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SÃO PAULO – Most Brazilian priests are stressed out and many of them have developed psychological issues, according to an unprecedented survey of the South American country’s clergy.
Between 2020-2021, Father José Carlos Pereira, who is also a sociologist, conducted interviews with 1,858 Brazilian priests. The questions covered a wide range of topics, from their perceptions concerning their own health conditions to their political views.
The study was released in February.
There are around 27,000 active priests in Brazil. Almost 73 percent of them are under 55 years of age.
According to Pereira, complaints about an arduous daily routine appeared in most interviews, many times accompanied by the description of associated psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. Among the respondents, 43 percent said they have already received psychological treatment. About 10 percent have seen a psychiatrist.
“The inadequate distribution of priests in Brazil is historic. Most of them are concentrated in the southern and southeastern parts of the nation, while the north largely lacks them,” Pereira told Crux, adding that the obvious consequence is that clergy are overburdened in many regions.
“Even in areas with good numbers of priests, pastors are frequently alone in their parishes – and at times they celebrate six masses on the same Sunday,” he said.
To make things worse, most of the interviewees are not physically active and do not have a balanced diet.
The combination of those elements may lead to serious consequences. Between 2021 and the beginning of 2022, at least 10 priests took their own lives in Brazil.
“That is a subject that is always dealt with in a concealed way, but it is connected to that state of affairs,” Pereira said.
Most respondents told him that they feel lonely, despite the fact that they are part of a community and work with a team of laypeople.
“The study shows that priests have few friends. Most of them do not have someone to share a beer with and to have a relaxed conversation,” he said.
But loneliness has not caused Brazilian priests to criticize celibacy, according to the survey. More than 86 percent of them support it.
“I suppose, however, that a lower rate lives in chastity,” Pereira said.
More than 94 percent of the respondents said they are in good terms with their orientation, either heterosexual or homosexual.
“In my own experience with clergy members, my perception is that more than half of the priests in Brazil are homosexual. Of course, that does not mean that they do not live in chastity,” Pereira said.
The research also showed that most priests tend to have a conservative religious view, in line with Charismatic Catholic Renewal movements, for instance. At the same time, most respondents manifested great identification with Pope Francis.
“I think the pontiff’s clear speech, which everybody can understand – as opposed to Benedict XVI’s more sophisticated manifestations – is the reason behind the priests’ approval to his figure. And he mentions every now and then the problems they face,” he said.
Talking about the hardships of priesthood is a very important step in the way of healing, said psychologist Fábio Geraldo da Costa, a former priest who has worked for many years with members of the clergy.
“The bishops’ conference has been discussing such issues and that is significant. Realities are manifold, so the solutions also must be,” he told Crux.
Da Costa, who authored the forward of Pereira’s book, thinks that it is important to debate the Catholic imaginary concerning priesthood, something that in his opinion is the cause of much suffering.
“The priests’ stressful lives are connected to the image the community has of his role – and also the one themselves have. It is one of perfection,” he said.
Unconsciously, da Costa continued, priests try to adhere to that ideal of faultlessness, something that is impossible to achieve and that limits their lives to attending the expectations of other people – and not their own.
“As a psychologist, I heard many priests complaining about the institutional weight they had on their backs, about their loneliness, about the pressures they had to deal with,” he said.
Such are the consequences of the Church’s notion of the calling to priesthood as “a full donation of a person to the mission” – a donation that begins with the spiritual dimension.
“But a priest is not only the spirit. He is also a social being, a psychological being, a physical being who has sexuality. And all that is repressed, affecting his psyche,” he said.
Da Costa thinks that more and more priests have been trying to find forms of dealing with such challenges in a more balanced way. Maybe that is the reason why, despite so many problems, more than 94 percent of Pereira’s interviewees declared to be happy in their lives as priests.