Happy and unhappy young priests: Analysis of a new study – Catholic World Report

Some thoughts and observations on Enter by the Narrow Gate: Satisfaction and Challenges among Recently Ordained Priests, a new study from The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

Happy and unhappy young priests: Analysis of a new study – Catholic World Report
(Image: Jacob Bentzinger/Unsplash.com)

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) recently released their study on the attitudes of priests ordained ten years or less. CARA is arguably the most reliable, professional organization dealing with Catholic concerns and institutions. Having served the vocation apostolate in one way or another throughout my 40+ years as a priest (teacher, vocation director, seminary professor, mentor/spiritual director), with more than thirty former students now priests and having preached more than twenty First Mass homilies, a study such as this naturally grabbed my attention. Further, I must profess a particular affection for the junior clergy, whose zeal and orthodoxy are impressive – even if the lack of historical perspective and intellectual laziness of some can be off-putting.

Enter by the Narrow Gate: Satisfaction and Challenges among Recently Ordained Priests came about because of the approach of the National Association of Catholic Theological Schools to CARA. At more than 200 pages, the study is not for the faint-hearted, however, the producers thoughtfully offer an executive summary. Let’s turn to that segment to obtain a bird’s eye view of the situation.

The online survey was conducted in 2019 and 2020, coming from a list of names and emails of 1379 priests – both diocesan and religious clergy – with a healthy response by 1012 (for a 73% return rate); the average ordination year was 2017.

For starters, let me extract the more interesting data:

How well did their seminary prepare them in a variety of specific areas? They report being prepared “well” in the areas of presiding at Mass (69%), preaching (64%), and confessions (55%). About a quarter to four-tenths, say they were prepared “well” in the areas of hospital ministry (42%), presiding at funerals (40%), pastoral counseling (36%), the language skills needed pastorally in their diocese (30%), pastoral skills for serving the diverse cultures in their diocese (28%), and personal skills such as time management and handling stress (24%).

The areas priests report being least well prepared for are all related to administration, human resources, and leadership. . . . , as well as preparing couples for marriage; ministering in multi-cultural or multi-linguistic settings; handling stress or managing their time; and having the kind of practical knowledge that would have really helped them with the realities of parish life. . . . For those with a mixed assessment of their pastoral formation, their main criticisms are not being given a realistic portrait of what their lives as priests would be like; inadequate training in administrative and leadership skills; not learning how to work with lay staff members and to minister to the laity well; and, receiving inadequate time and mentoring in parishes and pastoral settings during their time in the seminary.

Four in five report being satisfied with their life as a priest (59% “very satisfied” and 22% “somewhat satisfied”). One in five are unsatisfied (6% “somewhat dissatisfied” and 13% “very dissatisfied”).

The areas in which they are most likely to rate themselves as “very” satisfied are the respect they receive as members of the clergy from lay persons (63%), their present financial situation (60%), and their present living situation (56%). Priests are least likely to be “very” satisfied in the areas of finding the right balance between their work, personal, and spiritual lives (21%) and their training in administrative areas like budgeting and managing staff (11%).

Concerning the national sexual abuse scandal, only one in six says the recent media stories on this topic have hindered them “greatly” in their effectiveness in ministry (16%), with an additional 64% saying this has hindered them “slightly.”

Areas providing the least satisfaction are performing administrative and human resource duties; the poor relationship they have with the pastors under whom they serve; feeling burned out from their workload, their frustration with their diocese/bishop; and, the lack of fraternity among their fellow priests. Spelling that out a bit, we learn that they do not feel supported or welcomed by the pastors who mentor them, their bishops and diocesan leaders, and/or their fellow priests who live in their area. In addition, many report not feeling their dioceses or religious institutes are thoughtful about assigning them to initial assignments that will provide them with the mentoring and support they need during the first years after ordination. Yet another area of difficulty is the “generation gap” between the junior and senior clergy, about which more later.

