Is it possible for a priest to be happy in the 21st century? This is the central question of a course currently being offered at the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Institute of Psychology.
Taught by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, the 12-session course will focus on the human, pastoral, and spiritual aspects of priestly formation.
Msgr. Rossetti, a psychologist who specializes in the relationship between spiritual and psychological wellbeing in the priestly life, is also the author of The Joy of Priesthood and Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests.
He told ZENIT that one of the primary aims of the course is to “tell the truth” about the priesthood, and about “its rewards and graces,” by presenting a balanced understanding of this vocation.
“We’ve gone from an era of an excessively idealistic notion of the priesthood in the 1950s to maybe an excessively negative view,” he said. “The public image sometimes portrayed of priesthood, I think people realize, is not really accurate. I think people want a more balanced view of priesthood today. They want a more data-driven, realistic image of priesthood. And I realize the media is trying to sell newspapers. They are going to sell the bad news. But, there’s a lot more to priesthood than that.
“It’s time for a little bit of balance.”
It is not enough for a priest to focus solely on his spiritual wellbeing, Msgr. Rossetti continued. “The fact is that you can’t separate the physical from the psychological from the spiritual… The way we treat our bodies, for example, is going to affect our spiritual lives, and vice versa. So, when you live a happy, holy life on each level, it affects all the other levels.”
When asked if it is possible for a man to maintain psychological balance while living a celibate life, he cited the examples of those “wonderful priests and sisters and brothers who are dynamic, passionate people, who are fully chaste and celibate.”
He referred specifically to the soon-to-be canonized John Paul II, a holy man who, “at the same time… was a passionate lover of people and lover of God. He was a loving person, but he was also chaste and celibate.”
“One can certainly live without genital sexual encounters,” he said. “One can’t live without being a passionate, loving person.”
“Despite all the challenges of priesthood today, priesthood is a wonderful life,” he said. “There are challenges for us to work at, to overcome, to face strongly, but fundamentally it’s a life of happiness, of fulfillment, of peace. And I would encourage anyone who’s considering the priesthood to step up and come forward.”
Msgr. Rossetti’s experience in working towards the psychological and spiritual wellbeing of priests extends to the area of dealing with the crime of sexual abuse. Having worked as a psychologist with priests who have been convicted of such abuse, he explained: “People expect priests to live and do their best to live a life of integrity. These challenges of the last decade have clearly shown to us that we priests need to do our best to live a life of integrity. And when we don’t, it’s painful, not only to the priest but to any one affected by it, and all the people.”
Priests, he said, “have the psychological strengths of typical males, and they have their weaknesses, unfortunately. Sometimes they’re alcoholics, sometimes they’re depressed, sometimes they’re child molesters. This is the painful reality.”
The priesthood is a “wonderful vocation,” he said. “It’s also filled with very human men.”
Although a great deal has been done in the last decade to combat sexual abuse among priests in the United States, he warned that “we can’t rest on our laurels: one case of child abuse is one too many. We need to commit ourselves to working assiduously at this until no child is abused.”
In order to confront this problem effectively, however, those who are inclined toward abuse must be confronted with Christian charity.
Referring in particular to the suffering experienced by parents of abused children, Msgr. Rossetti said, “the initial public reaction to child abuse is the proper one: of horror. Children really are the great treasure of our society, and they need to be protected.”
“But that should motivate us to try and deal with this problem with all the vigor that we can muster, which includes how we can help these offenders not to do this again. We have to reject the crime, but at the same time we have to love the individual. We have to love them into wholeness and wellness so that they don’t abuse again.”
“For the sake of children,” he continued, “these men need to be loved as Christians, but their actions need to be condemned and rectified. That’s one thing the Church can bring to this terrible issue: the Church can bring a sense of loving the sinner, but hating the sin.”