Recently, I had the grace of supervising a group of seminarians ministering in parishes for their pastoral year. In working with them, I have found them to be much like we older priests were when we were seminarians, years ago. They, too, are learning how to get along with their pastors; they, too, are learning how to lead parish functions and relate to the parishioners; and they, too, are trying to balance the many demands of ministry with their own personal needs and prayer life. When I listen to their struggles, they remind me of my own as a newly-ordained priest.
However, there is also something different about these young men. While, in many respects, they are like we were at their age, they are also different. If my generation went into the public forum (perhaps with hesitation at times), speaking the truths of the faith with some temerity, these young men are much bolder. They see their goal as preaching and teaching the faith firmly, openly and fully. Their spirit reminds me of the boldness of the Apostles at Pentecost.
These young seminarians are not shy in witnessing to their own faith. During the past year, several of them openly and publicly shared their own experiences of God, witnessing to the people how the Lord had powerfully worked in their lives. They are proud to proclaim that they are Catholics and they do not shy away from wearing their clerical garb and religious habits in public as a sign of that commitment. Their express goal is bringing others to the faith.
Of course, as their pastoral year progressed, they told me about their occasional disappointments: people either ridiculing them or simply rejecting them. They were also exhilarated by their successes. One of them told the story of a man who was just released from prison and happened to come by and hear the witnessing of this seminarian. The man was moved by what he heard and afterwards told the seminarian that he believed the Lord had released him from prison that day so he could hear the Gospel and change his life. Some people do listen and respond to such bold proclamations of the faith.
Pope Francis, early in his pontificate, spoke to us of the need to go out to the fringes. We are to go out of the sacristies and into the streets. We need, in his words, to get the “smell of the sheep” on us. I see in our young seminarians just such a spirit-filled desire.
If one asks what priestly formation should look like today, the response might include two considerations. First, in what context is ministry being done today; that is, what are the specific needs of today? The context of ministry must strongly influence what a formation program should look like. Second, what kinds of candidates are presenting themselves today? We ought to tailor the formation process to the specific needs of those who enter our programs.
The context into which we are sending new priests is very different today. I do not think we can overemphasize this point. If we are doing business as usual, if our formation programs are not adjusting to the massive cultural changes, then they are seriously inadequate. The world into which the newly ordained are entering and ministering is unrecognizable to that of only a few decades ago.
Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl recently spoke of a “tsunami of secularism” sweeping the globe. This is a powerful word—tsunami—a huge and powerful wave of water that completely overwhelms everything in its path. It is an apt metaphor. Secularism is sweeping the western nations and making inroads in many other countries as well. It will, I think, eventually become a powerful force in every country in the world. This process of secularization is not over. We are not at the end of this process. We are at the beginning. The greatest changes have yet to come.
The public persona of priesthood and church in our increasingly secular society has also changed dramatically. As one newspaper reported: “In the wake of one scandal after another, the image of the genial, saintly cleric has given way to that of a lonely, dispirited figure living an unhealthy life that breeds sexual deviation.”[i] The Catholic Church is often portrayed in secular media as an anachronistic organization that teaches manmade dogmas that constrict human freedom, bind the intellect, are contrary to the liberating truth of science and stunt human freedom and growth. People are told they need to throw off the yoke of dogmatic hierarchy and religion. It is into this increasingly hostile environment that we are sending our enthusiastic young priests. Are they really prepared?
In response, our new priests need a formation process that is uniquely tailored to living and thriving in this environment. Let me suggest three things that are needed to respond to this secular tsunami.
Faith Responding to Today’s Secular Challenges
Seminarians today need a strong, integrated faith that responds directly to the secular challenges of our times. When surrounded by secularity, these men must have an especially strong faith. They will be subjected to many kinds of assaults on their faith and they must be ready. In seminary formation, we teach much about faith in an academic sense and we provide many spiritual exercises, but a seminarian’s actual faith life is mostly left to a private conversation with his spiritual director. One’s faith is often considered a very personal thing, and is not subject to review or direct discussion in the external forum. I suggest we consider bringing the subject and its discussion into the mainstream of formation (of course, with sensitivity and respect for what is truly of the internal forum).
Faith cannot simply be something these men have read in a book yet not internalized; rather, it must be a relationship with God and Jesus, made very personal (as Pope Benedict XVI called it). Of course, in a formation program, it is hard to measure and review one’s relationship to God. Nevertheless, much of a priest’s success or failure, especially today, will depend upon his faith relationship to God.
