January 12, 2007


Happy priests


Would any parent disagree that the greatest wish they have for their children is that they be happy? Then parents should hope and pray that their sons have, and accept, a vocation to the priesthood.

Preposterous, you say? Not at all. Despite the supposed drop in prestige of priests because of the sex-abuse scandal, and the heavier workload as a result of the decline in the number of priests, studies show that most priests are extremely happy—more than those who have chosen other professions or vocations.

For example, St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Spring, Md., questioned 1,286 priests in 16 dioceses during their annual convocations between September 2003 and April 2005. They were asked to react to the statement “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” More than 90 percent agreed.

Furthermore, when asked if they would choose the priesthood again, 81 percent said they would. Only 6 percent said they were thinking of leaving the priesthood.

Do you think you’d get such high results from surveys of doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists or nurses? Or from married men and women?

When quoting that survey in the November 2006 issue of Crisis magazine, Father John Jay Hughes asked, “How is that possible? Why would any man in his right mind want to be a Catholic priest today?”

He replied to his question by quoting Archbishop John R. Quinn, the retired archbishop of San Francisco.

Archbishop Quinn wrote, “I believe … that this is the best time in the history of the Church to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason for being a priest or for remaining a priest—that is, to ‘be with’ Christ. It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other worldly gain or advantage. Those things either no longer exist or are swiftly passing.”

One person who wasn’t surprised by the results of that survey by St. Luke’s Institute was the sociologist/novelist Father Andrew Greeley. Back in 2004, in his book Priests: A Calling in Crisis, he wrote, “Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world.” He identified the problem at that time: Priests, though happy themselves, think that other priests are not happy because of the beating they took over the sex-abuse scandal.

Obviously, not all men are called to be priests. As St. Paul made clear in his letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Ephesians, God has given all of us different gifts—“some as Apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). But we should rejoice if God has given one of our sons the gifts necessary to be a priest.

This issue of The Criterion profiles Father William Ernst and other religious who are living joyful lives as they minister to the people of God.

What is a priest? St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, once answered that question by saying, “Only in heaven will we know what a priest is. If we were to know this on earth, we would die, not of grief, but of love.”

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests is a bit more specific. It says that priests “are signed with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the head” (#2).

From the earliest days of the Church, priests have had three distinct duties, as outlined in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship” (#28).

While most priests will probably agree that the third duty—celebrating divine worship for God’s people—gives them the most joy, preaching and pastoral ministry also give great satisfaction.

Yes, the priesthood has taken a beating in recent years. But Catholics still support and love their priests. Perhaps that, in addition to the knowledge that what they do for the Church is important, is why priests are so happy.

— John F. Fink

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