For young men considering a priestly vocation - and for priests, parents and friends who may be advising them - there is a seldom mentioned fact that deserves to be publicized: viz., priests as a group are extremely satisfied with their lives and their work. In fact, the morale of priests in the United States has risen steadily since 1970 and stands now at the highest level in over 30 years.
A March 2002 poll done by Georgetown University-based CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), based on a random sampling of 1,212 diocesan and religious priests, found that 87% of priests strongly agreed with the statement that "I am happy in my ministry"; 88% strongly agreed that "Overall, I am satisfied with my life as a priest"; and 90% strongly agreed that "If I had a chance to do it over again, I would still become a priest."
Similarly, the National Federation of Priest Councils (NFPC) reported that in 2001, 94% of Catholic clergy surveyed said that they were either "very happy" or "pretty happy" with their vocation as priests. Commented Father Steve Rosetti, the president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Springs, Maryland: "Other secular professions would be thrilled to have such an overwhelming endorsement by its members." And doing a longitudinal comparison, the NFPC study found that the number of priests who report being "very happy" in their vocation has seen a significant rise over the last 30 years: only 28% agreed with this statement in 970. 39% in 1985, and now 45% in 2001.
Even the Los Angeles Times, publishing a nationwide poll of priests on October 22, 2002, reported that after a tumultuous nine months in the Catholic Church, 91% of priests are still either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their lives. And a full 90% of priests said that they would not leave the priesthood if they had the chance to choose again. The paper also found that there has been a noticeable rise in priest satisfaction over the last eight years, with 70% of priests in 2002 reporting that they are "very satisfied" with their priestly vocation, compared to 56% in a survey in 1994. Acknowledging its surprise, the Los Angeles Times concluded that "priests today are very satisfied with their lives and are more committed to their vows and to the Church they serve than they ever were."
Why in the end does a young man consider being a priest? After interviewing hundreds of young men over the last five years, I can say that certain common themes emerge in the answers they give:
- A desire to serve God's people - Young men considering priesthood invariably refer to a desire to be of service to others. They do not come into the seminary seeking power or privileges or possessions. (If they did, one would seriously question their clarity of judgment, given the pay scale, the working conditions, and the sacrifices demanded of priests!) Rather, they are attracted to ministering to the needs of the Catholic faithful.
- An attraction to celebrating Mass and preaching God's Word - Of the unique things that a priest does, the two most frequently mentioned by young men considering a vocation are celebrating the Eucharist and preaching the Gospel. They rightly discern that the heart of the priest's identity comes from his call to offer the sacrifice of the Mass "in the person of Christ," to feed God's people with Holy Communion, and to be the primary teachers and evangelists for the community of faith.
- A love for the Lord and His Church - Not surprisingly, young men thinking of a vocation usually give clear signs of being actively religious and involved with the Church. Many have been altar servers, Catholic school students, members of youth groups, and lectors or eucharistic ministers, sometimes over the course of many years. Others, who might be recent converts or "returnees" to the faith, also report an ardent love for God and Christ and a deep commitment to the Church.
- A conviction of being called by God - Most men looking into a priestly vocation have some deep sense, though it may be vague or hard to articulate, that God has indeed called them to this work. Listening to young men share their personal and moving accounts of how they have experienced this divine call in their lives is one of the greatest privileges I have as a vocation director. (By the same token, in an immature or emotionally dependent candidate, it is frequently in this area that the problem is manifested: e.g., expectations of others or personal needs are refracted through a religious prism and come out as a perceived divine mandate.) Vocational discernment is all about testing the validity of this divine call.
If a Catholic young man sees these four signs in himself, he may indeed have a priestly vocation. If so, he will be joining a fraternity of men who continue to find great fulfillment and happiness in serving the Lord and His Church as priests!
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