In my 2009 study, I was surprised by the strong statistical connection between priestly happiness and a priest’s relationship to God. The correlation was very strong (r = .53, p < .001).[ii] In fact, one of the strongest predictors in the study of a man’s happiness as a priest was whether he had a personal relationship to God in his life. Simply put, one cannot be a happy priest without it. I would add that, in this secular age, one cannot even survive as a priest without a strong internalized faith. As Karl Rahner said, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”[iii] It was a prophetic utterance.
When it comes to priestly wellness and happiness, psychologists and theologians do not often speak the same language. They have different tools and different perspectives, tending to operate in different orbits of knowledge. In the realm of a priest’s life, these two fields must begin to inform each other more directly. As a psychologist and also as a professor of theology, I have seen these fields come together to provide a more holistic picture of a priest’s life. We cannot separate the man of faith from the psychologically healthy man in ministry. A priest who is happy and healthy is necessarily a man of faith.
One of the challenges during my ten year study of priestly happiness was to explain why Catholic priests in the United States consistently measured as some of the happiest people in the country. Contrary to the popular myth, study after study has consistently shown that priestly happiness levels are very high—about 90 percent—and much higher than the general population.[iv] The fact is that priests, as a group, are surprisingly happy. How can one account for this fact? After gathering and analyzing the data, the inescapable conclusion was that one of the most powerful influences on priestly happiness was his spiritual life. As a priest reported a stronger relationship to God, he was much less likely to be depressed (r = -.29, p < .001); he was happier as a priest (r = .53, p < .001); and he scored as significantly less burned out (r = -.21, p <. 001). Faith and one’s relationship to God needs to be front and center in priestly formation today. The health and happiness, not to mention the basic survival, of our priests depends upon it.
I would put formation of faith in the context of today’s secular tsunami; that is, seminarians must believe while living in a secular era. They need the tools to respond directly to the challenges of secularism. Their faith needs to be grounded in a personal and dynamic relationship with the Lord, but they must also be able to think about and articulate their faith in a way that responds to the challenges of today. When assaulted with the sometimes-facile challenges of secularism, young priests need to know how to think about these challenges and respond to them in a way that comes from their internalized faith and is based upon the truths of the Gospel.
For example, in my pastoral theology class, I show presentations by well-known atheists such as Richard Dawkins at the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, DC and a similar lecture by David Eagleman, Professor of Neuroscience and an advocate of what he calls “possibilianism.” Both perspectives clearly spring from a modern secular mentality and their ideas are attractive and hold much sway for many people. While Dawkin’s strident atheism is less attractive to many, neuroscientists like Eagleman, who espouse that one should only believe what science can prove, are especially tempting to the modern mind. If seminarians are not prepared, if they cannot translate their inner faith into a convincing dialogue with the modern secular mind, they can easily flounder.
This convincing dialogue must first convince them. None of them will likely stand on the podium debating the faith with the likes of Richard Dawkins or David Eagleman, but they will, almost daily, encounter people who espouse the same arguments, some of them even in their own pews. Do our newly-ordained priests know what is flawed with such excessively materialistic thinking? Do they recognize the lack of reason in secular reasoning? Can they synthesize their own faith in a cogent response? They must believe in their own hearts what they are saying.
To be truly prepared for the secular world they are entering requires a firm relationship with the Lord, years of theological formation in which the truths of our faith have been firmly and personally integrated, and a practiced ability to respond in a coherent and convincing way in the language of our time. In short, priests today must be men trained directly for the New Evangelization.
The second formation need that arises from living and ministering in a secular environment is a masculine Christianity. I am not speaking of something exclusively reserved for males; rather, I am speaking of a spirituality of the great missionaries and martyrs, of heroic women and men. Aggressive proclaimers of the faith, they were not afraid to go into the marketplaces and to the fringes to proclaim the Good News of Christ. I am thinking of the likes of St. Paul, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Stephen the Martyr, Francis Xavier and Catherine of Siena. It is not surprising that more than a few of their stripe were martyred.
