in empowering lay persons in ministry."

Of priests in other age groups, he said, the least agreement with that statement came from the youngest priests. Only 54 percent of those 26-35 years old said the church should move faster to advance lay ministry.

He said younger priests are also the most likely to espouse a "cultic model" of priesthood that emphasizes the priest's sacramental functions and the distinction between priests and lay people.

The older priests, he said, were more likely to view priesthood in terms of a "servant leadership model" that stresses "close collaboration with laity, de-emphasis of the clergy-lay differences and greater social involvement."

Bryan T. Froehle, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, presented findings of a recent CARA survey that, despite heavy workloads, "nearly all priests say they are happy in their ministry and that they are satisfied with their lives as priests."

He said three-fourths of nonretired priests report being on call 24 hours a day; two-fifths say they typically work more than 60 hours a week; one-fifth report that they work more than 80 hours a week.

"Twenty-five percent of nonretired priests and 30 percent of parish priests say they are too busy to adequately meet the pastoral needs of the people they serve," the CARA study found.

Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, said priests today confront increasing challenges in ministry even as the supports they could once rely on are changing.

Msgr. Murnion described the priest preaching and teaching in his parish as "the church minister who is the primary theologian in the church ... the theologian on his feet."

He warned, however, that "to fulfill this role, the priest needs a continually maturing and theologically grounded spirituality. Unfortunately, the life and culture of the priest does little to foster that kind of spirituality."

"At least half of the ministerial spirituality of the diocesan priest is faithful, reliable service to the sacramental and pastoral needs of the people. In these terms, priests have as a group displayed a solid spirituality," he said.

But that is not enough, he said. "In a world which is perhaps more banal than secular, the more sacred, mystical and spiritual dimension of life needs to be more evident -- needs more evidence -- as the source and summit, the character and criteria of who we are and what we are doing. It needs more prayer and study on the part of the priest."

He said his center's study of parish ministers found that fewer than three out of five pastors reported a regular prayer life apart from their official duties of prayer, and Hoge's study showed the greatest need priests felt was help in their personal spiritual development.

"When it comes to study," he added, "few of the pastors in our workshops report reading books in theology. ... The culture of pastoral ministry and the demands on priests give little time or support for more serious reading."

In a response to the presentations, Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth, author of several studies of U.S. seminaries and professor of the scientific study of religion at the University of St. Thomas divinity school in St. Paul, Minn., said she found the differences in views between younger and older priest "most disquieting."

She asked if, in light of the decline in numbers of priests and the growth of parishes, there is a need to shape the vision of younger priests who are less inclined to collaborative styles of ministry.