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The identity of the Priest, Part 1: Why is morale among Priests so low?

By Timothy Radcliffe - posted Monday, 4 November 2002

That your joy may be full - John 16.24

I have been told that many priests in England and Wales feel depressed and demoralized. How widespread this demoralization is I do not know. But regardless of how many priests are actually demoralized, there are many good reasons why we might be: the shortage of vocations, the lack of a clear priestly identity, the loss of respect for our vocation, the scandals of sexual abuse, the disappearance of the young from many parishes, disagreements with some statements by the Church and so on. So I wish to look at some of these issues, and ask how we can face them without being demoralized.

This is important because there is a deep contradiction between priesthood and depression. You can be a good and depressed banker or taxi driver, a gloomy but effective accountant or lawyer. But one cannot be a preacher of the gospel and be plunged in gloom. It makes no sense. We can only be credible bearers of the good news if we are fundamentally, if not always, joyful. I am not referring to a happy clappy jollity, going around slapping people on the back and telling them to be happy because Jesus loves them. That sort of thing does make me feel deeply depressed. But there is a deep joy that belongs to our vocation as priests. This joy is deeply linked with sorrow and even with anger. Our vocation summons us to share not just the passion of Christ, but also his passions, his joy and sorrow and anger. These are the passions of those who are alive with the gospel. So I wish to look at some of the issues that might indeed make us feel depressed, to see how we might face them with sorrow and joy and even anger rather than debilitating demoralization.


I shall begin by looking at the identity of the priest and see what are the challenges in living out that identity with the local community. Then I shall look at some of the issues that might demoralize us in our relationship to the wider Church: our role of proclaiming Church teaching, the scandals which fill the papers, and so on.

I am deeply aware that I am not the ideal person to do this. I have lived outside Britain for the past ten years, and so I am not yet back in touch with the Church here. Also I am a religious priest, and though we face the same challenges, sometimes we do so differently. But I console myself by thinking of one of my brethren who gave a lecture in the United States. When he finished the lecture, the applause was rather tepid. He sat down and said to the man beside him: "It was not that bad, was it?" The man replied: "Don't worry about it. I don't blame you. I blame the people who invited you to speak."

The Identity of the Priest

In The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Donald Cozzens writes: "At the core of the priest's crisis of soul is the search for his unfolding identity as an ordained servant of Jesus Christ. The issue of the priest's identity grips the roots of his soul." While some priests deny concern about their priestly identity, more concede that the issue hangs over their heads like a storm cloud, robbing them of the confidence they once knew, rendering them awkward and self-conscious in certain parish situations.

As we all know, before the Vatican Council the priest had a clear identity. He was a sacred cultic figure, who had status and respect just because he was ordained. He was precious because he celebrated Mass and consecrated the body and blood of the Lord, even if he was a dreadful pastor and preacher. That identity was put into question by the Council. There was a rediscovery of the common priesthood of the whole people of God, of the universal call to holiness, and of marriage as a sacred vocation. The priesthood was now seen above all in terms of service and leadership. Most priests were and are enthusiastic about this new identity. In theory at least, it has liberated us from a stifling clericalism; it offers an identity that much more Christ like and evangelical.

So what is the problem? Why is it that thirty years after the Council, so many priests are ill at ease and unclear as to who we are? I can think of at least four reasons.

The idea of the priest as servant and leader is beautiful, but the words tend to pull in opposite directions. Servants are not usually supposed to lead, like bossy butlers. I reminded of those French waiters who, with immense superiority, try to tell you what you should order from the menu. Remember the Irish bishop who announced at his consecration that he intended to serve the diocese with a rod of iron.


The image of the priest in modern theology is so idealized that none of us can live up to it. I read a lot in preparation for this lecture and I was horrified to discover that I had to be a brilliant preacher, an efficient administrator, a creative liturgical genius, a patient listener, an inspiring leader, a spiritual guru, good with the young and with the old. I became profoundly demoralized, and convinced that I was a bad priest who ought to apply for laicisation. You almost lost me!

A theology of service tends to focus upon what the priest does rather than who he is. This can lead to a utilitarian view of the priesthood. To be a good priest, one must work incessantly and be effective. But in this secularized world, with diminishing religious practice, priests will often find that we have achieved little and so must be failures.

The concept of ministry has expanded enormously. In the USA 80% of people who are ministers in the Church are lay, and 80% of these lay people are women. This has two effects. One is that the priest feels less special. Is all the sacrifice of celibacy and the stress worth it just to be one of these ministers, when most of the other ministers have all the pleasures of marriage? And secondly, the priesthood is the focus of much aggression by those who feel excluded from it, e.g. married men and women. So the pries' as a minister may feel himself to be both devalued and yet envied, which is the worst of all situations - "How dare you exclude me from this rather unimportant role that you have?'

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This is part one of an edited version of a speech given at the National Conference of Priests at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton, London on 3 September 2002. Click here for Part 2 and Part 3. Sourced through CathNews.

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About the Author

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP is a Dominican friar of the English Province, and international leader of the Order from 1992 to 2001. His published writings include Sing a New Song: The Christian Vocation.

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