One of the seminarians in my class recently gave me a book that he liked entitled, Why Men Hate Going to Church.[v] The book’s thesis is a simple one: men do not like going to church because we have downplayed stereotypically masculine characteristics. We have made men feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in our churches. Indeed, today’s Christian spirituality often prizes characteristics such as helping, nurturing, sharing feelings and relating in a loving community. These stereotypically feminine qualities are all good, of course, but they also ought to be complemented by masculine traits such as assertiveness, healthy competitiveness, independence, boldness in sharing one’s beliefs, decisive leadership abilities, self-reliance and achievement. The book was written from a Protestant perspective but I think it is no less true in the Catholic Church. Should we, as Christians and Catholics, be competitive today? Should we have such masculine characteristics? You bet we should. We are in competition with atheism, secularism and a variety of other “isms” that compete for the souls of millions of Catholics and those beyond. In his talk on the tsunami of secularism, Cardinal Wuerl said that one of the main requirements of the New Evangelization is boldness. We must be bold in the Spirit.
Several years ago, I gave a group of 115 priests Sandra Bem’s Sex Role Inventory. She is a psychologist who researched gender roles. Bem hypothesized that males and females alike should integrate a healthy balance of both masculine and feminine traits. Bem believed that we all ought to be both strongly masculine and compassionately feminine.
Bem’s inventory includes twenty feminine traits (such as being compassionate, warm, sensitive and tender) and twenty masculine traits (such as being independent, assertive, forceful and defends one’s own beliefs). The priest subjects in my study were given Bem’s forty descriptive phrases and asked how desirable it was to have these traits. The results were statistically very significant in favor of feminine traits. In fact, nine of the top ten desirable traits chosen were feminine, with the only masculine trait, “have leadership abilities,” coming in as number ten. Our priests strongly endorsed the importance of Bem’s feminine traits, while masculine traits were decidedly second best.
The New Evangelization requires attractive feminine qualities such as compassion and caring, but it also demands an assertive, masculine spirituality that has been underemphasized in our modern formation programs and churches. In response to today’s culture, I do not think it is an accident that the young men in our formation programs are increasingly attracted to masculine traits. I have found today’s seminarians more likely to speak about the importance of spiritual fatherhood and taking on a masculine spirituality. When we older priests were seminarians, our generation was learning how to be kind and compassionate. The men of today are trying to figure out how to spread the faith as the pews are becoming emptier. I think there is an instinctive recognition that this is what is needed today. Perhaps their desire for a masculine spirituality is the wind of the Spirit blowing in today’s church. I believe it is.
Strong Personal Support Networks
Thirdly, let me suggest that a strong personal support network is required more than ever when ministering in a secular environment. In Pastores dabo vobis, Pope John Paul II called the priest a “man of communion.” Thus, the fullness of priesthood can never be lived without a network of strong personal relationships. In these times, the need for such a network is especially acute. Today’s priest, this very human man, is surrounded by a culture that is unsupportive at best and, at times, downright hostile. The priest of the New Evangelization must have a solid network of friends and personal support; otherwise, he simply will not last.
Dean Hoge, professor emeritus from The Catholic University of America, conducted extensive research on priestly life and concluded that those priests who left the priesthood almost universally felt lonely, isolated and disconnected. My own data have confirmed his findings. In my 2009 survey, the good news is that only 3.1 percent of priests were even thinking of leaving.[vi] Like Hoge’s results, my data showed that those priests who lacked the support of a solid spiritual life, did not have a good network of friends and who felt lonely and isolated were much more likely to consider leaving. Priesthood is a communal life and we are men of communion.
Similarly, the data indicated that those without close friends or suffering from loneliness were much more likely to engage in troubling behaviors on the Internet (the correlation of loneliness and Internet problems: r = .21, p < .001). In working with seminarians and young priests in a confidential setting, it is clear that one of the great modern cancers on the priesthood (and young people in our society in general) is abusing the Internet, particularly through Internet addictions and viewing pornography. Sadly, it is rampant in our society and thus is also a serious problem among our seminarians and young priests. Typically, the addicted seminarian is one who suffers from a poor self-image and occasional problems with depressive affect and anxiety, and has difficulties developing close friends. In times of stress, these men revert to Internet pornography as a way to self-medicate their inner distress. Sad to say, these compulsive dysfunctional behaviors are rife in our society and all too frequent among the church’s ranks as well.
This ability to make solid nurturing friendships is not only particularly important because of the rise of secularism, it is also more pressing due to the rising social isolation in America and the breakdown of the nuclear family. McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears found that Americans are becoming more personally isolated.[vii] Americans have fewer and fewer people with whom to share their intimate, personal lives. In 1985, the modal number of confidants for the average American was only three people. In 2004, the modal number plunged to zero.[viii] While Americans are sharing more data than ever, they are increasingly alone in a crowd. One quarter of Americans are completely emotionally alone—they have no one.
