MONTREAL (CCN) — What do priests usually do when they get together socially? They complain, of course, says Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, but that doesn’t mean they’re an unhappy bunch. “It’s when the troops stop complaining that you need to worry,” says the former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer.
In fact, clergy in general and Roman Catholic priests in particular are among the happiest groups, certainly in the United States. Priests and ministers report the highest level of personal satisfaction with their lives and ministries, according to several studies, including a 2009 landmark survey of 2,482 priests conducted by Rossetti.
These results fly in the face of the growing misconception that priests are isolated, burned out and unhappy, observes Rossetti.
The Syracuse diocesan priest and licensed psychologist was here Oct. 26 to present the results of his findings and to lay out a program of psycho-spiritual development for more than 100 Montreal priests and seminarians.
Rossetti, 66, is the former director of the St. Luke Institute, a treatment centre for religious in Maryland. Having worked for 18 years with those struggling with serious mental health issues during the height of the church sexual abuse crisis, he wanted to investigate the level of psycho-spiritual health within the priesthood in general.
A six-page survey — including standard psychological tests, satisfaction scales, spiritual practices, and childhood/developmental experiences — was mailed to more than 4,300 priests in 23 dioceses; 57 per cent responded. Although not a stratified random sample, Rossetti remains confident in his findings because of the survey’s large sample size and high response rate.
The survey revealed that 92 per cent of those who responded “report an exceptionally high degree of happiness with being a priest and with their lives.”
“We’re referring to the inner joy the Lord gives to us,” Rossetti explains. “We have good days, bad days, but there remains that internal joy with is a sign of God’s presence in us.”
Similar studies confirm these findings, Rossetti pointed out during his daylong presentation. A United Kingdom survey of 274 occupations reported that clergy had the highest level of job satisfaction, even though they had one of the lowest incomes. Similarly, a 2006 survey by the U.S. National Opinion Research centre also found that clergy reported the highest level of job satisfaction (87 per cent) and the highest level of overall happiness of any group.
According to Rossetti’s survey, the main “happiness” predictors include: a sense of inner peace, a strong relationship to God, a positive view of celibacy, feeling appreciated, and the presence of close friends.
When the “happiness” factor was analyzed to see what variables were associated with priests’ sense of fulfilment, the results consistently showed the same elements at work.
Those priests who fell under the happy/fulfilled category also reported having close friends, praying more than one hour a day and going to confession frequently. Conversely, those who had few, if any, close friends, prayed less than 15 minutes a day and went infrequently to confession, usually reported the lowest levels of feeling happy or fulfilled as priests and higher levels of emotional exhaustion and loneliness.
With the survey suggesting that a strong spiritual life is at work in those who scored high in the personal happiness and fulfilment scales, Rossetti used these variables to formulate a 10-step program of holiness. These steps include: cease any serious sin, go frequently to confession (a good confessor is a good penitent), pray more, develop a deeper eucharistic spirituality and nourish good friendships.
“My overall mission is to help priests live happy, holy lives,” he said. “We (priests) have our share of mental health issues, too,” he notes, but according to the survey “not any more than what we find in the general population.”
The Ten Steps to Holiness helps priests to live “with integrity, enhances self-esteem, strengthens one’s sense of vocation and promotes psycho-spiritual wellness,” he states, elements crucial to presenting a credible witness in a secular age.
In the secular culture of today, “you won’t survive being mediocre,” he warns his fellow priests. “The diocesan priest is called to a level of sanctity that we hadn’t envisioned when we entered the seminary,” he says, exhorting his brother priests to recognize and witness publicly to the inner peace and joy they feel.
It’s one of the antidotes that Rossetti proposes to confront the rising tide of secularism he sees in his travels as a consultant to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The view of secularism in the West feeds on the notion that “religion makes you unhappy and miserable.”
Rossetti distinguishes between secularity — the separation of church and state — and secularism, which he says “tends to be a sense that the world, society and our own lives can be lived without a sense of God.”
Secularists look for proof that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, makes you miserable and that priests are the most miserable of all, he explains. “That’s a lie; it’s just not true,” Rossetti says, pointing to his research on priests’ levels of personal happiness and fulfilment.
“When one has God in one’s life, what does one find? Joy, peace, fulfilment,” he explained during a followup interview. “When you take God out of your life, what is that state called? Hell,” he stated unequivocally, predicting that the advance of secularism will generate more isolation, anger and narcissism in the world, variables statistically incompatible with engendering joy, peace and a sense of fulfillment.
Durocher is editor emeritus, Catholic Times Montreal.