By Celine Klosterman
Father Tom Spiegel has served in seven parishes in his 42 years as a priest, and said that in every assignment, he’s found fulfillment. “I’m eternally grateful,” the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa said.
His satisfaction with his ministry reflects the attitude of most priests serving in the Davenport Diocese, according to wellness-survey results released in spring. Compared to the general population, diocesan and religious order priests in southeast Iowa reported higher levels of wellness and psychological health, less burnout and cynicism, and greater life satisfaction and levels of personal accomplishment. Eighty usable surveys were returned out of a possible 96 surveys in the study, conducted by Saint Luke Institute, a mental-health treatment, research and educational facility in Maryland.
Priests, surveyed in November 2008, also reported feeling a close relationship with God and having a good relationship with and support for Bishop Martin Amos. (For the full 12-page report, click the link at the end of this article.)
“It made me even prouder to be a priest knowing that my brother priests were on the same page,” said Father Nick Adam, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell. “Despite the fact that we’ve had some difficult days in terms of being a priest, I think all of us are faith-filled men who believe that in the end all will be well — that after every Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.”
Father Jeff Belger, parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish and campus minister at the Newman Catholic Student Center, both in Iowa City, was glad to see that priests serving in the Davenport Diocese ranked above the general population in several areas. But he voiced concern for priests who reported struggling. “Who are they? What do we need to do to help?”
Eighty-four percent of respondents reported having close priest friends to turn to, though just half said priests in the diocese are supportive of each other.
“I have the philosophy that my rectory is their rectory,” said Father Jason Crossen, pastor of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine and St. Joseph Parish in Columbus Junction. “I want to make (fellow priests) feel welcome. My door is open for dinner or to talk.”
“I’ve found support from my brother priests, but particularly from the support of the Emmaus group we’ve been able to share all this time,” Fr. Spiegel said of his eight-member priests’ group, which he said meets at least 10 times a year. Such groups formed in the diocese about 35 years ago. Besides the priests Fr. Spiegel meets with, about six or seven other priests meet every other month under the Emmaus name.
Priests’ connections to each other depend partly on location, said Fr. Belger and Father Paul Connolly, pastor of All Saints Parish in Keokuk. Fr. Connolly noted that a group he once belonged to for parochial vicars fell apart after its members were assigned to parishes all over southeast Iowa.
But he said that for support, he talks with a few priests by phone and gets together a couple times a year with a former classmate now serving in the Sioux City Diocese. Deanery gatherings offer opportunities to connect with other clergy, too, he noted.
“When we gather at a deanery meeting or institute or clergy overnighter, there’s always a sense of ‘How are things going for you?’” said Fr. Adam. Since he moved from Mount Pleasant to Grinnell last summer, several priests have checked up on him. “It’s that interest we have in each other.”
Most priests also reported family support. Ninety percent of those surveyed said their families supported their vocations from the beginning, and most respondents reported they grew up with good relationships with both their mothers and fathers.
“I particularly feel blessed to be able to share priestly life and ministry with two blood brother priests, Nick and Rich (Adam),” said Father Chuck Adam, chaplain of students at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.
Spiritual advisors may help in that ministry, too. “Every priest should have someone who can challenge them and help keep them accountabe,” he said. “That might be a spiritual advisor. It oftentimes is a fellow priest. It also can be good friend or parishioner.”
Being without a spiritual advisor is like being thrown into the ocean without a life preserver, said Fr. Crossen.
Father Maynard Brothersen, who is retired, said he’d recommend young priests have a spiritual guide. “I don’t know about us old guys who are retired.” He sees the situation as a sort of forced camaraderie with another priest, but said that if priests aren’t socializing with their colleagues, he would recommend they engage in a mentoring relationship.
In their individual relationships with God, 99 percent of respondents reported a nourishing connection. Ninety-six percent of priests said they pray daily; 55 percent said they pray more than 30 minutes a day. Ninety-four percent receive the sacrament of reconciliation yearly.
“I would call my relationship with God ‘growing,’” said Fr. Nick Adam. “I don’t think it’s going to be perfect until I see him face-to-face. But until that day I spend as much time as I can in prayer, spiritual reading, Liturgy of the Hours and quiet time.”
Fr. Chuck Adam said he likes to think of his relationship with God as an ongoing conversation. “Sometimes that conversation is an intimate and joyous one, and quite a bit of the time, it seems a bit dry and ordinary, much like loving human relationships I have been blessed with in life. The important thing is that I strive each day to continue the conversation and I haven’t yet felt like God has stopped listening or stopped talking.”
Besides exploring spiritual life, the survey addressed stress and physical well-being. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they usually take a day off per week, while 9 percent rarely or never do.
The report also found that nearly a third of respondents have a Body Mass Index indicating obesity, and that 19 percent reported having unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, such as overeating.
Fr. Brothersen said that the first year he began living at the St. Vincent Center in Davenport, he overate, jumping up from 175 pounds to 188 pounds. So he began eating just half portions of servings. “I’m back down to 170,” he said.
Since taking the survey, Fr. Belger has made exercise a higher priority. Before entering the priesthood, “my life was exercise. Now I’m at a desk more.” He called his walk from the Newman Center to St. Mary’s in Iowa City his “one block treadmill,” and plans to bicycle in RAGBRAI this summer.
Exercise helps not just physically, but spiritually, he said.
Fr. Connolly said attending school sports competitions and playing golf help him de-stress. “I consider golf a good change of frustration.” And getting out with people takes your mind off problems, he said.
The survey also addressed celibacy and sexuality. Seventy-eight percent of priests said they felt called to live a celibate life; 12 percent said they felt “neutral,” and 10 percent disagreed they were called to celibacy.
“I think every human being, regardless of vocation, has room for growth in better appreciating the gift of sexuality and integrating it into one’s life,” Fr. Chuck Adam said. “Our society in general struggles in this regard. As a result, celibacy is easily misunderstood and sadly dismissed as meaningless.”
Frs. Connolly and Nick Adam noted that being unmarried and without children frees priests to be with parishioners more often.
Fr. Connolly shared an example of a time when he was visiting St. Luke’s Hospital in Davenport, and a nurse asked him to talk to a patient about to have open-heart surgery. The patient had earlier asked her to call his minister, but when she did, the minister’s wife answered. His wife said, “My husband has been out every night for the past two weeks doing work for the church. He needs to spend some time with his children; therefore, I am not going to tell him you called and when I hang up, I am going to take the phone off of the hook — so don’t try and call back,” Fr. Connolly recalled.
Priests don’t have to try to balance the needs of both a congregation and family, Fr. Adam noted.
Overall, priests The Catholic Messenger talked to voiced gratitude for their opportunity to serve. “I feel a sense of pride in a ministry that strives to help others discover the treasure of faith that this diocese and its people have given me,” Fr. Chuck Adam said.
“Some days are not going to be as great as others, just like in a marriage,” said Fr. Brothersen. But his ministry is still “the happiest thing I ever did. It’s a great life and I recommend it.”
“I give thanks to God,” said Fr. Belger. “I’ve been a priest for six years and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. I look forward to seeing what comes down the pike.”
(Barb Arland-Fye and Anne Marie Amacher contributed to this report.)
Full Survey Results http://www.catholicmessenger.org/content/current/displayads/surveyresults.pdf