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Experts see formation lessons in study of recently ordained priests

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

Experts said the findings in a new study of recently ordained priests and ex-priests can help church officials improve seminary formation and their programs for transition after ordination.

The study's author, sociologist Dean R. Hoge of The Catholic University of America, said an unexpected finding in the study was the frankness with which recently ordained priests discussed homosexuality as an issue.

Hoge's new book, "The First Five Years of the Priesthood," was published in July by Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minn.

Reporting on in-depth personal interviews with 26 of the men surveyed, Hoge said one of the major concerns expressed by priests and ex-priests alike was a need in seminaries for "more open discussion of sexuality in general and of topics such as celibacy and homosexuality in particular."

"Our study was suffused with talk about celibacy, loneliness, desire for intimacy and homosexuality -- more so than we expected," Hoge wrote. "Much of this is not new, but the frank talk about homosexuality is something new. ... This whole question cries out for more openness and more research."

Hoge's research, carried out in 2000, also revealed a wide range of concerns affecting priests in the first years after ordination, including loneliness in priestly life, unrealistic expectations from parishioners, overwork, difficulty with celibacy and dissatisfaction with living arrangements and with first assignments.

Those who left within the first few years of ordination were more likely to express difficulty or dissatisfaction in those areas than those who remained priests, especially in the areas of loneliness and celibacy.

"What emerged from the study, as I read it, is alarming evidence of the too numerous ways in which stress that is preventable is being encountered by priests today," said Jesuit Father James J. Gill, a psychiatrist often consulted by dioceses and religious orders, in one of the commentaries in the book.

He suggested formation directors pay more explicit attention to those issues in the priesthood as part of seminary formation.

Father Stephen J. Rossetti, head of St. Luke's Institute, which treats priests with problems, said, "It appears that our young priests are placed in situations of great stress with few personal supports. ... Most of those priests who left the active priesthood did not feel connected to the church, their pastors, or to other priests. Often they felt lonely, isolated and unappreciated."

He described the priesthood as "radically communitarian" and said it is important in seminary formation to foster an ability to build relationships.

Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth, author of a major study of U.S. seminaries, said the Hoge study revealed several needs in the area of linking parish experience and seminary formation more closely.

She noted that one of the findings was the importance of a recent religious experience or spiritual awakening as a factor precipitating the vocational call of many recently ordained priests.

That may have taken place in a variety of ways, she said, but "the common thread is a somewhat abrupt shift in their relationship with God and the church. ... These seminarians more often than not have minimal knowledge of Catholic culture, may have enjoyed only a short-term or sporadic association with a parish and lack familiarity with the diocese for which they plan to be ordained."

She said vocation and formation directors should "take seriously this phenomenon" and make sure the experiences of Catholic life that candidates have during their seminary years expose them "to the richness and variety of the Catholic tradition."

Sister Schuth also noted that most active priests in the study and half of those who resigned felt they had been prepared well in the seminary in matters concerning sexuality, intimacy and loneliness.

"These data suggest that the majority of programs meet the needs of seminarians, but some do not. The present study is unable to discern whether it was an inadequate program or an unreceptive student that was responsible for the unsatisfactory results," she said.

Brother Loughlan Sofield, a Missionary Servant of the Most Holy Trinity and author of several books on collaborative ministry, said, "One of the characteristics of good ministry is that it is relational. ... The priests described in this study do not generally appear to be men who possess a great capacity for relationships."

"The priests depicted in this study are prime candidates for burnout," he said.

Father George E. Crespin, a pastor in Berkeley, Calif., and former Oakland diocesan vicar for priests, said the study highlights "the critical need" to focus attention on the importance of a new priest's first assignment and on the importance of a personal relationship between a bishop and his new priests.

"Closely allied to the importance of the first assignment is the value of the assignment of a mentor for the newly ordained," he said.

Hoge reported the main findings of the study last year at the national meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, but the book gives a more comprehensive analysis of the findings and includes 50 pages of commentary by experts in various areas of seminary formation and priestly life and ministry.

For the study, commissioned by the National Federation of Priests' Councils and funded by a clergy research grant from the Lilly Endowment, Hoge obtained survey responses from more than 500 still-active diocesan and religious priests ordained between 1995 and 1999.

Because of difficulty locating priests who had left active ministry, that portion of the study was extended to those ordained since 1992. Of more than 200 names provided, the researchers were able to contact only 81, and 72 of those responded to the survey.