A great majority say that – if they had the choice to make over again – they would “definitely” (80%) or “probably” (16%) enter the priesthood again. Still, that leaves about one in 20 that reports that they would “definitely” (1%) or “probably” (4%) not enter the priesthood if they had the choice again and who are uncertain (5%) about whether they plan to remain a priest in the future.

For those ever having considered leaving the priesthood, loneliness is a primary factor, followed by frustration with their diocese, religious institute, bishop or superior and the disappointment they feel in regard to their current ministries.

Riffing on Dickens, we can say that this survey presents a picture of junior clergy living “the best of times” and “the worst of times.”

Good news and bad news

What’s the good news here? The vast majority of recently ordained1 priests are satisfied with their ministry and would “do it all over again.” They believe their seminary prepared them well for the most “priestly” aspects of their ministry (liturgy, preaching, hearing confessions). St. Paul instructed his son in the priesthood, “Let no one despise your youth” (1 Tm 4:12); and so, it is encouraging to read that they see themselves respected by the laity.

And no, it is not “clericalism” to appreciate (and even expect) respect from those we serve. Media rantings about the sex abuse crisis have a minimal impact on their ministry.2 A majority indicated that their seminary preparation for celibacy was satisfactory; if so, that puts them light-years ahead of what I received: We never had a single course, seminar, workshop, retreat or homily dealing with the topic. The only time celibacy was mentioned was to assure us that by the time we were ordained (1977), we would be able to marry!3 Many priests indicated that one of the most enjoyable aspects of their lives is ministering to students in our Catholic grade schools and high schools; again, bishops should take note of this and make that element of the “job description” normative.

Now, for the bad news, of which there is much. That said, the issues I shall highlight were not raised by all the survey participants, however, they did surface with some degree of regularity and did so particularly with men who were unhappy in their chosen vocation.

The first point to make is that nearly one in five recently ordained are unhappy as priests. This is tragic. Indeed, some dioceses report that nearly half of their young priests leave active ministry within a decade of their ordination. Why does this happen? Numerous priests complained that their seminary experience did not prepare them for the “real world” of diocesan and rectory living. How so?

The life of a loner

If a young man enters the seminary right out of high school, he will have eight years of communal living: prayers, meals, recreation – with contemporaries. Upon ordination, he is condemned to live the life of a loner, for the most part. Sad to say, it is a rare rectory where there are any meals and/or prayer in common. Furthermore, the newly ordained is inserted into a living situation with a pastor who may be decades older than he. While that need not be an insurmountable obstacle, it often is such because the older cleric frequently espouses theological positions foreign to the young man, who is generally exponentially more traditional than his elder – which makes for major conflicts which, in turn, usually results in the transfer of the junior.4

How did the seminary system start? The medieval “formation” model was that of master-apprentice, which involved some spiritual direction and training in the celebration of Mass, but little or no theology. And so, the Council of Trent had to deal with the abysmal ignorance of the clergy, which caused innumerable problems, leading inexorably to the Protestant Reformation. The solution that surfaced was the creation of centers of theological education; given the inhibitions to travel at the time, that required priesthood candidates to live in proximity to the theological school.

The Tridentine model prevailed for more than four centuries; I submit that it has outlived its purpose and usefulness and suggest combining the best of the medieval and Tridentine models – that is, seminarians living in parishes and commuting to theological schools.5 Some years ago, the Ordinary of a major archdiocese acknowledged the benefits of my suggestion but went on to say that he had forty seminarians but didn’t have even five pastors he could trust with their formation!6

If the Church deems it necessary to maintain the seminary system, then it is necessary that the rectory system be changed.7 Most rectories are little more than clerical hotels. One priest of my acquaintance (living in a rectory with five priests in residence) jokes that the only time he sees another priest is when one of them assists him with the distribution of Holy Communion. Worse than the hotel scenario is a priest living alone. The Book of Genesis clearly teaches us that “it is not good for man to live alone” (2:18). That doesn’t mean one must be married (there are many married folk who live solitary existences); it does mean that the human person, by his very nature, is a social being.8 All too many priests are quite content to live alone, which opens the door to the development of all kinds of personality disorders: alcoholism, sexual issues, gambling, narcissism.

