Priestly Wellness and Happiness in a Time of Crisis

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti

This past October 6, at the Alumni Day address at Theological College, The National Seminary of the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., Msgr. Stephen Rossetti presented some of the results of his recent survey of over 1,500 priests from across the USA on their health and happiness in the wake of the child abuse crisis and the pandemic.

Msgr. Rossetti is a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, NY, and holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston College. He is the past president and CEO of Saint Luke Institute, a treatment center in Maryland for priests and religious with addictions or psychological problems. He is now an adjunct professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He is also the founder and President of the St. Michael Center for Spiritual Renewal, a non-profit Catholic organization that conducts spiritual education workshops for clergy, religious, and laity in fulfilling its mission to support healthy and holy lives.

Msgr. Rossetti’s 2011 book, Why Priests Are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests, reported on a 2009 study of 2,482 priests. The survey for that book and the results of his present one allow us to take the psychological and spiritual temperature of priests while also allowing us to investigate the likely factors that promote or detract from their health and wellness. Update interviewed Msgr. Rossetti to capture some of the highlights of his address.

Update (UD): Your most recent study follows a decade since your last study of priests in the U.S. What stands out for you when you compare them?

Msgr. Rossetti (MSGR): I am impressed with how stable and resilient our priests are both psychologically and spiritually. There has been a lot of stress and trauma these past few years with the abuse crisis, the pandemic, and more. Yet their level of psychological and spiritual health remains strong.

UD: Can you make any comparisons between what your study shows about priests and what is present in the general population?

MSGR: One finding was that the rate of depressive affect among priests in the USA in 2009 was about 7 percent. This climbed to 14 percent in the midst of COVID-19. While this is a significant rise and should be a concern for Catholic leaders, it is still much less than the rise in the general population. In the midst of COVID-19, initial studies suggest that the rise in depression and anxiety among the general population is very high. For example: See Rates of US adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression rose from 11 percent pre-Covid to 42 percent in December 2020. Rates of UK adults reporting symptoms of depression rose from 10 percent pre-Covid to 19 percent in June 2020.

UD: Your study was done to see how the pandemic was affecting priests. Given how much was shut down during that period, I would suspect loneliness would increase. Has it?

MSGR: I compared loneliness rates from our COVID times to 10 years earlier with no significant change.… It appears that priests as a group are not suffering any more from loneliness than they were before COVID, although anecdotally we know that there are some who are feeling the lack of connection with parishioners and are anxious to get back to more normal parish life. I think that the strength of most priests’ personal relationships is sustaining them. Ninety-one percent of priests in the sample report having good priest friends and 96 percent report having good lay friends. So, the notion that priesthood is a lonely life is not supported by the data. In fact, it is just the opposite … loneliness rates and isolation among Americans in the USA is very high and much higher than that for priests. The 2018 CIGNA study suggested that about 40 percent of Americans in general feel isolated; the researchers called it an epidemic of loneliness in the USA.

UD: What does your study show about how priests are managing the shortage of clergy? How are priests avoiding burnout?

MSGR: I gave priests the Maslach Burnout Inventory and then the ProQOL5, which are standardized tests with burnout scales. The rate of burnout among our priests is surprisingly low. Despite the stressors and challenges of priesthood today, the large majority of priests are not burned out. Why?

The results of my study suggest that those priests who are happy with their ministry, have good friends, and a strong spiritual life are not likely to burn out. And the vast majority of priests, over 90 percent, fall into that happy, connected, and fulfilled group.

UD: In the ’60s and ’70s, celibacy was a hot issue. How are priests responding to the obligation of celibacy today?

MSGR: Support for celibacy among priests in the USA has statistically risen in the last few decades, which will likely be surprising to many. It is certainly countercultural. When I was a seminarian in the early 1980s, mandatory celibacy was a hot button issue. It is no longer such in today’s seminary. The large majority of seminarians and young priests support it—more than my generation.

UD: What are some of your major “take aways” from your study?

MSGR: The priesthood in the USA is strong both psychologically and spiritually. This does not mean that there are no priests with problems. About 10 percent of priests, much like the general population, are likely suffering from some sort of psychological disorder and need assistance. But what is very remarkable is the high rate of happiness among priests. Consistently over 90 percent of priests report being happy in their lives as priests and happy with their ministries. Actually, the happiness level among priests in the USA is among the highest of any group in the country, and this finding is replicated by several studies both inside and outside the Church. The sense of peace and satisfaction of our priests is a witness to the grace of the Good News.