Stephen J. Rossetti
How the church can support young priests in a secular age

Every so often a rumor arises that young priests today are not faring well. It is suggested that they are dispirited and leaving the priesthood in large numbers. In 1999, this rumor was so rife that the Catholic sociologist Dean Hoge led a research project to investigate. Dr. Hoge concluded in his study The First Five Years of the Priesthood, published in 2002, that it was not possible to determine the exact resignation rate of priests in their first five years of priesthood, but he estimated it to be between 10 percent and 12 percent, much lower than expected.

In these days of reduced numbers of priests, every loss is particularly painful. But my own professional experience and my research, which was compiled in Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests (Ave Maria Press), suggests that young priests today are happier, more optimistic about the priesthood, accepting of Catholic teaching and personally committed to priestly celibacy than the cohort before them.

Therefore, the first question we might ask ourselves is not “What we are doing wrong in forming and supporting our new priests today?” but “What are we doing right?” Why are most young priests happy and prospering in the priesthood? Indeed, there is much to commend the quality of seminary education today. Seminary faculties are well trained, dedicated and faithful to the church, even as they face challenges. There is also much greater emphasis on pastoral preparedness, including stronger human formation programs.

Nevertheless, these positive findings should not leave us complacent. The first five years of priesthood present unique challenges to the men adjusting to life after ordination. More important, the context of ministry today is changing rapidly and profoundly. The challenges facing priests today are much different than they were only a few decades ago. Formation and support for priests in ministry must focus more intently on these contextual changes and must make significant adjustments.

New Challenges

Two of these profound changes are secularization and decreasing numbers. While we are all familiar with these changes, I believe we do not fully recognize their import and their consequent impact on formation and priestly support. While the sacrament of priesthood is unchanging, the experience of priesthood is radically changing.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington often speaks of a “tsunami of secularization” sweeping our country. It is impossible to overemphasize how this tidal wave is shifting the lived experience of priesthood. The happy images of priesthood, though certainly idealized in movies like “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Going My Way” in the 1940s, have been supplanted by images of priests as deviant, unhappy and members of an anachronistic era of faith—a perception fueled by the crisis of sexual abuse of children by clerics. I believe, however, that these distorted images are most fundamentally the result of a growing gulf between the Christian faith and the secular culture.

The entire climate that surrounds a person choosing the Catholic priesthood and ministering in the church today is changing. A short 50 years ago, if a young man stood up and declared his intention to become a priest, the response was likely to be one of admiration and support, even in the larger culture. Today, responses too frequently range from disbelief to actively discouraging the young man.

Should a young man still choose to become ordained, his first years of priesthood will surely be a challenge. Walking down the street wearing a Roman collar today evokes strong emotions from some passersby. For many others who have long since stopped asking spiritual questions, the priest is seen as an oddity or simply ignored. As humiliating and disheartening as it is to read stories of clerical misconduct, the “tsunami” of indifference may ultimately leave its own wake of destruction.

The second change that profoundly affects the lives of priests today is the reduced number of priests. Many priests are now responsible for two, three or even more parishes. But the full impact of declining numbers is yet to come. One of the things that has been shielding us from the drastic impact of fewer priests is the dedication of older priests. In my diocese there are over 30 priests beyond retirement age who still voluntarily participate in full-time ministry. Some are even in their 80s. When these generous men soon retire, the full impact of our reduced ranks will be felt.

Already young priests are beginning to shoulder the weight. When I was ordained almost 30 years ago, a priest ordinarily did not become a pastor until he had celebrated his silver jubilee. Today, it might happen in two or three years. The newly ordained are now not only adjusting to priesthood, celibacy and ministry; they are also adjusting to becoming leaders of parishes, with all the attendant administrative, leadership and management challenges.

In Need of Support

Although research suggests that burnout rates among priests are generally low and that the vast majority of priests are happy, the youngest priests are more likely to be overwhelmed and in need of support. With these new demands upon priests come new requirements in priestly formation and support. Initially, three come to mind: a personally integrated faith, a masculine spirituality and a strong personal support network.

