Msgr. Stephen Rossetti is out to correct the myth that the typical Catholic priest is "a lonely, dispirited figure living an unhealthy life that breeds sexual deviation," as a writer for the Harford Courant once put it. And he's got the data to prove it.The research is "consistent, replicated many times and now incontrovertible" that priests as a group are happy, Msgr. Rossetti told a daylong symposium on the priesthood Oct. 5 at The Catholic University of America in Washington.The symposium was built around "Why Priests Are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests," a new book by Msgr. Rossetti. A priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., he is a clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at the university and former president and CEO of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., a treatment facility for Catholic clergy and religious.The book's conclusions are based on a survey of 2,482 priests from 23 U.S. dioceses in 2009, supplemented by a 2004 survey of 1,242 priests from 16 dioceses and other studies.The research found, among other things, that priests are "no more and no less depressed than anyone else in the world," "a little bit better than the laity" in studies that measure human intimacy and "quite a bit lower than the general population" in the degree that they are experiencing emotional burnout, the priest said.More than 90 percent of priests said they receive the emotional support they need, 83 percent said they are able to share problems and feelings and only 22 percent said they are lonely. The vast majority of priests cited lay friends as one of their major supports."That's what priests do — make relationships," Msgr. Rossetti said.He expressed concern, however, that 42 percent of priests in the 2004 survey — "and probably more than 50 percent today" — said they "feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do.""We need to do something about that," he said. "We need to get together with the bishops and say, 'Let's talk about this.'"Msgr. Rossetti said the primary source of happiness for priests is "a powerful spiritual life" and "a connection to God and his people.""When you get closer to the Lord, you build friendships," he said. "If you don't love the God image in the person next to you, how can you love a God you cannot see?"Those who said they engage in private prayer for up to an hour each day are "less emotionally exhausted, less depressed, less likely to be obese and less likely to be lonely," he said.He said younger priests are more likely to participate in "traditional prayer practices" such as eucharistic adoration and recitation of the rosary, but not out of a desire to return to a pre-Vatican II church. They also are much more likely than those in the middle years of their priesthood to affirm the value of celibacy."Mandatory celibacy may be waning as a hot-button issue for priests," Msgr. Rossetti said, citing its support among 81 percent of priests ordained less than 10 years ago but only 38 percent of priests ordained between 30 and 40 years ago.The priest said he is not sure why there is such resistance in the media to the idea that priests are happy, despite the evidence.He said many in the media believe that "religion stifles humanity and personal freedom" and subscribe to what he called "eat your peas theology."In the same way that children are told to "eat your peas" in order to get dessert, some believe that "God rewards us for doing this miserable thing," as they see religion, he said. That viewpoint doesn't jibe with the idea of happy priests, he added.The symposium was sponsored by Catholic University's school of theology and religious studies, St. Luke Institute, Theological College and the Society of St. Sulpice.A boost for vocationsAnd because the best advertisement for vocations to the priesthood, it is often said, is a happy priest, it is hoped that Msgr. Rossetti’s research gets wide play."Vocations directors already know that, but it was great to get some ammunition," Msgr. Robert Panke, newly elected president of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors said at the Oct. 5 symposium. “Now we have to get the news out. Too many people think the priesthood is a sad, lonely life."Director of the Office of Priest Formation and Vocations in the Archdiocese of Washington for the past nine years, Msgr. Panke was named last year as rector of the archdiocese's new Blessed John Paul College Seminary, which is to be formally dedicated Oct. 22.Msgr. Panke said one of the biggest obstacles to his vocation work is the opposition of parents. "They believe the lie that priests are not happy, and they want their children to be happy," he said.Bishops "would be wise to encourage every one of their priests to look at himself as a recruiter," he said, noting that although 80 percent of seminarians say a priest's encouragement was a primary factor in their decision to become a priest, only 30 percent of priests say they have given such encouragement.Msgr. Panke also discussed the state of screening and formation of seminarians, saying that the U.S. Catholic Church is "doing a much better job in a rapidly changing culture."When Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, recruited Peter, Andrew, James and John to become "fishers of men," as recounted in the fourth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, there was "no interview, no battery of testing, no psychological interview," Msgr. Panke said."Jesus can do that; we need to do a little more work," he added.But he said vocations directors and bishops also need to know when to turn down a candidate for the priesthood who is not ready. "There is a lot of brokenness out there, and we have seen the world of harm that a lack of screening can do," he said.Msgr. Panke emphasized Msgr. Rossetti's conclusions about the importance of personal prayer in the life of every priest."Prayer is key to happy and healthy priests," he said. A priest who prays at least 30 minutes a day "is less likely to be emotionally exhausted because Christ is feeding him," he added.The Washington priest said he was personally buoyed by Msgr. Rossetti's finding that retired priests are the happiest of all. "That gives me great hope,” he said, “that it just gets better and better and better.”—CNSNext week in The Tidings: Forming “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds” in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/1014/priests/{/gallery}