success stories

A Survey of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years
Authors: Eugene Hemrick, Dean Hoge
Seminary Department of the National Catholic Educational Association
Washington, DC, 1991.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 Who Are the Priests?
Chapter 2 Priestly Life Today
Chapter 3 Attitudes Toward Seminary and the Transition to the Priesthood
Chapter 4 Satisfaction with the Priesthood
Chapter 5 Priestly Identity
Chapter 6 Preferred Priestly Roles
Chapter 7 The Effects of Programs

Research on Young Priests

The present study continues a tradition of sociological studies of young American Catholic priests. The first major study of this group was done by Joseph Fichter in 1966. His purpose was to hear the views of younger priests not well represented in decision-making circles; he called the report America's Forgotten Priests-What They Are Saying. He surveyed a random sample of all diocesan priests who were not pastors or monsignors; the average years since ordination was 9.6. Fichter asked them about their priesthood, their seminary training, and their present joys and frustrations. The respondents reported that seminary training had prepared them to lead a holy and intellectual life, but it had not trained them adequately to deal with lay people or to handle parish problems. They also reported strained relationships with older priests in rectories, and they complained that their talents were not being utilized well, since too often they were given menial work.

Soon afterward, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a large study of the state of the American priesthood. It engaged the National Opinion Research Center to carry out a nationwide survey, which was done in 1970 and reported in a later book (NORC, 1972). It was a landmark study, not specifically focused on young priests but producing a wealth of data. It found morale problems among younger priests, partly due to loneliness and partly due to difficulties with persons with authority --- mainly bishops and superiors. There were very large differences in theological views between younger and older priests.

An important study was done in the early 1970s in the Archdiocese of Hartford (Hall and Schneider, 1973). It was a thorough study of priestly work satisfaction, morale, and identity in the archdiocese. The researchers found rather low morale among the curates, who told of being given trivial jobs to no jobs at all, and of having no personal autonomy. Thus the researchers recommended greater attention to the first assignments of priests after ordination so that these assignments would provide psychological successes.

An incisive book, not widely recognized, titled The First Year of Priesthood, was published in 1978 by a counselor of priests (O'Rourke, 1978). He describes the most common first-year experiences of priests, including the "sink-or-swim model, "the "domesticating model," and the "apprenticeship model." These first-year experiences are not planned, yet they occur due to the personalities and attitudes of other priests in the rectories. Rectory living is a universal problem of first-year priests, and it complicates the main psychological task of the first year, that is, the establishment of human relationships that are both personally satisfying and professionally productive. A beginning priest often experiences a fear that the people don't need him or don't like him; he has difficulties with intimacy, because rectory living obstructs it, and the priest has no other family to go to. The author recommends improved training for the transition from seminary to priesthood and a program providing each beginning priest with a precepter (outside the parish) to guide him.

These problems have received much attention by seminary administrators. Theologates have been engaging in constant experimentation with new programs for the last two decades. It is no exaggeration that Catholic theologates have changed more in the last 25 years than in the previous century. They have improved teaching methods, shifted from Latin to English theology texts, relaxed discipline, introduced field education and internship years, and enrolled non-priesthood students. (For histories, see Kauffman, 1988; White, 1989; Buechlein, 1989.) Diocesan administrations have also improved, with the introduction of priests' councils, expanded consultation about personnel decisions, and improved communication. Yet, numerous issues concerning seminaries are still being debated in 1990, of which we will mention five.

(1) Is it beneficial to include non-priesthood students in the same programs and the same classes as priesthood candidates? Opinions vary widely, and Vatican authorities fear that the practice weakens priestly identity among the priesthood candidates in those programs. (For discussions, see O'Meara, 1985; Schreiter, 1990; Fox, 1990. )

(2) What is the impact of college seminaries? Are their graduates different from others in the theologate, and do they help foster priestly identity and commitment?

(3) Is there value in transition programs and mentorship programs designed to prepare seminary graduates for priestly life after ordination?

(4) Should the four years of theology be devoted mostly to philosophy and theology, rather than practical or pastoral subjects? Can the former, or the latter, be acquired later if the priest feels the need? In the crowded seminary curriculum, what is essential and what can be left to continuing education after ordination? (See Bleichner, 1983; Fox, 1990.)

(5) Most crucial, according to numerous writers, is the need for a compelling theology of priesthood for the years ahead. Due to rising expectations of priests by laity, broadening of ministries, expanding lay staffs in parishes, and manifold innovations in church life, priests face confusion about their central identity, and this in turn obscures the task of seminary training.

The 1990 Study

The present study is one of a series of research studies funded by the Lilly Endowment to help seminaries. The series includes two earlier nationwide surveys of students in theologates, done in 1984 and 1986 (Hemrick and Hoge, 1985, 1987; Potvin, 1985) an examination of seminaries today, based on visits and interviews (Schuth, 1989), and an analysis of perseverance of seminary students (Potvin and Muncada, 1990). The present study was designed to get the benefit of views of young priests --- who are in a position to reflect on their training and the transition from seminary to priesthood. These men have views which need to be heard.

Early in the process we decided to survey priests only a few years out of seminary. To survey older priests would have less practical value, since Catholic seminaries have changed substantially in the past two decades, and hearing older priests praise or condemn the seminary life of yesteryear has little practical utility. It was decided to survey five classes of ordinands --- men who are five, six, seven, eight, and nine years past ordination. This would provide us an assessment of seminaries in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The questionnaire we developed asks about three topics of concern to Catholic Church leadership: priestly morale, priestly identity, and priestly roles. The problem of morale has been widely discussed, most acutely in the 1989 document "Reflections on the Morale of Priests," written by a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB, 1989). Do seminary experiences in any way affect morale of priests a few years after ordination?

The topic of priestly identity is continually raised today in discussions of changing seminary life. Older priests sometimes lament the loss of priestly camaraderie today, which formerly was the fruit of close living in seminary classes. Some argue that the newer types of seminaries, which are often in the midst of university communities and no longer clearly set apart, fail to produce a strong priestly identity. Others argue, on the contrary, that today's church requires a new kind of seminary training more closely related to laity and to university life --- and seminaries including laity will succeed in producing a better kind of priestly identity (on the debate see Bleichner, 1983; O'Meara, 1985; Fox, 1990; and many others).

Priestly roles today are not as clearly specified as in decades past, and seminary students are faced with making choices among several different role emphases upheld by this or that segment of the Catholic community. Should the priest be more oriented to the hierarchical, authority or to the local community of faith in the parish? Should the priest stress the role of social leader of the parish community or the role of personal witness and exemplar of faith? Should he live in the midst of lay community life or as a man set apart?