A personally integrated faith. Perhaps what is most needed and truly demanded in ministering in a secular age is a strong, integrated faith. The daily assaults on a priest’s faith are relentless, and many of these challenges are also experienced by the lay faithful. A young priest must face secularism head-on and hold his ground. His beliefs cannot be simply a regurgitation of theological phrases that he read in a book. He must know the faith and internalize it in his own life, using the language and culture of today.

When we say, for example, that Jesus Christ is our savior, the secular response is likely to be, “He saved us from what?” If the priest responds, “Sin,” then the next secular question might typically be: “What sin? I have done nothing wrong.” Then the real discussion, perhaps evangelization, begins.

Most Americans still believe in God, but many, including some Catholics, have drifted into a collage of ideas that are not compatible with our faith and tradition or present half-truths. It is not uncommon to hear statements like, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” “I don’t do holy days.” “Why should I go to confession? I confess to God directly.” “Why do I need to go to Mass every week when I find God in nature?” “Jesus was a holy man, but so was Gandhi.” The young priest who cannot convincingly, sincerely and compassionately respond to such typical comments might not only find himself an ineffective teacher of the faith, but also having his own faith shaken. Can we help seminarians and young priests to integrate their faith and give them the tools to evangelize in our increasingly secular culture?

A masculine spirituality. When speaking of a masculine spirituality, I am not referring to something that is the sole province of men. Rather, psychologists like Sandra Bem speak of masculine and feminine characteristics that both men and women potentially possess. Among “feminine” characteristics Dr. Bem would include traits like compassion, warmth and sensitivity. These qualities are obviously essential for every priest.

In my own study of 115 priests, respondents were given a list of Bem’s “masculine” and “feminine” traits and then asked to rank in order the most important traits to possess. The first nine chosen by the respondents were feminine traits; the masculine traits were clearly less preferable to the priests. But in this increasingly secular age, many of Bem’s “masculine” traits are becoming more essential for priests, like “willing to take a stand,” “defends own beliefs,” “willing to take risks,” “assertive” and “acts as a leader.”

Lay men and women in the church should, of course, exhibit such traits, but it is important for the sake of evangelization that young priests also take these qualities to heart. Without such characteristics, young priests might be tempted to withdraw, trying only to conserve the faith of those who are left in their pews. Such a passive and defensive posture is doomed to slow erosion and eventual failure.

Rather, what is needed is a bold, new proclamation of the faith, that is, the new evangelization. Pope Francis, in the now celebrated words from his homily on Holy Thursday 2013, urged us “to go out...to the outskirts” to get “the odor of the sheep” on us. Far from being passive, his clarion call demands a bold, assertive faith, without becoming judgmental or lacking respect for others. Are we helping our new priests not only to have important “feminine” qualities, but also to internalize a “masculine” spirituality? Will they be bold proclaimers of the faith, or will they sit in their rectories as their congregations slowly dwindle?

A strong personal support network. A personal challenge to all who minister in a secular environment is the temptation to feel unwanted, ignored and/or unsupported. Diocesan priests are becoming more akin to missionaries, being sent to largely uncatechized and sometimes unsupportive environments. Being part of a supportive community of faith has been an important part of what helps our priests prosper, especially diocesan priests. It has been an integral part of their very spirituality.

Today there are fewer priests, and they are more isolated from each other, with increasing workloads. Formerly, there were often several priests living in the same rectory. Now one priest may have two or three rectories to himself as he rotates from one parish to the next. The tendency will be to overwork and become isolated. Mixing isolation, overwork and a lack of support is a recipe for personal disaster. Such situations make priests more susceptible to loneliness and separation and sometimes to the temptations all too prevalent in our sexually addicted society. To make matters more difficult, a priest’s celibate commitment is increasingly viewed with suspicion, and this affords him less external support for his celibate lifestyle. More than ever, the fraternity of priests must be fostered. More than ever, communities of faith must support their priests. A priest is assigned to a parish to love and nourish the faith of the people. But it is also their love and faith that sustains him.

No matter the size of our faith communities, their importance in our society remains. Each becomes an oasis in a spiritually desiccating world. We ought to help our new priests develop the tools and opportunities to build the fraternity of the priesthood. Our new priests must also learn to build and find support from the many committed lay people and religious in these communities of faith.

