Today’s New York Times features a profile piece on Msgr. Gerald Ryan, the oldest working priest in the archdiocese of New York. The article portrays Msgr. Ryan as fully satisfied in his vocation, yet overworked and saddened by certain aspects of the state of the Catholic Church in America today, most notably the sexual abuse crisis. Still, the reader is likely to sense a deep spirit of joy that prevails in Msgr. Ryan and his work as a Catholic priest.
While the institution of the priesthood has been under constant attack from dissenters within the Catholic Church and outsiders opposed to her teachings—primarily the Church’s sexual ethics—the priesthood in the United States has experienced a profound renewal over the past ten years. As I have previously written on this blog, ordination rates are at a ten year high and the upward trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, survey data demonstrate that most priests, like Msgr. Ryan, are happier than ever with their vocation—even happier than most lay persons are in their careers. Two surveys completed by Fr.Rossetti—the first in 2004, and a follow-up in 2009—provides compelling evidence that not only demonstrates that priests are happy with their vocation, but that they are engaging in greater spiritual discipline, and have strongly embraced the celibate life as one of the essential elements of the priesthood. In 2004, only two years after the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, 90% of priests agreed with the statement: “Overall, I am happy as a priest.”
In 2009, the number of priests who agreed with that same statement had increased to 92.4%. In addition, when asked if they would choose the priesthood if they could go back and do it all over again, over 80% said yes. While many Americans suffer from depression and serious work related stress, on the whole, priests are one of the happiest and most fulfilled working classes in the country. These positive data on priestly satisfaction compare favorably with job satisfaction for other Americans. In 1987, The Conference Board completed a survey of 5,000 households in America and found that 61.1% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs. The same survey, in 2009, found that the number of Americans who were satisfied with their jobs had decreased to 45% of households.
And, while the New York Times was quick to declare “the priesthood is graying” and cite a study by CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown) noting that in 2009 the average age of priests in the United States was at 63, compared to age 35 in 1970, they failed to mention another CARA report which found that “the average age of ordinands for the Class of 2012 is 34.6. The median age (midpoint of the distribution) is 31. Two-thirds (66 percent) are between the ages of 25 and 34. This distribution is slightly younger than in 2011, but follows the pattern in recent years of average age at ordination in the mid-thirties.”
Msgr. Ryan, at age 92, may soon be facing the end of his priestly ministry on this earth, but Catholics should welcome the news that there are new, young men eager to follow in his same calling—even if the New York Times is unwilling to report such data.
Christopher White is the coauthor of the forthcoming Beyond the Catholic Culture Wars (Encounter Books).