Our seminarians come from the same society and isolating context. Thus, we need to train them directly on how to foster intentional, nourishing, celibate relationships. Upon entering the seminary, we cannot presume that they ever have had or know how to go about making real friends. Like their peers, they may have many acquaintances but may not have anyone with whom to share their personal selves. The seminary environment is a good place to learn to build relationships. One could argue that the seminary is uniquely suited for such a task. Many a priest has said that some of his closest lifelong friendships began in the seminary. This is a good thing and, I think, a traditional benefit of our seminary system.
As the nuclear family in our society continues to break down, it becomes increasingly obsessed and addicted to sex, pleasure and a self-focused narcissism. Our seminarians are not immune to such societal pathologies. They, too, experience increasing challenges in childhood, bringing these backgrounds with them to seminary formation and ultimately to priesthood. In my 2009 study, the data show that our younger priests are coming from significantly more distressed personal backgrounds. For example, 20.5 percent of priests ordained ten years or less said they came from dysfunctional families compared to only 6.9 percent of priests ordained over fifty years. Similarly, 9.8 percent of priests ordained ten years or less had divorced parents compared to only 0.6 percent of priests over fifty years ordained. Moreover, the younger priests had higher rates of anxiety and depression on a standardized inventory (Brief Symptom Inventory-18) than the older priests.[ix] These are statistically significant changes and mean that formation programs will have to deal with more candidates who bring psychological “baggage” into the seminary, are more prone to episodes of depression and anxiety, and are thus more prone to Internet addictions. Those who work directly with seminarians know of what I am speaking. Despite our increasingly rigorous screening programs, we are well aware of the childhood deficits and traumas some of these young men bring to formation. They are children of a broken society.
The good news is that my research data indicate that these younger priests may actually have less sexual pathology than their predecessors. For example, 20.5 percent of priests ordained less than ten years admitted to growing up having sexual difficulties compared to 37.7 percent of those ordained 31–40 years. This is a large decrease. Additionally, in the wake of the scandals, priestly screening within the last two decades has included more direct assessment of a candidate’s psychosexual health to identify and screen out candidates with sexual problems. In the past, we were more reticent to ask such sex-related questions during candidate screening, but this has changed and it appears to be having a salutary effect. Today, including a direct inquiry and assessment of the psychosexual health of candidates for the priesthood is essential.
The New Evangelization requires strong men who can endure rejection, criticism and a surrounding secular environment, yet who can maintain and even prosper in living a healthy and holy life. At the same time, there is a concomitant breakdown of the nuclear family and significant levels of family dysfunction throughout our society. These can lead to increasing psychological challenges for our candidates who are not immune from societal fault lines. Similarly, in the midst of a sexually-addicted culture that promotes licentiousness (with soft pornography being ubiquitous), these men must live an increasingly countercultural, celibate life with a personal and positive commitment. Concurrently, the tolerance for priests with sexual problems and potentially scandalous behavior has plummeted to zero, both inside and outside the church. During a time when society is immersed in hook-ups and casual sex, when its sexual behavior in general appears to be without boundaries, our priests must live the fullness of the Christian call to celibate chastity.
This sounds like an impossible task. How can we take young men out of an increasingly secular, dysfunctional, sexually-addicted society and form them into chaste, healthy, celibate Catholic priests? How can we form young men to be on fire with the Good News and willing to go out into the marketplace and spread a message that is often unwanted, sometimes ridiculed and frequently rejected? We are asking them to be everything our society is not. We are asking them to be signs of contradiction.
Despite the human absurdity of such a task, the results of my research and my own experience working with today’s seminarians indicate that this is precisely what is happening. As the Scriptures tell us, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
First, seminarians and young priests enthusiastically support mandatory celibacy at a much higher rate than their immediate predecessors. In my 2009 research study, only 37.9 percent of priests ordained 30–39 years support mandatory celibacy compared to a large 81.4 percent of priests ordained less than ten years. This is a huge increase in support for celibacy among the younger priests. These young priests tend to be more optimistic about the future of priesthood. In my 2004 study, 83.4 percent of priests ordained less than ten years see a positive future for the priesthood compared to 67.8 percent of priests ordained 20–29 years. Similarly, when asked if they encourage young men to become priests, 84.3 percent of priests ordained less than ten years agreed or strongly agreed compared to only 62 percent of priests ordained 30–39 years. When asked if they are proud to be a priest today, 41.5 percent of priests ordained less than ten years strongly agreed compared to only 29.4 percent of priests ordained 30–39 years.[x]
John Allen, Jr. wrote about a new breed of Catholics among the young today, which has been called “evangelical Catholics” by him and others. Allen says they are characterized by three major factors:
- “A clear embrace of traditional Catholic thought, speech, and practice,”
- “Eagerness to proclaim one’s Catholic identity to the world,” and
- “Faith as seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance.”[xi]
The data show that the young priests and seminarians of today fit John Allen’s description. They are the right choice as instruments for the New Evangelization.
