Good News 1: Unlocking secrets of priests’ happiness

Want good news? We’ve got it this week! TODAY, alone, you’ll read about how American Catholic priests—typically portrayed as a depressed and overworked class of men in much of American media—actually are very happy. What’s more, this new research unlocks some of the secrets of their happiness.

Why focus on a trio of “good news” authors this week? Often, the authors and filmmakers we cover here at ReadTheSpirit are making news by calling on the Christian church to reform, or change, because so many congregations seem to be losing their way today. Even our popular, inspirational interview last week with pastor Ed Dobson included Ed’s critique of congregations that fail to recognize the needs of millions suffering from serious disorders in their lives.

THIS WEEK, we’re publishing interviews with three authors—experts who are eager to reassure church leaders about the great things they see happening across our religious landscape.

MSGR. STEPHEN ROSSETTI, the leading American researcher on the health and wellbeing of America’s Catholic priests. Today, we will share some of Rossetti’s startling findings from a major new study of priests nationwide—just published this week in book form: Why Priests Are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests.

THOMAS GROOME, an internationally respected scholar studying the purpose and development of Christian education. He is head of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. His new book, Will There Be Faith?: A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples is a manifesto for parents and teachers drawn from Groome’s lifelong study of Christian education around the world. Groome describes his approach as “bringing life to Faith and Faith to life.” His methods amount to a “contemporary, natural, holistic and flexible” strategy for Christian education—freshly appreciating the “wisdom from the past 2,000 years of the Church’s catechetical ministry, beginning with the way Jesus taught himself.”

And, JANA RIESS, an author who has been famous for years as a journalist covering the religious-publishing industry. Now, Jana has taken a look at the enduring power of traditional spiritual practices—and the works of traditional religious writers—in a wise and funny memoir called Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor. This new book, the ninth in Riess’ career as an author, already is endorsed by leading prophets in renewing the church, such as Tony Jones and Brian McLaren.

Excerpts from Stephen Rossetti’s
Why Priests Are Happy

Later this week, you will meet Msgr. Stephen Rossetti in our author interview, but today we want to give readers examples of remarkable conclusions he reports from his extensive study of priests nationwide.


Order a copy of Why Priests Are Happy to appreciate all of the 200-plus-pages of Rossetti’s wisdom. There are many aspects of psychological and spiritual health explored in this book, but here is Rossetti’s bottom-line conclusion:

The overall findings of this study are clear and, when combined with similar findings in other studies, incontrovertible: Priests, as a group, are very happy with their lives and their vocations. They are among the happiest of any people in the country.

Priests also scored well on standardized psychological tests. They scored modestly better than general samples of the lay population on tests measuring depression, anxiety, somatization, and overall functioning. Given that such symptoms comprise the large majority of psychological complaints in community and residential settings, these are good markers of the overall psychic health of priests.

In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, the issue of mental health in the priesthood has resurfaced. Some would suggest that priests are psychologically stunted or less healthy than others. But the results indicated otherwise.

Moreover, the scores of priests as a group on standardized burnout measures were not elevated. In fact, they were markedly below secular norms, a positive finding. Despite the challenging if not overwhelming workload of our priests, they are bearing up well under the load and, by all measures, are actually prospering. Why are they not burned out, given their often excessive workload? Clearly, the great satisfaction with their lives and ministry that priests report is important in understanding their low burnout rate. In addition, their strong spiritual lives must also be taken into account; they find much nourishment in their relationship to God and in their spiritual lives in general.

This does not mean that there are no challenges or difficulties. Nor does it mean that there are no unhappy, burned out, or psychologically unwell priests. There are, and always will be, some of our number who are struggling. Priests are men not angels. … But the modern secular rumor that our celibate priesthood is an unhappy, lonely life is simply not borne out by the facts.


The book’s dozen chapters explore many aspects of parish life, including the influence of age, factors that fuel burnout and much more. But here is one example of what you’ll find between these covers—from a section about the impact of prayer on wellbeing:

The importance of private prayer in the life of a priest is statistically and strongly affirmed by this study. Private prayer is directly correlated with improvement in both one’s psychic and spiritual health. The research suggests that as priests’ time in private prayer increases:

  • They are less emotionally exhausted.
  • They are less depressed.
  • They deal with stress in less dysfunctional ways.
  • They are less likely to be obese.
  • They are less likely to be lonely.
  • They are happier as priests.
  • They experience a stronger relationship to God.

How much time should a priest devote to private prayer each day? This is obviously a personal question and the answer will vary based upon each priest’s spiritual life and ministry. But it is striking that the statistics here demonstrate that as one’s time in private prayer increases up to and over an hour per day, the priest’s life improves as noted above. Presumably, there will be a point at which increasing one’s time in prayer no longer has any benefit and may even be detrimental, but that point is not available in this study.

The findings of this study are that praying privately one hour a day is generally recommended—with the support of one’s spiritual director—and is directly correlated with increased psychic and spiritual health of a priest.

Continue reading all this week to meet Rossetti, Groome and Riess in our interviews.



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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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