Prayer and laughs: Books offer clues to what makes priests happy


“Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests” by Stephen J. Rossetti. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2011). 238 pp., $18.95.“Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life” by James Martin, S.J. HarperOne (San Francisco, 2011). 247 pp., $25.99.

Two books published in October reflect on Catholic culture from quite different, unique viewpoints. Brian Welter reviews both books below.

Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti makes the convincing point that priests are happiest when they follow traditional Catholic teachings. In “Why Priests Are Happy,” he mixes basic sociological information about priests and their lives with his own theological and psychological musings to come to this conclusion. The author sometimes links his discussion to theology.

These are the covers of "Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests" by Stephen J. Rossetti and "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life" by James Martin, S.J. (CNS)

The author shows that a traditional outlook among priests, such as regarding the hierarchy and prayer practice, led to the greatest happiness and satisfaction.

The surveys of about 3,600 priests taken in 2004 and 2009 show that they are overwhelmingly happy with their vocations, and that an acceptance of celibacy as a gift from God greatly enhances this. The vast majority of priests do in fact regard celibacy in this way. Even with priestly ministry becoming more and more stressful, those priests who prayed daily and participated in traditional spiritual practice such as reciting the Book of Hours and saying the rosary tended to thrive.

Obedience to the bishop also enhanced this happiness. The author was surprised at how important a good relationship between the bishop and his priests actually was.

Using sociological insights about the family and its impact on adults later in life, he warns that the biggest challenge is the youngest generation of priests, because they often come from dysfunctional family situations. This is correlated with higher levels of burnout, thoughts of leaving the priesthood and feelings of isolation.

However, the vast majority of priests, including most young ones, did not feel isolated, and had many good friendships and close family ties.

Never shying away from hard topics, the author notes that the public “excoriation” of the church by the media over the sex abuse scandals has grieved priests deeply, but they have been able to deal with it through their well-developed theology of suffering. Serving Christ, the suffering servant, is not supposed to be easy, so these priests, faced with public scorn, have weathered things well, Msgr. Rossetti concludes.

“Between Heaven and Mirth” uses biblical passages, personal anecdotes and saints’ stories to show the importance of humor to the spiritual life. The book shows the psychological side to belief, and humor’s role in healthy spirituality. It is an easy read that moves quickly along.

Jesuit Father James Martin discusses joy, and its relationship to humor. He highlights Pope John XXIII, who was famous for his lighter side, especially aimed at himself: “‘Dear Pope,’ wrote Bruno (an 11-year-old boy), ‘I am undecided. I don’t know if I want to be a policeman or a pope. What do you think?’

“‘My dear Bruno,’ wrote the pope, ‘if you want my opinion, learn to be a policeman, for that cannot be improvised. As regards being pope, anyone can become the pope. The proof is that I have become one. If you are ever in Rome, please stop by and I will be glad to talk this over with you.'”

The author makes the point that such humor can fight the vice of pride. Humor can also provide a welcoming atmosphere, as it often reduces tension and stress, making people feel at home when they are strangers. A well-timed witty remark can relieve the stress of a given situation.

The book’s many anecdotes show that religious people, even saints and popes, can be remarkably funny and good-humored. Visitors to Thomas Merton’s monastery could never pick him out, because he was always laughing and smiling. They assumed that such a prolific writer on the spiritual life had to be somber.

Father Martin invites us to a more joyful, joke-filled Christian life, because Jesus, too, loved to laugh and tease people, as reflected in his parables.

Msgr. Rossetti’s study is rigorous and follows sociological methods, thereby proving his points thoroughly. Father Martin also adequately illustrates his argument through his many anecdotes.

Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.