Moreover, despite the rising percentage of dysfunctional families from which our seminarians come and their concomitant challenges with depression and anxiety, this new group of young men appear to have fewer sexual problems than in the recent past. The John Jay College study, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, noted a marked decline in cases of child sexual abuse in the priesthood in the United States from the 1980s until today. The rate peaked at about 4 percent and has plummeted to less than 1 percent.[xii] This is certainly due to the church’s aggressive child protection program including mandatory background checks, compulsory child-safe education programs, and a much more aggressive response to allegations. In addition, the inclusion of psychosexual formation programs in the seminary and direct screening for sexual pathology among prospective candidates has likely been part of this substantial improvement.
The Catholic Church in the United States is perhaps one of the safest, if not the safest place, for a child today. There is support for this improvement in my data. As noted previously, younger priests today are more directly screened and formed in living a healthy, chaste psychosexual life. As a result, it appears that we are recently ordaining fewer men with sexual problems than a few decades ago. I believe similar salutary steps in child protection, including better psychosexual screening and formation, ought to be normative throughout the world.
In summary, I believe today’s seminarians are uniquely suited to be priests for the New Evangelization. The data show that they are bolder in manifesting and witnessing to the faith. They are proud to be Catholics and to be priests. They see a bright future for the church and they are committed to celibate chastity. They have been screened more carefully in the area of psychosexual health and receive stronger human formation programs. I would like to think that our improved formation programs are causing these good changes. I think we can take some pride in this. The quality and thoroughness of the priestly screening and formation programs, particularly in the area of human formation, are stronger today than ever, thanks to the church’s increasing commitment to this foundational pillar of priestly formation.
However, I think we must admit that there is something else at work over which we have no control and can take no credit. From whence comes this “evangelical” kind of boldness in our seminarians? From whence comes their commitment to traditional Catholic values, which they proudly teach and proclaim? I think we must conclude that the Holy Spirit, the first formator and teacher of future priests, is active today in a dynamic way. We are obliged to form men in our time to serve as priests. At the same time, the Holy Spirit is most assuredly directly at work as well.
The priesthood of tomorrow will be smaller, more faithful to celibate chastity, more ardently Catholic and, I think, holier. They will be purified in the crucible of society’s secularism and they will emerge stronger and more sanctified. We already see signs of this today. We see it in the faces and hearts of our young priests and seminarians. I join with them in having a great hope for the church of tomorrow. We can take a little credit for many of these developments. The major credit goes to the Holy Spirit who is already forming these men to be the right instruments for God’s new initiative, which we humans call the New Evangelization. As Psalm 118 tells us, “By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes” (v. 23).
[i] Garret Condon, “Priests (Mostly) Happy, Survey Says,” Hartford Courant, January 19, 2003.
[ii] Stephen J. Rossetti, Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2011), Appendix IV.
[iii] Rahner, Karl, Theological Investigations VII, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1971), p. 15.
[iv] Rossetti, Why Priests Are Happy, 85–97.
[v] David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going To Church (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 7.
[vi] Rossetti, Why Priests are Happy, 136.
[vii] Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review (June 2006) 71.
[viii] McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears, “Social Isolation in America,” 358.
[ix] Twelve percent of priests ordained ten years or less agreed or strongly agreed that they suffered from depression growing up compared to only 5.7 percent of priests ordained over fifty years. Similarly, for anxiety, it was 22.2 percent of priests ordained ten years or less compared to 12.6 percent of priests ordained over fifty years.
[x] Rossetti, Why Priests are Happy, 184–186
[xi] Rossetti, Why Priests are Happy, 182–183.
[xii] Karen J. Terry, Margaret Leland Smith, Katarina Schuth, James R. Kelly, Brenda Vollman and Christina Massey, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 8–10, 26–47.
Rev. Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, PhD, DMin, is a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, Clinical Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America, Professore Invitato of the Pontifical Gregorian University, and President Emeritus of Saint Luke Institute.