The Secret Life of Priests

Jim Martin is a Catholic priest, but he isn't a saint, he isn't clueless and he likes to go to parties on occasion. But people he meets often aren't quite sure what to make of a socializing priest.

Instead of mingling easily, some people at parties apologize to Martin for cursing in front of him, speak to him as if he were a child, or shy away from conversation altogether. It's not everyone, of course, but it happens enough that Martin, a 41-year-old Jesuit priest in New York City, has miserable party stories at the ready.

"People treat you as if you know nothing about the real world. One guy said, 'I work in an investment bank, I am not sure you know what that is.' I went to Wharton for undergrad and spent six years in corporate America," says Martin, author of In Good Company: The Fast Track From the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

That's not as bad as the time someone Martin just met asked him if he really did keep his vow of celibacy. While Martin might be tempted to chalk up these comments to plain rudeness, he chooses a more charitable explanation: "It's probably not surprising because people don't often run into priests these days socially. There are fewer and fewer of us around, basically," he said.

It's true. The Catholic priesthood is shrinking and getting older on average as fewer young men decide to devote their lives to the Church. Making matters worse, the recent sex abuse scandals have added to the burdens of priests, many of whom say they feel isolated, lonely and overworked. It all adds up to a tough job and a difficult life that fewer people find appealing.

From 1965 to 2001, the number of priests in America declined from 58,632 to 45,191. In 1999, the average age of priests was about 60. One quarter of parish priests were over age 70.

Although there are several factors, the Church's celibacy rule is widely considered the major cause of an exodus of priests in the 1960s and '70s, and is cited as the No. 1 reason young men leave seminaries before they are ordained.

As if the shrinking of the priesthood didn't raise enough warning signs about the long-term health of the Church, the recent stream of child sexual abuse scandals involving priests has thrown the Church into a full-blown crisis.

Priests Cite Isolation, Overwork

Psychologists estimate that about 5 percent of priests have abused children — fewer than the general male population — but the shocking allegations of abuse by priests and cover-ups by the Church hierarchy have touched off a debate on whether the priesthood needs an overhaul. Catholics are questioning whether the Church should ordain women priests and whether priests should be allowed to marry.

Although the scandal stories are surely demoralizing for priests, the majority cites satisfaction with the vocation. But many also complain of occupational hazards. In a 1999 survey of priests in the Chicago archdiocese, 90 percent said priests are overworked. Eighty percent cited loneliness and isolation, and more than half said alcohol abuse, low morale and financial difficulties were problematic.

Parish priests experience more isolation and overwork than their counterparts in religious orders, such as the Jesuits, who have more flexibility, are not tied to a parish and are more likely to have a community of priests.

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