Despite the difficult situation for the priesthood in the last few years, morale among priests in the United States is high, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane told members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Monday at the opening of their plenary session.
The USCCB president cited statistics that more than 90 percent of U.S. priests report satisfaction with their lives as priests. In addition, 90 percent of the priests interviewed said they would make the choice of priesthood again, if they had it to do all over. “Faith and God's grace are the main energy behind our priests' good morale and their sense of service,” he said.
Still, he emphasized, priests must be continuously supported and sustained in their ministry by their bishops, priestly groups and the laity.“Our Catholic teaching consistently speaks of priests as our closest collaborators and co-workers in the Lord's vineyard. Yet we Bishops need to recognize honestly that many priests do not sense that this is true,” he said.
He pointed to studies in which more than half of the priests interviewed said the way in which the sex-abuse crisis was handled has affected their view of Church leadership negatively. “Only 42 percent believe they will be dealt with fairly if they are accused; 58 percent do not. Only 27 percent believe that accused priests have been treated fairly; the vast majority does not,” he said.Bishops must use the Church’s instruments of consultation and collaboration, as well as develop personal contact with their priests to demonstrate that they unequivocally “share in the same mission and are united sacramentally in one priesthood.”
He also urged his fellow bishops to always “act fairly and justly” and presume innocence when calling to account those priests who have been accused of abuse or of misusing their priestly ministry. “We need to exercise the God-given authority we have in a way that does not place bishop and priests on either side of a divide,” he said. “The challenge, of course, is to succeed in being both father and brother to our priests.”Priests must also continue to support and sustain each other.
The bishop noted that there are several movements that exist that encourage fraternity and spiritual sharing among priests. About 54 percent of priests have participated in a support group for priests in the past two years and about 63 percent have met with a spiritual director in the past year, the bishop said.“Along with my brother bishops, I encourage this mutual support as an essential element in the life of priests today. …Those means of support, especially spiritual direction, are essential for a healthy priestly life and for the priest’s own growth in his particular call to holiness.
”The support offered by the laity to their parish priests continues to have a positive effect on priest morale as well, said Bishop Skylstad. Where pastors have sought the advice and collaboration of their parishioners, they have experienced a healthy morale. The bishop said 9 in 10 Catholics agree that parish priests do a good job.“I strongly encourage this kind of collaboration between priests and people, because in working together in this way priests come to experience not only the importance of appropriate means of accountability to the communities they serve but also the realization that not every burden rests entirely on their shoulders,” he said.Finally, the bishop said, bishops themselves must support each other and strengthen their affective collegiality in order to better lead their own dioceses and work collaboratively. “There is no question, Brothers, that these past few years have taken a great toll on us. We need to give more attention to our relationships with and support of one another,” even our senior bishops.