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.

"[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."