The lived experience of priesthood is changing dramatically before our eyes. The priesthood for which we are preparing men today is not the priesthood of the past. We as church must form and help the new cohort to thrive in this radically new and challenging reality. Having worked in priestly formation and witnessed their strength, I am confident that these new men, with our support, will be up to the task.

Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti is a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, a clinical associate professor at the Catholic University of America and the president of Saint Luke Institute, a Catholic education and treatment center that primarily serves clergy and men and women religious. This article is based on a talk presented at an international symposium titled The Training of Priests Today, held on June 2–5, 2013, at Laval University in Quebec.

Comments

Robert Harrison | 1/7/2014 - 4:17pm

We don't have enough priests. this has been a problem for years, even centuries. In bad economic times in poor countries we never seem to get enough top quality people. The goal is to have someone who is pious who knows the local community and wishes to serve. In the early Church Saint Paul specifically gave instructions on how to choose a pastor from the local community. Why can't we still do that? A priest doesn't need six or seven years of theology to be a good priest. The Church assumes that after a long period tucked away in a seminary, a young man who still wishes to live a celibate life is automatically guaranteed by his training will prove reliable. Why not work the reliability factor from the other end and pick a proven Christian from the local parish, one with years of service in his church?

Often today the priests graduating from seminary are week in theology, often in piety, but well versed in canon law. Priests with seminary training could better be used to overseer parishes and support the local lay pastors.
One thing is for sure, the Church must do something soon to insure the laity has easy access to the sacraments. Time is running out.

John Barbieri | 1/6/2014 - 6:03pm

After reading the article and the comments, I'm very much impressed with the thoughtfulness and caring of everyone involved in this discussion. I think that psychological immaturity is a major cause of this unsatisfactory and even dangerous gulf between the clergy and the laity. For starters, men interested in the priesthood need to know about the messiness and confusion of contemporary life. Consequently, having a college degree and working at some trade or profession for a few years ought to be prerequisites for entering a seminary. Yes, it will take longer. But it just might result in priests who are mature, understanding, sympathetic and know something about the human heart -- perhaps more like Jesus.

John Swencki | 12/31/2013 - 8:07pm

"In all things consider the end." Perhaps one benefit to young priests would be to help them consider and prepare for their LAST 5 years of priesthood. How and where will those last five years be lived? Still active in one's old age in a parish assignment? In a retirement/nursing home, under the care of their bishop/diocese? On administrative leave, forgotten, due to a 'credible allegation'? Worrying about finding a place to live their final years? Relishing the happy memories of a fruitful ministry? Mourning years of talents unused and unwanted?
Will they be able to say, in their last five years, that they have made Jesus matter, they have made the church matter, and so have led others to Jesus and the church? Will they have fallen in love with 100 people but remained committed and faithful to only One.
Remembering the end does help in living in the present, encouraging creativity, initiative, prudence. How blessed it would be to look back and know you have been faithful to Him who was faithful to you.

Michael Barberi | 12/30/2013 - 5:47pm

A sincere article Fr. Rossetti and a most important issue about how the Church can support young priests.

There is no one universal answer to your question, but I offer a few thoughts.

1. The Church needs to stop proclaiming that the ills of secular culture West is the cause for things like non-reception and the fact that they don't have reasonable and intelligible, and convincing answers problems of many Catholics. Clearly, we live in a promiscuous culture and many young people today are impacted by such a culture. Nevertheless, culture has been with us for centuries. Consider the culture of the 15th and 16th centuries. The problem then was not the laity, it was the behavior of popes and bishops. Eventually, we got through the so-called culture thing, to be replaced by other cultural problems. That is life. Get over it and focus on the real problems.

If you want young priests to be better equipped to answer the problems facing Catholics today, then think about how we are equipping and educating priests today. If there are no convincing moral theories and principles in support of various teachings that divide our Church today, then why do you not think that this is one of the problems?

2. On the positive side, Pope Francis's clarion call to the Spirit of the Gospels, to ministry to the poor and neighbors in need is a good start. We build faith through community involvement and a focus on others and not on ourselves. Moving the rubric of the Catholic message away from an obsession about obedience with small-minded rules and norms is one answer, but this does not address the underlying problems.

