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  Priests (Mostly) Happy, Survey Says
Despite Scandals' Impact, State's Catholic Clergy Report Healthy and Satisfying Lives

By Garret Condon
Hartford, CT
January 19, 2003

Father Nicholas Cesaro, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Hartford, said a woman in his parish recently approached him and said, "You're one of the good ones."

Another woman - a stranger - cornered him in an elevator and let him know how angry she was that a priest had once abused her. He said he was sorry. "Well, you should be," she shot back.

Recent sex scandals have severely tarnished the halos of Catholic priests. In the wake of one scandal after another, the image of the genial, saintly cleric has given way to that of a lonely, dispirited figure living an unhealthy life that breeds sexual deviation.

But Cesaro, who looks far younger than his 73 years, is upbeat about his profession and his health, including a good diet, regular exercise and a vibrant social life.

"I don't know how you can miss being happy," he said. "There are very few people who have this much impact on people's lives, this much trust, this much being able to affect people - to be with them from the time of birth to death, and everything in between. So, it's a very satisfying thing to do."

Cesaro's view reflects those of many priests in the Archdiocese of Hartford. Priests who responded to a Courant survey acknowledge the impact of the recent scandals, and report that there is no end of work - especially with fewer priests to share the load. Yet, by and large, they count themselves healthy and happy.

The Courant's survey was an informal and unscientific questionnaire that focused mainly on health matters. A total of 107 priests from the archdiocese completed the survey - about a quarter of those contacted. The results generally agree with national surveys showing a high level of contentment among Catholic priests in the United States.

The Courant survey found that despite long hours - almost everyone in a Roman collar is working serious overtime - few priests cited burnout as a problem. Most of those who responded said they had active social lives, and good health habits, although some responses suggest that it can be tough finding time to keep fit both physically and spiritually.

"Morale has gone up since the 1970s," said Dean R. Hoge, a professor of sociology at Catholic University of America, who has completed several studies of Catholic clergy. In a 1970s survey, 28 percent of priests said they were very happy. The number rose to 45 percent in 2001.

Hoge also has found that Catholic priests are slightly happier than other men with the same education level.

A telephone poll conducted last year by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that 90 percent of priests would still become priests if they had to do it all over again.

Among the 107 priests who responded to The Courant's survey, 94 strongly agreed with the statement "Most of the time, I am happy with my life as a priest."

That level of satisfaction comes despite the amount of work that is standard, especially among full-time, non-retired priests working in parishes. Most of the 83 priests in this category agree - either strongly or somewhat - that they are on call 24 hours a day.

Among those 83, all but four strongly or somewhat agreed that they work more than 40 hours a week. When asked to pick a ballpark estimate of their weekly hours, about a third overall reported that they typically work more than 60 hours a week.

Nonetheless, only six of the 107 priests who participated in the survey strongly agreed that burnout was a problem.

"I don't sit there and count hours," said the Rev. Nicholas Melo, 45, pastor of St. Anthony Church in Bristol. "I'm happy when I'm working, because that's what I got into ministry for."

There is plenty of work to go around, due to the shrinking number of priests, a fact that most respondents - 89 priests - agreed is making their jobs more difficult, although seven in 10 also said they have the appreciation and support of their superiors.

There are 216 parishes in the Hartford archdiocese, and 224 diocesan priests serving in them, fewer than half the number who were serving 20 years ago. In the next five years, the archdiocese could lose up to 60 priests - and it expects to ordain only six more to replace them, according to the Rev. John P. Gatzak, director of communication for the archdiocese.

Nationwide, the number of ordinations has dropped from 995 in 1965 to 450 in 2002, while the number of American Catholics has grown from 45.6 million to 62.2 million in the same period.

Melo, a priest for 19 years who has spent 13 years at St. Anthony's, noted that he lives alone in a rectory that once housed four priests. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell that the dynamics have changed," he said.

One response to the new dynamics is organizational. Catholic pastors are helping to create long-term plans within and among parishes to have laypeople handle such duties as visiting the sick and preparing couples for marriage, jobs once reserved for clergy.

"Right now, we need to be much more involved in planning," said the Rev. Joseph Donnelly, 56, pastor of St. Bridget Church in Manchester for more than 12 years, who recently celebrated his 31st anniversary as a priest. "That was not part of the ministry when I came here."

But there is a more personal response, too. Priests say they struggle to keep the demands of their job at bay in order to stay healthy. "I am lousy at taking time off," admits the Rev. William Metzler, 59, pastor of St. Mary's Church in Simsbury for more than five years. "I am probably the classic workaholic."

