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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests

by Stephen Rossetti Foreword by John L. Allen

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.Profiles in Catholicism

In the foreword, John L. Allen, Jr. presents the stereotypes that are debunked by the author Rossetti, that is, “although many observers assume that relationships between bishops and priest have been fatally ruptured, three-quarters of the priest in the United States say they have a good relationship with their bishop and approve of his leadership. Many people presume that the sexual abuse crisis was caused in part by the celibacy requirement, assuming that it must breed an unhealthy degree of repression; the more content they are with celibacy, the better adjusted they’re likely to be. In contrast to assumptions that priests are often lonely and struggle to form healthy friendships, Rossetti’s data show that more priests have strong relationships both with other priests and with laity. In fact the strength of a priest’s human friendships turn out to be among the best predictors of the quality of his spiritual life.” This is in contrast with much that is pointed out by the secular press. The great gift of Rossetti’s book is that by clearing away the debris of myth and public prejudice, he helps the Church focus on the very real challenges facing the priesthood. Rossetti brings out the issue that newly ordained priests need some tender loving care from their bishops and their brothers in the priesthood, and it also implies that Catholics in the pews might do well to cut them a bit of a break. Rossetti also points out the politics that have crept into the Church and the subsequent turn to conservative and evangelical stances. The most startling find in Rossetti’s data is that only 42 percent of American priests trust the Church to treat them fairly if accused of misconduct. The Church in some ways, has lurched from a system that covered up crimes by priests to one which presumes them guilty until proven innocent. There seems to be a prioritizing the interests of the institutions rather than of the priests. In some capacity, Rossetti’s book undermines the needs of the people.

The two large scale surveys of priests allow us to not only take the psychological and spiritual temperature of our priests, they also allow us to investigate the likely factors that promote or detract from their health and wellness. The surveys provides statistical models that predict much of what goes into making a healthy or unhealthy priest, psychologically and spiritually What emerges from the data is a portrait of the priesthood today that often edifies, at times surprises, occasionally disappoints and sometimes mystifies. What surfaces is a very human portrait of some very human men. And yet they are imbued with a spirituality that has a direct and profound effect on their lives. Priests are clearly, and really not surprisingly, normal men. And yet they are not. There is something more to their lives that sets them apart. In this study Rossetti will often witness their humanity, and we will also see clear signs of their spiritual uniqueness. The living witness of Christians has always been the scriptures most often read.

The words if Paul VI, which began this work, seem a fitting summary of so much of what this research found. It is striking to this researcher that a written survey and modern quantitative statistical technique could cross over into the realm of the spiritual and affirm the insights on the scriptures spoken by one of our pontiffs over thirty-five years ago. While Pail VI’s words were speaking of the life of Jesus, they also directly apply to our priests as well. The life of a priest is simply that of imaging Christ, of being configured to the One who is in a loving relationship with the Father. Paul VI tells us what the secret of Jesus’ joy us and thus the secret joy of the priesthood as well:

It iis necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him. It is especially the Gospel of Saint John that lifts the veil….if Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father. (Gaudete in Domino)”

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