No matter how you put it, the sin and the sinner have been chastised and disenfranchised especially over the past 50 years. Consider the percentage of Catholics today that are divorced and remarried and have a same-sex attraction. Does anyone truly believe that the Church treats them with the same human dignity as heterosexuals and those that are married but not divorced? Think about the unreasonable and unintelligible answers that priests, young and old, give to these Catholics who long to enter the Church of Christ. Think about all the other Catholics who know these people…some of them are the children of divorced and remarried Catholics…some are the children of gay couples. Think about how the parents and friends of these Catholics feel.

3. How many young Catholics seek the spiritual advice of their parish priest when the problems they have concern: homogeneous in vitro fertilization for married couples with serious fertility problems, the issue of birth control for spouses who have irregular menstrual cycles rendering natural family planning not viable, when a person with a homosexual orientation asks why he or she cannot enter into a committed, loving, faithful and life-long relationships where they can express their love sexually (e.g., they must practice life-time sexual abstinence).

3. As Mike Evans mentioned, the issue of priestly celibacy must be re-thought by the Church. Many Catholics are turned-off when they do not have a local parish priest, when their parish is closed, or when a priest from a foreign country does not understand the U.S. culture. A repeat of the official Catholic narrative may not prevent most Catholic from worshiping Christ and attend weekly Mass, but it does not provide the right environment for attracting those Catholics-in-name-only, or young people who are leaning toward becoming spiritual but not religious.

4. Lastly, most Catholics don't focus on the above issues if these issues don't impact them directly. When they do, most Catholics have no answer to give to their loved ones or friends who are struggling with such issues. Neither do priests. Most Catholics pray for them and the Church. This helps, but it is not the complete answer.

It will take decades before the Church can effectively support young priests in the secular age. I hope I am wrong.

Tom Wilson | 1/1/2014 - 7:56pm

Mr, Barbieri said, "Consider the percentage of Catholics today that are divorced and remarried and have a same-sex attraction. Does anyone truly believe that the Church treats them with the same human dignity as heterosexuals and those that are married but not divorced?"

I believe that the Church does treat them with the same human dignity. But "the same human dignity" and "the same" are two different things. Jesus didn't believe that the people should stone an adultress, but neither did he say, "Well, that's the culture, so let's just ignore her sin or change what a sin is to accommodate her feelings or the feelings of her co-adulterer or her friends." Because our feelings and our emotions are bad ways to govern our lives.

People don't want to try today; like little children, they don't want to hear the word, "No." They don't go to the priests with their problems, because they know what the rules are. They don't really want help, they want what they want. If they want help, they got to a shrink who, because they are paying, tells them what they want to hear: "Yes, get a divorce if you are not happy, and don't forget the check on your way out." "Get an abortion for having a child would be inconvenient for you, and yes, we take Visa." "Yes, engage in sodomy with your friend if that's what feels good to you." Is that the priesthood that you want?

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 12/31/2013 - 8:03am

Now let me play the part of the simpleton, (with Jesus!) and say to the Church ministerially inter-graced in priestly indelibility in one way or the other, as designed by Christ for each, "Pray always and do not lose heart!" I speak from the heart to our young priests in particular, asking that they do not forget to pray daily, quietly before the Blessed Sacrament deepening Faith in what they daily do. Without sincere daily, personal prayer,
priestly life (Christian life) become drudgery and fulfillment is craved for and discovered in other ways.

Listen to the quiet, wordless whispers of Jesus as your converse, finding your main joy in the Lord because if you (we) don't I assure you we will whither on the vine. This is not just sweet talk, poetic dribble so to speak. It is fundamental to human happiness as a Believer. I hope telling the following will help.

Once when I had a rectory job I decided to spend some quiet time before the Blessed sacrament before I had to be on the job. I took a place as close to the tabernacle as I could get, sat down in the pew and proceeded to fall asleep! Just couldn't stay awake, so I decided to "discipline" (nasty word!) myself by imagining I was prying open the tabernacle door imaginatively .As I was doing this little exercise still half asleep, in my imagination I heard the following, "Come on in!" Still in snoozeland I thought it must be Jesus speaking, so my active imagination said, "Where, Lord?" The reply was immediate - "In the tabernacle with Me!" Now wide awake I suddenly understood that Jesus is our Best Friend and he wants us to be his Best Friend too. In a word, "intimacy." Prayer is like Jesus and we sharing a cup of coffee, or maybe a bottle of beer and simply kicking off our shoes and talking things over, laughing, having fun and solving some problems.