No bishop should ever permit a priest to live alone; it is a formula for disaster. Undoubtedly, someone will raise the problem of small rural parishes requiring only a single priest. Yes, but clerical residences should be established for multiple pastors, giving the men the benefit of a community life and allowing them to “fan out” to their respective parishes for pastoral service. I hasten to add that these need to be “intentional” communities; that is, men coming together to live who share a common vision of Church and priesthood; otherwise, it will be no better than the current rectory system, where men are usually plopped into the same dwelling on the (erroneous) assumption that all men who wear Roman collars are the same.

Failures of the seminary system

One of the biggest failures of the seminary system, identified obliquely in the survey, is its proclivity to stifle creativity or leadership. It seems to me that a seminary ought to have West Point as a model (not in terms of its discipline, which has eroded over the years, anyway) but in its raising up a generation of leaders. The presumption is that every cadet is going to be a general someday.9 Mutatis mutandis, that would argue for every seminarian being trained to become a bishop – but that is not what happens. In truth, instead of educating shepherds, the average seminary produces sheep. The lack of leadership skills mentioned frequently in the survey underscores this woeful lack.

The result is the emergence of a weak, ineffectual, effete, insecure young priest, unable to lead and afraid of his own shadow. Slowly but surely, frustration sets in and compensation mechanisms surface, most often in passive-aggressive behavior. Conflict management in most formation programs translates as going along to get along. A pastor is a shepherd (the very meaning of the Latin word); a shepherd leads – he doesn’t follow. At the same time, he isn’t a dictator; he knows how to consult but also knows how to make a decision (which may not be popular), once he has consulted. Of course, the unpleasant rationale for raising up sheep, rather than shepherds, is that it keeps priests malleable, controllable, locked into perpetual infantilism or adolescence – the ideal “company” man. Truth be told, given the formation path of most seminaries today, I doubt if a single Father of the Church would have ever been ordained a priest, let alone consecrated a bishop.

Finances and trust

On the financial compensation front, most indicated they were not experiencing any serious difficulties. Not surprisingly, religious order priests were very satisfied with their situation – and why not, when all of one’s needs are taken care of! However, as diocesan priests get older and closer to retirement, the financial reality begins to hit them harder. When a bishop retires, he is provided with diocesan housing, a pension, a car, a housekeeper/secretary and diocesan credit card; when a priest retires, he has a pension and social security, period. Upon ordination, the average priest in the country will earn approximately $34,000 (which includes room and board in the calculation), while also being responsible for any student loans and car loans; a newly ordained rabbi will start at $68,000, rising to about $87,000.

Admittedly, men don’t embark on the priesthood with a view to becoming millionaires, but Our Lord did say that “the laborer deserves his wages” (Lk 10:7). When I asked a bishop a number of years ago, why his priests were among the worst paid in the nation, he replied: “Keep them poor; keep control.” A shocking response, if not brutally honest.

Which leads to an underlying problem, alluded to several times in the anecdotal material of the survey: All too many priests do not trust their bishops and diocesan officials. They do not believe that the people in charge have their best interests at heart; they see assignments made solely on the basis of pragmatic concerns – filling a slot, with no attention given to the priest himself. Not a few report that even the pastors to whom they are assigned have nothing to do with them and don’t even like them. One priest complained that, after a mere 18 months’ ordination, he was given charge of three parishes! I had to read the sentence several times to make sure I wasn’t misreading it. Who in his right mind would ever place a newly ordained in such peril?