Donnelly said that in recent years he has become more strict about taking a day off each week - typically an overnight in the middle of the week.

"You can just get eaten alive by all the needs," he said.

Ninety of the 107 priests who responded to The Courant's survey characterized their health as good or excellent, and nearly the same number reported that they eat a balanced, moderate diet. But significant minorities gave themselves less than ideal scores for weight and exercise. About a third of those responding agreed (either strongly or somewhat) that they are overweight or obese. And a third said they don't get 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily.

In a national survey conducted in 2001 for Pulpit & Pew, a research project on pastoral leadership at Duke University Divinity School, 75 percent of all clergy said their health was excellent or good, but a lower percentage of Catholic priests - 58 percent - rated their health that way. When nearly 900 participants were measured for body mass index, 78 percent of the male clergy overall - and 78.5 percent of Catholic priests - were found to be overweight or obese. About 67 percent of American men overall are overweight or obese.

Keeping to a strict diet can be a challenge, said Metzler, of St. Mary's. Days that stretch from early-morning Mass to late-night meetings often include obligatory business or social meals. "I like to eat out and people invite me," he said. Metzler said he tries to hit the NordicTrack in the basement three times a week.

Cesaro, of St. Augustine Church in Hartford, said he exercises religiously. A former marathon runner who switched to walking after a hip replacement several years back, he tries to walk on most days, and frequently makes the 6-mile round trip from his rectory on Barry Square to St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, where he visits parishioners who are ill.

"I think staying in shape is pretty high on my [list of] religious duties," he said.

Donnelly said that regular running and trips to the gym help build equilibrium. "Over the years I've come to believe much more in this balance of body, mind and spirit - that you need to attend to all three."

Cesaro and other priests interviewed said that they had deep friendships with both priests and laypeople, reflecting survey results in which nearly the entire sample agreed, somewhat or strongly, that they have close friends in whom they can confide. The issue of social isolation has emerged in some of the stories of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.

Psychologist Leslie Lothstein, director of psychology at Hartford Hospital's Institute of Living, has personally evaluated hundreds of priests from around the country - and reviewed the cases of many more - who have been implicated in cases of sexual abuse. Lothstein said that loneliness and the abuse of alcohol are risk factors in general for predatory sexual behavior, and that this is also true among Catholic priests, where shrinking numbers make isolation more likely. Nearly all respondents strongly disagreed that they abuse alcohol or drugs.

The Duke study found that Catholic clergy were slightly more likely than other clerics to cite isolation as a problem, but three-fourths of the priests in The Courant survey indicated that loneliness was not a problem.

In a forthcoming national study, Hoge found that fewer than 15 percent of priests cite loneliness as a major problem; however, in a previous study he found that loneliness was a key issue for those who left the priesthood. He said there was a particularly large exodus during the late 1960s and early '70s.

Lothstein said that the voluntary nature of The Courant's survey may have slanted results toward those eager to improve the battered image of the Catholic priesthood. He said that, several years ago, he proposed doing a more scientific study of priests in the archdiocese, but that the archdiocese ignored his proposal.

About half of those responding to the survey agreed (somewhat or strongly) that their standing in the community had been diminished by media coverage of priest scandals. In written comments, some accused The Courant of anti-Catholic coverage. "The health of any priest would be better today had we not been so brutally battered by the newspaper you work for," wrote one priest.

But in other comments and interviews, priests expressed sadness over the cases and anger toward church leaders who covered up such behavior. Cesaro said he has been served with papers related to accusations against the Rev. Daniel F. McSheffery, a former pastor at St. Augustine who left three years before Cesaro arrived. Cesaro and many other priests have conducted open forums on the topic for parishioners. "I've tried to deal with it pretty openly," he said.

Metzler said the scandals have altered the way priests do pastoral work. He recalled that some years ago, in another parish, he counseled a young man who was devastated by the death of his father.

"There was a park nearby, and we just walked over to the park and sat on a bench and just talked and talked and talked. And he cried and cried and cried and cried," Metzler recalled. "I don't think you could do that now."

Ultimately, Catholic priests look beyond physical health toward spiritual fitness. Most of the 107 priests surveyed said that job demands do not encroach on their spiritual lives, but among the 83 full-time parish priests in the sample, 31 agreed - strongly or somewhat - that their spiritual lives were suffering.

Most of the full-time priests said, however, that they have enough time for personal prayer.

"Like the exercise, it's a certain discipline," said Donnelly, who said that while saying the Mass is public prayer, he needs some "one-on-one time" with God every day. "I find usually that the morning is the time to do it. If I don't do it in the morning, it gets away from me."

 
 

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