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The Quality of Mercy is Strained…in the Pews
Eucharistic Incoherence

The Crisis of Community among Priests and Laity—A Tale of Two Surveys

I started researching this post by looking for surveys about what American laity are satisfied and dissatisfied with. But I stumbled on a gripping survey about new priests’ satisfaction. Other than this November 2020 story by the Catholic News Agency, the Catholic and secular media ignored the release of this survey, so I missed it at the time. But it deserves a lot more attention.

The survey of over 1,000 recently ordained priests in the U.S., three-fourths of them diocesan priests, was conducted in 2020 by the Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Titled “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” the survey report focuses on how well the priests feel prepared by seminary formation and how satisfied they are with various aspects of priestly life.

The priests feel well prepared for presiding at liturgies, preaching and knowing theology. They say they are least prepared in parish administration, preparing couples for marriage, ministering in multicultural settings and handling stress or managing their time. They are most satisfied in their ministries, such as celebrating Mass, preaching, counselling, hearing confessions and ministering to youth. The areas in which they are least satisfied are “performing administrative and human resource duties, the poor relationship they have with the pastors under whom they serve, feeling burned out from their workload, their frustration with their diocese/bishop and the lack of fraternity among their fellow priests.”

While four in five of the priests are satisfied overall with their vocation, one in five are not. One in 20 say they would not enter the priesthood again, if they could do it over, and might not stay in the priesthood. How can the Church be satisfied with twenty percent of its ministers frustrated and unhappy? That statistic sounds like it should come from a survey of Amazon workers, but apparently even they are less dissatisfied (at 12 percent) than the priests.

The numerical statistics are complemented by nearly 200 pages of representative quotations. Reading them made me very sad for younger priests and for the seminarians whom I advise in my faculty role. Not to discount the many statements about satisfaction and meaning in their lives, but I was taken aback by so many statements about loneliness, lack of mentoring and support, and fraught relationships with other priests, bishops, and sometimes laity. For example:

  • “Perhaps the least satisfying aspect is the presbyterate. Upon being ordained I felt like I was shipped out to work with no one looking out for me. When days get long or situations are tough to navigate I never was taught where to turn.”
  • “I do not find my ‘brother’ priests trustful people with whom I can get together and spend holidays or have time to relax and have fun.”
  • “It can be lonely. At times, I wonder if I would have been happier as a married man.”
  • “My seminary did little to nothing to prepare me for living a healthy life. Years of living under the watchful eye of formators ready to pounce on any flaw made me fearful to be honest about my struggles.”
  • “I went to a parish with 5,000 people. Normally, four priests serve that parish. Now it was myself—a brand new priest—and the 80-year-old pastor with very limited energy. It was so wildly overwhelming.”
  • “I feel the people’s expectations of a priest are pretty wild and many times unhealthy. It’s very easy for people to see the priest as a celebrity or a purely spiritual being or even as a commodity.”

Readers of the report can find plenty of fodder to support both “liberal” and “conservative” critiques of today’s Church. But it would be a mistake to lean too hard in either direction. Rather, there’s a community crisis among priests.

In addition to “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” I found a 2009 Pew Forum report on lay people who leave Catholicism. Those Catholics who become unaffiliated are more likely to cite reasons having to do with Church teachings on abortion, LGTBQ and the like. But one-fifth of them leave out of disappointment with the feeling of community in parishes. One-fifth of Catholics who become Protestant cite the same reason, and even more of them changed religions because the worship services and the overall style of the religion were more appealing. Three in ten join their new religion because a member invited them.

Much needs to change in priestly training and support structures. Much needs to change to make parishes more welcoming and communal. Couldn’t priests and lay people find common cause in rethinking parish life to support one another and to develop richer friendships with each other? Shouldn’t lay people better appreciate the social-emotional needs of their priests, and shouldn’t priests be able to share the duties of ministry more widely? Those are among the questions that occur to me from reading these reports in tandem.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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Fr Nicholas Punch

I wonder if people areas satisfied with the priest as celebrant?

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