Of course, the clergy shortage has created another difficulty, namely, that young priests are being assigned pastorates way too early and without proper mentoring. In the “bad old days,” it was quite common (particularly in larger dioceses) that a priest wouldn’t become a pastor for at least 25 years (probably a bit too long), but now it is quite common for a priest of three to five years to be thrust into a leadership position for which he is manifestly unprepared and unqualified.

Tensions between younger and older priests

Earlier, I alluded to the “generation gap” within a presbyterate. This is not simply a matter of taste – like one priest preferring a “fiddleback” chasuble and the other a Gothic chasuble. The external differences most frequently signal major theological differences. Laity, exposed to the ministries of Father Junior and Father Senior, will often comment that it is like beholding two different churches or religions: in the ars celebrandi, preaching style and content, confessional and counseling praxis.

Although this is painful for Father Junior at the moment, he should be consoled by the actuarial data: Once Father Senior goes off to pasture, he has no priestly descendants. The present sorrow, however, is exacerbated by the “Francis effect.” Several priests in the study identified Pope Francis as a problem for them. This is a regrettable refrain among all too many young priests and seminarians; in fact, I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to convince that cohort not to give up on the priesthood. The “squeeze” they feel, however, is real – tension in their immediate environment and tension from the top.

One glaring omission in the study, from my perspective, is the absence of a very important question: Do these young clerics promote priestly vocations? Bad morale can’t be fertile soil for encouraging others to join the ranks. Yet, historically, young priests were the most likely to serve as the first-line recruiters to attract other young men.

Conclusion

To sum up: The negatives I have pointed to do not exist in every priest or even in a majority of priests, but they are real enough that a substantial percentage of junior clergy regret their decision to enter the priesthood – and that certainly has a ripple effect on those who have no such regrets. Further, there are surely good seminaries (and all of them are certainly better than any my generation knew), however, even they are preparing men for a priesthood they will rarely live once they leave those hallowed halls.

I think the biggest take-away from the study is that the Church needs to make a fundamental decision – sooner rather than later – change the priestly preparation structure or change priesthood on the ground.

Endnotes:

1We have to be a bit careful here because not all the newly ordained in the study were young. In fact, in the anecdotal section, we find a fifty-year-old reflecting a theological position that would not correspond to that of the younger cohort.

2Hence, bishops ought to stop beating this topic to death. It is tiresome to hear newly appointed bishops raise the specter of clerical sex abuse. In point of fact, the safest place for a child today is in a Catholic institution.

3In such conversations, “celibacy” and “chastity” are often conflated. Celibacy merely means being unmarried; chastity is living one’s sexuality according to one’s state in life. For priests, celibacy (the unmarried state) automatically calls for total chastity – the renunciation of any and all sexual activity.

4In one archdiocese, the young “conservatives” are deliberately stationed with older “liberals,” precisely to break the younger man. Thus, it is not uncommon for a junior cleric to be moved every couple of years, due to conflicts stemming from irreconcilable differences. I personally know of one priest who has had five assignments in eight years.

5In 1975, as a seminarian, I penned an article for Priest magazine, entitled “The Parish: Crucible of Priestly Formation,” calling for seminarians to live in parishes and to commute to universities for their academic education. I was summarily dismissed from the seminary (three months before diaconate), thereby proving my point!

6I replied that if he couldn’t trust a pastor with the formation of a seminarian, how could he trust the same priest with the several thousand souls in that man’s parish? No response.

7The big elephant in the middle of the clerical living room is that parochial vicars/curates/associates (a rose by any other name) has to live with his boss. Thus, work-related conflicts are automatically transferred to the one’s residence.

8It is important to observe that not a few priests will complain about celibacy, when they are really suffering from loneliness. Priestly formation – at the spiritual and psychological levels – needs to help a young man understand how to be alone – without being lonely.

9Current data inform us that fewer than 2.5% of West Point graduates will become generals, and fewer than .5% will end up four-star generals.

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