JUNE 1, 2012 – THE AVERAGE AGE OF Catholic priests in the United States has risen from 35 in 1970 to 63 in 2009, but morale has improved, according to a new book by researchers at the Georgetown-affiliated Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
CARA is a national nonprofit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church.
The book is called Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood since Vatican II (Liturgical Press, 2012).
Fifth in a series of periodic studies examining trends in the composition, the book looks at the ministry and attitudes of American priests.
To compile the results, the researchers used data from five national surveys of priests from 1970 through 2009, as well as from focus groups and personal interviews with dozens of priests, says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA.
“The book is a realistic evaluation of the changing demographics and the principal challenges facing priests in the 21st century,” Gautier says. “At the same time, it explores the deep joy and personal satisfaction that priests get from their ministry.”
MEANINGFULNESS IS KEY
While there are smaller numbers of priests, general morale and satisfaction among them has improved over the last 40 years, according to the book.
Priests ordained after Vatican II (1962-1965) say they are more satisfied now in their mid-50s to 60s than they were in the past. Younger priests – those ordained after 1992 – also report higher levels of morale than in earlier decades.
“We find that, despite all the challenges in priestly life today, the meaningfulness of the life that priests are called to live – having [good] relationships with parishioners and being present during sacramental moments in people's lives – is key to their overall satisfaction,” Gautier says.
It was also reported that more young priests are likely to have encouraged others to pursue a life in the Catholic clergy in the last six months than any other generation.
“The priests themselves make a compelling case for the value of priestly ministry and the great gift that vocations are for the Church,” Gautier says.