Holy, healthy, happy priests

That is the goal, but more needs to be done to help the helpers

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It’s nearly impossible to discuss the psychological health of the Catholic priesthood without situating the discussion within the context of the sexual abuse scandal. The sexual abuse scandal created immeasurable damage to the victims, their families and the faith communities that make up the Catholic Church. Many people walked away from the Catholic Church after the Boston Globe broke the news in 2002, while others remain angry, disappointed and confused. Priests, bishops, cardinals and popes have lost a lot of trust and credibility.

In addition to the challenges stemming from the aftermath and ongoing issues of the sexual abuse scandal, the number of priests continues to decrease. There now are 38,275 priests in the United States, compared to 58,632 in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The dwindling number means priests often are expected to take on more responsibilities and live alone as they are spread more thinly across Catholic institutions.

Common sense tells us that working more without proper support is detrimental to one’s health. It seems there is a blind spot in our discussion of priests’ psychological health. When is the last time that we checked in with priests about their health and wellbeing? When is the last time that we asked priests, how are you doing?

In 2011, I started a research project with students and colleagues at Chatham University that investigated this question. The team is diverse in religious/​spiritual beliefs, practices, behaviors and affiliations. I am sure that we created a joke that begins … “A couple of Catholics, Christians, an atheist and ‘a religiously unaffiliated’ walk into a bar to do research on priests …” Despite our differences, we all wanted to understand priests’ health on a deeper level and aimed to discover any data that could be used to help them.

We conducted interviews with 15 priests about a range of health topics, including stress, burnout, strengths, coping skills, availability and utilization of support, their relationships with God, the influence of celibacy and obedience on their health and how or whether they’ve sought help. In essence, we asked priests how they were doing.

The first study from the project was published recently in an academic journal with a boring academic title. But the unofficial title was “Who helps the helper?” The basic idea was that priests help so many people on a daily basis but probably do not receive all of the help that they need to flourish in their ministries. Since the research team was comprised of counseling psychology faculty and students, we specifically asked the priests about how counselors might help them.

The priests in our study were quite open to seeking help from counselors. They considered counseling to be helpful because they could deal with an array of problems in an unbiased and confidential setting that facilitated personal growth. The majority (nine of 15) reported that they had seen a counselor, with positive results. One articulated a powerful insight about priests: He described them as “wounded healers” and said counseling can play a significant role in helping them.

Given the sexual abuse scandal, the dwindling number of priests and the expansion of the priestly role to meet the evolving needs of the Catholic Church, I imagine that more can be done to help priests be healthier leaders in their faith communities. Recently, Bishop David Zubik wrote in the Pittsburgh Catholic that “the Church has a great need for holy, healthy and happy priests.” I couldn’t agree more.

My hope is that his words will lead to priests receiving the support and care that they need so that they can continue to be effective spiritual healers to others in their ministries.

Anthony Isacco is an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Chatham University (aisacco@chatham.edu). Other members of the research team include Mary Beth Mannarino, Deanna Hamilton, Wonjin Sim, Ethan Sahker, Meredith St. Jean and Jennifer Pizzuto of Chatham’s graduate psychology programs.

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