Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests

Walsh, James, et. al. Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests. Washington, DC: NCEA, 1995

Catholic priests in the United states face historic and unprecedented challenges in the 1990s. Declining vocations increase the work-load of priests ministering to a growing population of American Catholics. The explosion in lay ministry raises difficult questions about the distinctive role of the priesthood. Deeply felt debates over women's ordination and celibacy add to the uncertainties plaguing the community served by today's priests. Over the past decade a series of scandals has tarnished the public image of the priesthood and continues to threaten morale. And, as expectations of the priest's functions and competency have risen, the pressures on the individual priest have increased: no longer a mere dispenser of the sacraments, today's priest is expected to be an effective preacher, presider, teacher, theologian, canon lawyer, counselor, spiritual director, team and community builder, group facilitator, organizational developer, program planner, fund raiser, and financial planner. Surprisingly, however, there is little objective evidence for any crisis in priestly morale, and several recent studies point in precisely the opposite direction: one study found 90 percent of priests surveyed happy with their vocation, 80 percent said they would choose the priesthood again. Another study found that priests had the same level of emotional well-being as married men of the same age and income. Given the multifaceted challenges described above, the question arises, Why is the morale of contemporary priests so high? This study seeks to answer that question by discovering what it is that gives life to priests who are effective and respected in their ministry. Grace Under Pressure was produced by a team of researchers and writers who provided a forum for priests to tell their stories in their own words, and then sought to discern from those stories the symbols and patterns that sustain these men, give them life, keep them engaged and committed, endow their work with meaning, and give them hope for the future The first study of its kind, Grace Under Pressure allows priests themselves to describe the turning points in their professional lives, the images and perspectives that inspire them, the relationships that sustain them, and the traditions that give them strength in these difficult times. Among the findings: Successful, effective priests enjoy a wide variety of deep personal relationships with family, friends, other priests, religious sisters, couples, and lay people. At the professional level these priests draw life from the people they serve; their parishioners are important sources of inspiration. At the same time, effective priests possess deep spiritual resources, drawn from their experience of God's love, the power of Jesus's example, and a strong sense that the mystery of God underlies the Church and their ministry within it.