January 14, 2005


Happy, fulfilled priests

From the pope to the faithful in the pews, the shortage of priests and sisters in the United States is recognized as a serious problem.

Item: Pope John Paul II told a group of U.S. bishops during their ad limina visits to the Vatican on Nov. 26 that they must address the “stark challenge” in the decline in priestly vocations.

Item: During their annual meeting in November, the U.S. bishops identified three themes that require priority attention. One was vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.

Item: A study by sociologists James D. Davidson and Dean R. Hoge for the University of Notre Dame found that 62 percent of Catholics surveyed considered the shortage of priests and sisters to be a serious problem. It was third on a list of 12 items, topped only by the sex-abuse scandal and the fact that some bishops haven’t done enough to end that scandal.

Yes, it’s a serious problem. And frankly, part of the reason is that many Catholics hesitate to encourage their sons and daughters to answer the call they receive from God. They wonder if their children will be happy as priests, brothers or sisters.

They needn’t wonder about that. Evidence indicates that those who accepted a call to the priesthood and religious life are happy indeed—happier than those who marry, if the divorce rate is an indication of unhappiness in marriage.

There have been several polls of priests during recent years to determine their morale. As reported in America magazine in its Sept. 13, 2004, issue, they reveal a happy priesthood.

Father Stephen J. Rossetti conducted a poll between September 2003 and January 2004 that brought a response from 64 percent of the priests in 11 dioceses from coast to coast. A full 92 percent either agreed or agreed strongly with the statement, “I am happy as a priest,” and 83 percent said that they would join the priesthood again.

An earlier poll by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, in 2001, found 94 percent of the priests either very happy or pretty happy, and 88 percent said they would choose the priesthood again.

A third poll, this one by The Los Angeles Times in October of 2002, found 91 percent satisfied with their life as a priest, and 90 percent said they would do it again.

Contrast that with a CNN poll of 5,000 Americans that discovered that only 63 percent were happy with their current job.

What do priests like most about being priests? “Joy of administering the sacraments and presiding over liturgy” was endorsed by 90 percent of the priests in the NFPC study. It was followed by “satisfaction of preaching the Word” and “opportunity to work with many people and be a part of their lives.”

In short, priests find their lives hugely rewarding.

But what about celibacy? This requirement of the priesthood and religious life discourages some people from pursuing a call. We have read about priests who have petitioned bishops, urging them to campaign for the lifting of the requirement for mandatory celibacy. Polls show that most Catholics are in favor of doing away with the requirement.

However, Father Rossetti’s survey showed that 55 percent of his respondents endorsed the statement, “I support the requirement that priests live a celibate life.” And 70 percent agreed with the statement, “Celibacy has been a positive experience for me.”

Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t emphasize priests’, brothers’ or nuns’ happiness too much. Yes, they are happy and feel fulfilled with their work, but the primary reason for answering a call from God is precisely that—it is a call from God to fulfill the special mission he has for each of us. They answer their call just as all of us do—to discern God’s will for us and to carry it out.

That call to religious life can come at any time, and it is coming more frequently to those who have pursued other careers for a number of years. We probably should stop referring to those calls as “late vocations” as they become the norm.

Above all, we need men and women of faith to serve God and his people. Happiness and fulfillment will result.

— John F. Fink

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