Good News 2: Interview on Why Priests Are Happy

THIS WEEK, we are publishing news from three leading authors—all of whom are finding fresh insights in the timeless values of the Christian tradition. Later this week, you’ll hear from Thomas Groome about the enduring importance of religious education and Jana Riess about rediscovering Christian classics. Today, we welcome Msgr. Stephen Rossetti to talk about remarkable conclusions in his study of Catholic priests nationwide.

Who is Stephen Rossetti? You may recall his name from news reports during the sexual-abuse crisis that erupted about a decade ago in the Catholic church. From the mid 1990s until 2009, as both a Catholic priest and a psychologist, he served as head of the St. Luke Institute—one of the leading institutions treating psychologically troubled priests. Rossetti often wound up commenting in major news reports about the firestorm swirling through his church. Top journalists tended to call upon him as a respected professional trying to help the church shape better, research-based policies.
Two years ago, Rossetti left St. Luke’s and became associate dean for the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America. He describes his current work as “overseeing the education given to future priests.” These days, leading journalists still turn to Rossetti as an articulate, rigorous advisor trying to improve life throughout his church. Evidence of that viewpoint is the fact that two leading promoters of Rossetti’s new book are John Allen, Vatican expert for the National Catholic Reporter, CNN and NPR, plus ABC and NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts.

Earlier, we published excerpts of Why Priests Are Happy. Today, you’ll hear from the author …


DAVID: Let’s jump right into a great example of the many conclusions you draw in your new book. Here’s one that startles me: There’s a relationship between prayer and our body weight. Prayer helps us combat anxiety and depression and, if we don’t pray, then we may “medicate” our tensions in other ways—like overeating.

STEPHEN: That was a fascinating finding. I ran the numbers from our study in various ways, and it’s clear there is a correlation between the amount of time we pray and whether we are overweight. Now, correlation doesn’t mean causation, but it’s clear that those who pray more tend to be thinner.

DAVID: This isn’t a diet book, of course.

STEPHEN: That’s right! I’m not proclaiming a new prayer diet, but stop and think about this: Prayer helps people deal with stress better. We have a greater internal sense of peace through prayer. When these things are all in place in your life, then you tend to use alcohol and food in less dysfunctional ways.

DAVID: The prayer section is just one group of findings in this fascinating book, but it certainly jumped out at me as applicable beyond the priesthood. There’s wisdom in that chapter for everyone, I think.

STEPHEN: How does prayer affect people’s lives? We see very clearly that the more people pray, the happier they are in their lives—and the less depressed they are, the less burned out they are, the less lonely they are.

DAVID: Let’s stop there for a moment: Prayer and loneliness? People might think of prayer as the ultimate in solitary practice.

STEPHEN: Theologically prayer is a deep connection with God and then, through prayer, we connect with others. Prayer allows us in solitude to connect with others. Prayer helps us do that. It was just fascinating to find, in this study, that the more we pray the less lonely we are.

DAVID: Actually, that makes a lot of sense to me. I remember the stories we published last year from Tangier Island in Virginia, a tiny island with a very religiously active population. The local Methodist church on the island distributes a weekly prayer list of hundreds of concerns in this close-knit community and people spend time, each week, praying for those concerns. Yes, I can see how prayer connects us with other people.

But, let’s back up for a moment and hear your summary of this big research project. As a journalist, I have followed your work for years, and I was impressed by the data that went into this new book.

STEPHEN: The core of this book is a very extensive 2009 study we completed. It was huge: 2,500 priests were involved. So, this is a large study—current and comprehensive. Then, I also used a 2004 study I completed as a check on the 2009 study to make sure the numbers were consistent. When the two studies found the same things, then the new study was given even more weight.


DAVID: It’s good that your research base is so solid, because your findings fly in the face of popular myths about priests, fueled by media. I’m talking here about more than just news media. Watch any network TV series that occasionally includes a priest and you’ll find very troubled characters. Sure, we occasionally see heroic urban priests on network TV, but more than likely we’re going to see disturbed clergy. Add in newspaper and magazine stories about the state of the Church and, generally, Americans have a picture of clergy in crisis.