Besides young priests (all priests) in quiet prayer, the Church, I mean we laity should always speak supportively to priests, especially young ones, thanking them for being a priest and letting them know how much they are loved and daily prayed for.

Is this all too simple for our super sophisticated world? Well, if so, why bother with spirituality at all. Let's just go about our merry way and to hell with the priesthood! No, that's not for me. I want our young priests (all priests) to know that I (we laity) love them, need them and thank them for being priests! And to "pray always and do not lose heart!"

Vincent Varnas | 12/30/2013 - 4:24pm

It is interesting that many older priests are delaying retirement in the face of a growing need for more priests. Here's a radical idea! Eliminate the age limits for priests of 40 or 50 years, as found in most dioceses in America. I once heard a priest say, "We need to get our money's worth out of you". Why? I didn't know the Roman Catholic Church was a business. Who can put a price tag on a soul? Even if the Church must weigh costs against benefits in typical MBA fashion, consider that many older men called to this vocation would be willing to pay their own way because of their sincere and deep dedication to building up the Church and saving souls. Their reward will be in Heaven and that is enough for many of them.

sheila dierks | 12/30/2013 - 3:20pm

Interesting that those young priests mentioned here choose characteristics that are supposedly "feminine" as the ones that are most desirable. What do they know that perhaps the Fr Rosetti does not? Perhaps the young ordained ones are experiencing "what works theologically" in their new lives. Perhaps they sense that the characteristics that are perceived as masculine are the bygone dinosaur traits of the John Waynes, Ronald Reagans, Vladamir Putins, Supermen. The masculine ones named in the article are primarily non-communal. They are the characteristics, over and over that lead to isolation, loneliness, separation. They are the characteristics of those who stand alone. No smell of the sheep on them!

It may be that for the saving of the church and the healing of the world, the time has passed for Us Against The World theology, thinking and acting.

I would suggest that the very characteristics which currently draw us toward Francis and his life, Jesus and his life, are the ones that Fr Rosetti names as no long powerful enough to invite the world: warmth and sensitivity, sympathy, tenderness, gentleness. Let's stop with the Feminine and Masculine. Let's just look for the human compassion in us all.

Tom Wilson | 12/30/2013 - 4:26pm

Part of the secularization of the world is caused by feminization: nurturing instead of requiring one to stand up for oneself. Everyone gets a trophy instead of only those who work hard and persevere. No rules, only suggestions. Religion is about rules; spirituality is about feelings and thoughts. Vatican II feminized the church, and the result is a rebellion against the Church's rules by secular forces.

It's also no surprise that with all of the homosexual priests that feminine traits would be preferred.

Michael Olson | 12/30/2013 - 2:41pm

To characterize the changes that have taken place since the 1940s and 50s as a “tsunami of secularization”, I think, is an unfortunate, negative and inaccurate statement. There is an abundance of written accounts of people who have had near death experiences NDEs and mystical encounters with what one encounters after passing out of this life into the Eternal Now. Very many of these people speak of the unlimited unconditional love of God for each individual and the closeness of God to everyone every moment of their lives. Many frankly state that the religious training they received growing up in the Church militated against a deeper understanding of the immediacy of God's loving presence within everyone, yes, among women as fully as among men and as fully for people in other religious traditions as for Catholics. Those who harken back to the theology of the 1940s and 50s are sailing in a sinking boat. People are experiencing and expressing a much deeper and richer spiritual reality and Catholic theology has a lot of catching up to do.

Mike Evans | 12/30/2013 - 12:27pm

When a diocese closes and suppresses parishes, the people lose heart. When they send an obviously undertrained and inexperienced young priest out to be a pastor, it is clear there is little need for quality care of a parish - just say the Masses and hold on for dear life. When the number one issue is the shortage of priests, their isolation from each other, and their vastly overworked state, can we doubt that the faithful are simply put off? Finally, some real consideration should be given to the matter of celibacy which is the single greatest deterrent to vocations.