"[Parish priests] are overworked and get very little compensation in the sense of companionship, relaxation, and close friendships where you can restore yourself," said Rev. Richard McBrien, a priest and theology professor at Notre Dame University. "It's a very difficult thing, and too many bishops are insensitive to that."
Thirty years ago, a parish of a couple thousand people might have had four priests, with housekeepers, cooks and staff to care for the church and rectory. These days, though, there are fewer priests and they work harder. Priests more often live by themselves and make their own meals. It's not uncommon for priests to fix the boiler, keep the books, mow the lawn, or shovel the snow from the church steps.
Support Groups, Confidantes Critical
Dealing with such business matters takes time and energy away from tending to the spiritual needs of parishioners, priests say, and leads to burnout.
"We're not really trained for that," says Rev. Louis Cameli, director of ongoing formation for priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago. "I have no problem putting in long weeks, and I get energy from doing the work. It's not so much the quantity of the work as the quality."
Loneliness and isolation are also challenging for many parish priests. With so many people looking to them for support, priests may not always have enough confidantes of their own, especially if they work in small parishes away from friends and family.
Priests say maintaining friendships with peers, family and life-long friends — not parishioners — is crucial to staying emotionally healthy.
"It's important to keep separate the people to whom you minister and the people who are your friends," Martin said. "People get into trouble when they seek to have their emotional needs met from those to whom they minister."
Priests do not usually seek, nor are they often encouraged to seek, professional counseling. Some dioceses are forming support groups for priests, training priests to be spiritual directors for each other, and training lay people to be mentors for priests.
Hesitating to Hug Children
The crisis over sex abuse in the Church may make priests' life and work more challenging, as some are reluctant to get involved with children for fear of being charged with inappropriate behavior.
"It alters my pastoral interactions with people," Rev. Robert Friday, a Washington D.C. Catholic priest, said. "When I was ordained in 1961, there would have been no hesitation if I ran into a family in the supermarket to hug one of the children. I wouldn't do that today. That's an unfortunate outcome."
However, others say the current turmoil could provide a catalyst for positive change that could ultimately revive the priesthood.
"Maybe some things that will emerge from this period of distress and upset is we will realize [the priesthood] is so important and so valuable," Cameli said. "All these claims have generated so much analyses and interest. What does that say but there is some deep spiritual need and longing? They want that nourished and assisted."