success stories

Posted January 6, 2003

The Need for Connections

Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti
in the book; The First Five Years of the Priesthood
The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, pp. 186

In recent years, we at St. Luke Institute, a residential treatment program for clergy and religious, have noticed that we are receiving some referrals to evaluate and treat newly ordained priests, some not even ordained for a year. This is a new phenomenon and one that bears reflection. These men, young in the priesthood, are coming to us with a variety of personal issues, such as substance abuse, sexual difficulties, depression, and/or chronic interpersonal problems.

Since the Institute has not yet engaged in a direct study of these referrals, there are no definitive answers that would explain this phenomenon. However, the answers will likely be complex and involve a variety of societal trends, such as the breakdown on the nuclear family, a rising societal awareness of psychological problems, and a wider social acceptance of engaging in psychotherapy.

At the same time, there are probably some issues that are directly related to the priesthood and the Church. With the reduced numbers of vocations, it is possible that a few candidates are slipping through the process and being ordained who in previous years might not have been. One hears such anecdotal stories fairly often, although most in formation work would agree that the bulk of the candidates for the priesthood today are solid psychologically and spiritually.

Most important, it appears that our young priests are placed in situations of great stress with few personal supports. I was recently in conversation with a priest-psychologist from South America. He described the situation in his country, where newly ordained priests are often put in a parochial setting of ten of thousands of the faithful and there are few, if any, other priests for guidance and support. These newly ordained are simply swamped and overwhelmed, both psychologically and spiritually.

While the situation in the United States is not quite as severe, the same dynamics are present. There are few younger priests with whom to form a social network; there are fewer older priests available as informal mentors; newly ordained are sometimes made pastors of parishes after only a few years of experience; and the needs and demands of parochial ministry are relentless, often unrealistic, and growing.

In fairness to our formation programs and to our dioceses and religious orders, these trends are well known and programs are being put into place to cope with these new realities. We see the rise of mentoring programs for newly ordained. Many dioceses require the newly ordained to meet regularly as a group to share their experiences and to support one another. Most dioceses work hard at making the priest's first assignment as good as possible by finding a good first pastor for a mentor and a supportive parish. Nevertheless, the aforementioned trends remain, and they stress the health and vocations of our newly ordained.

This is coupled with what I believe is a rising negativity toward priestly vocations. Celibacy is questioned within and without the Church, which cannot but negatively influence the resolve of our young priests to live a faithful celibate life. Also, the Catholic Church continues to come under attack from the "Left" and the "Right," as well as from some feminists and the media. The Church is criticized for maintaining an all-male priesthood. Recent media releases question the integrity of the priesthood and its health. Under all this negative pressure, the "Bells of Saint Mary's" and the days when it was considered a blessing to have a son as a priest are relegated to an era long past. With all these trends within and without the Church, the fact that any men present themselves for ordination and persevere in the priesthood ought to be seen as another sign of the miracle of God's grace.

The findings of Dr. Dean Hoge, in this excellent study commissioned by the National Federation of Priests' Councils (NFPC), are illuminating and important. The results help us to understand not only why some priests leave the ministry after only a few years but also why some priests remain. I believe that many of his findings in this study can be summed up in the concept of "connection." Most of those priests who left the active priesthood did not feel connected to the Church, their pastors, or to other priests. Often they felt lonely, isolated, and unappreciated. It is obvious to assert that lonely and isolated people are much more likely to exhibit clinical symptoms and concomitant spiritual problems. They are more likely to leave the active ministry or come to St. Luke Institute.

An important question, which might be the grist for a follow-up study, is why some priests can be put in the midst of an active, demanding ministry and find the connections necessary to live a happy and productive celibate life while others cannot. It has long been our experience at St. Luke's that the ability of our priests to form peer relationships is key to both psychological and spiritual health. Much of our work is helping priests to learn to connect with others and with their God. Isolation breeds discontent and dysfunction. If seminaries were able to employ only one criterion to signal readiness for ordination, I believe it should be the ability of the seminarian to form relationships. I am reminded of the saying in the First Letter to John: "For whoever does not love a brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen."

