This is a first in France. A large-scale study was conducted to assess the health of 6,400 diocesan priests under the age of 75. The survey conducted by the Union Saint Martin at the request of the Conference of Bishops of France (CEF) was carried out from February to June 2020 to objectify the signals of ill-being expressed for several decades by the diocesan clergy.
Among the most recent and tragic alarms, two priests committed suicide at the end of August. In a first survey carried out in the wake of this double drama, The cross had been able to document the cycle of loneliness and isolation in which priests often find themselves in the throes of psychological difficulties.
→ INVESTIGATION. Priests still too isolated in the face of psychological distress
This survey makes it possible to challenge some received ideas. “Studies on the health of priests were carried out in the 1980s, but the novelty is that this very serious one emanates from the episcopate”, observes Céline Béraud, sociologist of Catholicism.
“This study was also a way of showing our attention to priests. Many were touched by this approach ”, confirms Mgr Benoît Bertrand, Bishop of Mende (Lozère), who chaired the steering committee of the report. The choice was made to carry out the survey via a questionnaire sent electronically, guaranteeing the total anonymity of the respondents.
Fragile mental health
What does this study teach us, which is based on the responses of 2,656 priests, of all ages and from all ministries, (including 20% foreigners)? First, it draws a realistic picture of the conditions for exercising the priesthood in 2020, in a context of an entrenched vocation crisis, and therefore of the transformation of the priest’s missions. More than 85% of the responding clerics today exercise a parish ministry.
Among them, nearly 40% are loaded with at least 5 bell towers (20% have more than 20 bell towers). At both extremes, 7.5% have more than 40, and 14% of priests have only one. “These figures illustrate the contrast of the Catholic experience today, between a rural area where the workload is often considerable and the urban area, where priests can still exercise their ministry more serenely”, remarks Céline Béraud.
Shadow of loneliness
Positive point: from a physical point of view, 93.3% of the priests participating in the survey consider themselves to be in good health. On the other hand, the report describes a critical reality concerning their mental health. 17.6% of respondents have depressive symptoms, a figure more than three times higher than men in the general population.
Behind the statistics, it is the shadow of loneliness that darkens the morale of the troops. She explains why many dioceses have launched initiatives to encourage priests to come together and share their daily lives, which not all of them always want. 20% of priests living alone show symptoms of depression, against 15% of those living in a priestly team (ie 38% of priests).
→ READ. When priests and employees of the Church “crack”
2% of the priests who responded to the study show severe symptoms of burnout, or 44 priests. “44 priests too many”, soberly emphasizes Bishop Benoît Bertrand. Many of the comments left by participants also reveal unease with the Church hierarchy, most of which concerns managerial management issues.
“The whole of the people of God must watch over the priests”
Naturally, living conditions influence the attention priests give to themselves. In this regard, two data from the survey are of concern. 43% of priests are overweight and 20% are obese, which makes them more susceptible to chronic diseases.
→ READ. Young overworked priests in danger
Another point of attention: their relationship to alcohol. If daily alcohol consumption concerns 12% of priests – a rate equivalent to that of the French population – two priests out of five are in a situation of “Misuse”, reveals the investigation. In detail, 18% of the responding priests are consumers at one-time risk, 7% at chronic risk.
Finally, the report draws up a list of recommendations in order to improve the prevention of the evils which threaten the clergy. Among the avenues: a plan to combat loneliness, particularly focused on the issue of housing, the creation in each diocese of a Social Health center for priests in activity, or the establishment of a mediator who can be contacted by a priest and able to intervene in the event of relational difficulties between peers or with the hierarchy. “The question of the health of priests is not only the business of bishops, insists Bishop Benoît Bertrand. VSt is a question which all of God’s people must watch out for. “