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Posted August 30, 2006

The Morale of Today’s Priests

Taken from Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years

For a copy of the study, please write the National Catholic Educational Association, 1077 30th St. NW * Ste 100, Washington, DC 20007 or Call (202) 337-6232

Statistics on Morale

Taking things all together, how would you say things are these days --- would you say your’re very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?

1970 1990 2005
Diocesan Religious Diocesan Religious Diocesan Religious
Very Happy 23 23 32 37 46 39
Pretty Happy 54 66 58 57 46 53
Not Too Happy 22 12 10 07 08 08

An Excerpt from interviews on Morale

For the church to be vibrant and effective, its priests need to feel affirmed and well-supported. Do recently-ordained priests feel this? How strong is morale among these priests?

Father Colin

Colin told us of his enthusiasm in being a priest. The interviewer asked him if he felt welcomed by his fellow priests in the diocese.

Absolutely. This diocese] perhaps is not the norm. We are not an old diocese, and we have people moving in and out. We have an influx of young people, and young priests are always a good salesman of the priesthood.

The more time you spent with a happy priest, who enjoys being a priest, the more perhaps that spark [of enthusiasm] is ignited. And in many ways I owe my vocation to a lot of young priests in our Diocese who probably never knew they are responsible for it. Here there really is a brotherhood. And I have to say that as seminarians and as priests, we spend the day together and go on vacation together. And the old cliché is true; no one else will ever understand what you are going through unless the other guy is going through it too. I should say it’s a blessing having younger priests [nearby], because the younger priests can quickly connect with you. Here, with younger priests, we’ll stop on our day off and have dinner.

One of the best things as a parish priest I experienced was, the diocese would have ongoing days of prayer or formation, probably two or three times a year. There were two benefits to that, one, it was a diocesan function and so priests wouldn’t feel as guilty going to it because you were required to be there. It was also a great way for more fraternity. It was great because these outside speakers coming in, theologians or whoever, would tackle the questions of the day by a professional. It gave you the chance to ask questions in a very informal way, and in addition it gave you a chance to have lunch in the middle of the priests, so we all really enjoyed those.

Colin knows about problems of overwork and over-responsibility of priests, but he is confident priests can handle them.

There are two factors. One, you’re dealing with good men [in the priesthood] who by their nature are very generous and find it hard to say no. And you are dealing with men who are doing this because of love. The priesthood is a labor of love. It’s like being a parent, you can’t say no because you love your children, and priests are very generous men. In addition you are dealing with, in some cases, priests being given more assignments because of the number of priests. You’re also dealing with people who want the priest to be involved in their life more than just one hour on Sunday. And so, in addition to saying Mass and confessions, the priest is doing counseling, the priest is teaching classes, the priest is helping form programs of evangelization, and even in a good parish where you have good generous lay people, talented, gifted, you need as a priest to go out and find them and train them.

And here we’re blessed to have a bishop who does the confirmations himself, and he comes for dinner every time. We have a medium-sized diocese. So you know [as a bishop] at least once a year you are going to sit down, just you and your parish priests, and the doors are shut, just the bishop and the guys, and he likes talking about everything. “How are you guys doing? What is going on? Did you get your vacation? Who have you heard from?” The diocese is not so large, and he knows the people you know. And it means a lot that the bishop comes and does that.

One problem in today’s world is so much more has been put on the bishop’s place--and I hear their side of the story as much as I hear the priests’ side. Bishops have to deal with lawyers, their finance committees, and all types of development. I mean, they’re doing stuff that Augustine and St. Ambrose never thought about (laugh). These things demand a lot of time that is taken from their own ministry as a bishop. So I think in some places you need to have young priests get over a bad image of business as usual at the chancellery . . . My bishop gets out, because nothing takes the place of direct contact with priests and people. And to simply read memos crossing your desk as a bishop is not sufficient, and most bishops will tell you that their heart goes out when they hear stuff going on, because they want to be involved. And I’ll tell you, when priests do struggle in the priesthood, whatever the issues or pastoral situation it might be, they need to have the confidence that they can go and talk privately to the bishop. My bishop does that.

Father Frank

Frank, the religious priest, has different views. He talked about mixed relationships, some good and some poor, He has had with other priests and with bishops.

I experienced disillusionment with the Church when I was in seminary, and now I experience it at present exponentially higher. My feeling and connection to any bishop in our church is simply non-existent. I mean, I don’t feel anger against the Magisterium, but I’m trying to think what American bishop I feel connected to--even by what he writes or how he behaves in his diocese--even though I presume they’re all good men. I don’t like or even respect the way they do their jobs, and I feel alone as a priest, in light of all that has happened in terms of the scandals. If I were not an priest, I would be a brother, because I would not be a diocesan priest. I just couldn’t do it, because I don’t trust the bishops, quite frankly.

My understanding of the episcopacy is to be a chief teacher, and I have not experienced good teaching from them, by either word or deed. In my former job I had a lot of interaction with the diocesan bishop, who was just a lovely man, but--not a leader. And there was really a problem because of that.

I feel very betrayed. I do believe in that whole ideal that with the bishop and the priests it should be shepherd-sheep and father-son, and I really think, wow! But it just became too hot for some of the bishops, they basically pulled the plug, and they’re scandalizing to me! And so I really feel betrayed. The idea that the Holy Father would allow the system to get out of control, the way some of these bishops were allowed to perpetuate a system and then be rewarded for their errors, when the priests who participated in evil were removed--but the bishops weren’t!

Interviewer: Do you feel any relationship with diocesan priests?

Most of the priests, whether in my order or not, do resonate with what I’m saying. When I read in Newsweek, or America, or Commonweal, or The New York Times, about a morale crisis in the priesthood, I agree with that! When I heard that in Boston the pension for the priests is underfunded, that’s scandalous! That offends me as a priest, that there are these men who are going to be retiring and now they’ve got to pay their own retirement, and they’re going to have to pay rent to their diocesan retirement account. It’s just crazy! It’s my experience that priests do feel that, whether they’re in my order or other religious, or even diocesan. I was just with a guy who is my age, who is a diocesan priest in large diocese, he went through canon law school and now he is a pastor. He was the vice-chancellor. He’s so angry at the system! He was on a track and, for whatever reason, it ended. I don’t know the details. And he was a guy who sort of bought into the system of hierarchical church and thought that it could be a great life for him. And he’s really angry and feeling very disillusioned and disrespected.

Interviewer: We hear about overwork. Is this a problem?

Yes, it is a problem for me. There is too much to do and too few of us, very simply stated. Even though we become fewer and fewer in number, the needs of the Church are not fewer, and the expectations of the people are not getting smaller. That’s pretty substantial. So that’s a problem!