Similarly, Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Pope's apostolic exhortation on formation for the priesthood, speaks of "human formation" as the "necessary foundation" upon which all other aspects of priestly formation depend. The Holy Father wrote: "Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a ‘man of communion.'" Dr. Hoge's study statistically affirms the Holy Father's insight.

The NFPC study also suggested differences between the spiritual lives of the priests who stayed and those who left. I found these differences particularly intriguing. Both groups felt a strong and satisfying relationship with the laity whom they served. They enjoyed administering the sacraments, preaching, helping people, and being a part of their lives. But the two groups differed in their relationship to the Catholic Church and in their perception of their vocations. The majority of the group that stayed in active ministry (54%) felt "being a visible sign of the Catholic Church" was of great importance, 48% were very satisfied with their relationship with their bishop, and a large majority (72%) saw their vocations as "a response to the divine call." For the resigned group, the numbers were 28%, 22%, and 47% respectively, a substantial decline.

These numbers should be important points for reflection both in seminaries and in presbyterates. The priest is not a "private practitioner." He is not a lone ranger who works in isolation, doing "his ministry." Rather, the priesthood is radically communitarian. The priesthood, if lived well, becomes a united body of priests, called by God, gathered together around their bishop, and sharing in the Church's ministry.

How does a formation program instill such values? These will be difficult to inculcate. They imply such attributes as humility, obedience, listening, prayerfulness, docility, and fraternal charity. I am reminded of the words of a few young priests who left the ministry after being upset by what they perceived as a Church that has become too "liberal." They said, "I didn't leave the Church. The Church left me." On other extreme, some young priests have left because they disagreed with the Church on a number of doctrinal and pastoral issues and believed that it has become too "conservative." In both cases one senses a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit's guidance of the Church, a certain personal willfulness, and a lack of docility.

It is not accident that our experience at St. Luke Institute suggests that recovery for our clients is never on solid ground until they have regained a strong connection with their spiritual lives and their ecclesial roots. Faith, by its nature, has a communal dimension and achieves its fruition in a body of believers, led by the Holy Spirit. The priest is an official representative of the Catholic Church, and he is called to be so by his bishop, as head of the local church, but animating that call is a vocation from God. These must be part of the identity of our priests.

It is important to recognize what this study has addressed and what it has not. It has begun to look at why some priests leave the active ministry, and it investigated possible causes within the priesthood and the Church itself. It did not address larger societal changes that are likely to have a profound, albeit more subtle, effect on priestly resignations. In fact, one might make the case that a larger percentage of the variance in why more priests are resigning in recent years is due to trends outside the Church.

In days gone by, when people made lifetime commitments in our society, they were expected to honor these commitments regardless of whether they felt "happy" about their state in life or not. Thus, in marriage, people rarely divorced; it was largely unheard of, and it was a scandal when they did. Statistics on divorce suggest that a rising percentage of people in the United States are getting divorced, many in the first few years after marriage. It seems obvious that there are megetrends in society that are affecting divorce rates, priests leaving ministry, and other similar phenomena. It would be misleading to view this study in isolation and conclude that these increased numbers of resignations are completely unique to the priesthood. While this does not negate the vital information in this study, such findings will be misleading if not viewed in its larger context.

We, as Church, should be grateful to NFPC and Dr. Hoge for the important findings in this study. It ought to be mandatory reading for formators, seminary faculties, and presbyteral councils. Nevertheless, I have a concern about how these statistics will be used. There are few who tend to be naysayers. They decry the current state of the Church and assert that it is on the road to collapse. Closely allied to this group are those who believe the priesthood is fundamentally dysfunctional and fatally flawed. This is not my experience. The priesthood and the Catholic Church in this country are strong. As I attend Catholic churches on Sunday mornings around this country and meet with presbyterates from diocese to diocese, I continue to be edified by the faith of the people, the strength of our parishes, and the courage of our priests.

Nevertheless, we are not perfect, and this study has pointed out some avenues for improvement. It is my sincere hope that we seize the moment and work more diligently to screen and form our candidates for the priesthood well and to make the first few years of their priesthood the best experience possible. Ultimately we will want to foster priestly "connections." Our goal is to form a community of priests who are connected to each other, to the people whom they serve, to the universal Church, and to the God who has called them.