STEPHEN: We can’t underestimate the power of media like television and movies to shape our impressions of clergy. Once, there were movies like Bing Crosby in Going My Way and the Bells of St. Mary’s, which were angelic portrayals of priests. But I don’t think those really were helpful, either. Now, we’ve gone from those kinds of depictions of priests to downright negative portrayals—if not mocking. You almost never see a healthy, happy Catholic priest in the media these days.

Does that affect the priesthood? Well, it doesn’t help. And, I don’t think that we should return to the Bing Crosby image. That places the priest on an angelic pedestal that’s unrealistic. Then, if a crisis hits like the one that rocked us in recent years, then people are shocked and crushed. But this popular image, today, of dysfunctional, lonely depressed priests—well, that’s not accurate overall. It’s one reason I wrote this book—to get some actual facts out there. I’m not interested in portraying angels, but I do think we should talk about the truth.

DAVID: Given the overwhelming verdict of popular culture, do you feel that you’re out on a limb with this new report on clergy happiness?

STEPHEN: Have you seen the new Forbes report on the happiest jobs in America?

DAVID: That’s a good point! (Just last month, there was a Forbes story by Steve Denning in which Denning said he found “some surprises” in a listing of “the ten happiest jobs, as reported in the General Social Survey by the National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago.” The list includes firefighters, physical therapists, teachers, psychologists and—Number 1 on the list are clergy, which Denning sums up as: “The least worldly are reported to be the happiest of all.”) I’d say that’s a strong confirmation of your findings.

STEPHEN: It shows that the most contented and happy group in the United States of any vocational group are clergy—both Catholic and Protestant in that study cited by Forbes. So, I bet that many of these findings from my own study of Catholic priests also would apply to Protestant clergy.

DAVID: I think some things are different in those two big branches of Christianity, however. For example, Protestant clergy tend to feel much more responsibility for things like keeping the church’s roof from leaking and making sure the pews are full. Catholic pastors are responsible for their buildings, too, but not in the same way that the weight falls on a typical Protestant pastor. And, of course, because of the Catholic priest shortage, most parish priests can’t keep up with the big numbers of parishioners, right?

STEPHEN: Yes, walk into parishes anywhere in the country and the priests have more work than they can handle. Plus, we’re part of a worldwide institution that has a certain amount of international vitality to it. We’re not hanging out by ourselves. We’re part of a community of priests and an international church that is a supportive community that assures us that we won’t be left high and dry. We have a figure, the pope, who goes from country to country and is treated as if he is an international celebrity. So, yes, of course, there are some factors unique to the Catholic church and Catholic priesthood.


DAVID: Your study did uncover some areas of critical concern for Catholics nationwide. Probably the biggest is the striking difference between older and younger priests. In one section of the book after another—in topics like burnout or general happiness—the older priests fared much better. The data charts you include look like roller coasters. The difference is that striking.

STEPHEN: Yes, and part of that, I think, is because in the old days, when I first became a priest, you were not made a pastor until you had crossed your 25th anniversary, your silver jubilee. You had a long time in mentorship before you were in charge of a parish. You really learned the ropes. By the time you became a pastor, you were ready. Now, just about anywhere across the country, after maybe three to five years, you’re likely to be a pastor. I think it’s too much pressure for most young men. You’re still trying to adjust to being a priest in our secular culture. You’re adjusting to celibate living, to relating to people in a parish—and suddenly you find that you’re the CEO-pastor of a 2,000- or 3,000-member parish. That’s very hard. You’re trying to maintain your spiritual balance, your leadership and suddenly you’re in charge of a big parish.

DAVID: Fortunately, another one of your findings is that Catholic priests tend to be more likely than the general population to seek help when they need it.

STEPHEN: This is encouraging. I’m a licensed psychologist and we’re constantly teaching this: When you need help—seek it! Part of what it means to live life as a healthy caregiver is to seek out help for yourself when you need it.

DAVID: And that’s one more example of a lesson from your book that’s helpful to all readers—whatever your religious affiliation may be.

STEPHEN: Yes, I think there is a lot here for lay people who want to be happier. Just like priests, you’re likely to find happiness with family, with friends and with God. Greater connection with the Lord of our lives and with the people around us—that’s the starting point. It’s what makes priests so much happier than the general population. Anyone can take these findings to heart.

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

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