Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti , clinical associate professor, pastoral studies, delivered a June 18 address on the relationship between priests and bishops at the U.S. bishops' spring meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla. Published in Origins , his speech is reprinted with permission.

The Relationship of Priests and Bishops Today

From: Origins Date: July 22, 2010 Author: Monsignor Stephen J. RossettiIn recent days much has been said about the relationship of bishops and priests. But the question remains: How bad, or how good, is this relationship today?

With all the rumblings these past few years, particularly in the media, one might think that the relationship is on the rocks. We are given the impression that this bond has been irreparably damaged.

However, I have just finished a large research study of 2,482 priests from 23 dioceses around the country. I looked into their mental and spiritual health, what makes a happy priest and, of course, I asked them about their relationship to their bishops. The results, the facts, are interesting and important.

First, the findings clearly showed that our priests, by and large, are a happy, committed group. They like being priests, are generally psychologically healthy and feel fulfilled in their celibate lives. Their average mental health scores are as good, even slightly better, than their lay male counterparts.

I personally was not surprised. As I travel from diocese to diocese around the country, I meet thousands of committed priests, strong in psyche and strong in spirit.

But in my study I did find a few surprises. One of those surprises involved the importance of the relationship between priests and bishops. It turns out that one of the most powerful predictors of a priest's happiness is how he perceives his relationship to his bishop. If he says he has a good relationship with his bishop, he is much more likely to be a happy priest.

Are you that important in the lives of your priests? The answer, as clearly demonstrated in this study, is yes. You can see this truth when you visit a diocese that is sede vacante. The presbyterate is like a group of cats stepping lightly on a hot tin roof. They are anxious, nervous ... and with good reason. Much of their future satisfaction lies in the new shepherd they will receive.

When we dive more deeply into the spirituality of priesthood, we can begin to see why this is so. The relationship of priest and bishop is, of course, much more profound than simply that of employer-employee. It is a deep sacramental bond visibly demonstrated during the ordination rite.

The bishop, with the laying on of hands, imparts the gift of the Spirit and then the priest, placing his hands inside those of his bishop, promises perpetual obedience. To the secular world this must seem horribly arcane but not to our priests. In my study fully 73 percent of the priests surveyed affirmed that obedience to religious authority is an important value for them. The strong majority of priests consciously believes in and practices obedience to their bishop.

Given the centrality of this relationship, it is important that we understand how it is perceived today by our priests. Do they have a poor relationship with their bishop, as is sometimes presumed? Again, the study results were clear. The answer is decidedly no.

Seventy-seven percent of priests surveyed said they have a good relationship with their bishop; 16 percent were unsure and only 7 percent said it was not good. This is a very strong approval rating for a superior.

Just last year the Conference Board conducted a poll of 5,000 Americans, asking laity to rate their secular bosses; only 51 percent, about half, were positive. Moreover, if American presidents have approval ratings in the 60s, that is 60 percent-69 percent, they are considered to be wildly popular. Your approval ratings are much higher; they are in the high 70s. If you were running for re-election for bishop, you'd win in a landslide!

Nevertheless, because of the centrality of this relationship in the life of a priest, it is critical to make it as strong as possible for all priests. Most Americans can function relatively well in their jobs if they do not have a great relationship with their bosses. But for a priest, this relationship carries so much valence, so much importance, it is critical that it be exceptionally strong.

We are all aware that in the wake of the Dallas charter there have been intimations that this relationship has changed. The Dallas charter sent a message to priests that in cases of abuse the needs of victims will come first. Priests are now on notice that the bishop will not protect his priests in all situations; there are limits. Child abuse is one of them. And these limits have been recently extended to other egregious situations such as financial malfeasance and child pornography.

The message is, such criminal behavior must have public consequences and your bishop will not protect you from them. I personally believe we were long overdue to make such changes. Nevertheless, this has had a chilling effect throughout the presbyterate. The question in the back of every priest's mind is, Will my spiritual father stand up for me in my hour when I need him?

The relationship between bishop and priest in this country, and soon to be in the rest of the world, is shifting as the child sexual abuse problem sweeps the globe. And the Holy See has recently made it plain: Child sexual abuse is a crime, and civil reporting laws must be followed. In previous days priests who were accused would often confide the truth to their bishops, believing that their conversation was completely protected. This is no longer the case.

This issue is actually part of a larger one: the relationship between church and state. Again, the Holy See has made it clear that our priests and bishops are not exempt from the law. We indeed must be obedient sons of the church, but we also must be good citizens of our nation as appropriate. If there was a day when this was questioned, it cannot be any longer.

And thus comes the shift in relationship between bishops and priests. It is currently still in flux, and the sometimes imposition of the state in this relationship is a new factor which has influenced this disequilibrium. I do not think that this flux and shifting will be devastating, but coupled with some priests' questioning their priestly identity in the wake of Vatican II, it can be temporarily destabilizing for some.

Overall, is this shift bad? Again I do not think so. There are things that needed to change.

We hear new words today from recent papal statements like accountability and transparency. Indeed, we needed more of both, and we are beginning to see the change: for example, dioceses publishing their financial statements in their newspapers and diocesan review boards of laity advising the bishop. These are changes for the better.

But there must be limits. We cannot simply take on all the values of secular society without reservation. There are values which we as church hold that must be maintained, albeit appropriately molded for the societal setting. American society and media give the impression that everything needs to be open to the public; the media profess a right to see everything, and any examples to the contrary are labeled as cover-ups. They suggest that our values should be subject to the shifting winds of public opinion.

It is tempting for us to succumb to such secular ideas, hoping for positive headlines on the front page. But these are excessive Americanisms which we do not adopt, and bishops and priests together need to resist.

The relationship between bishop and priest is unique. The bishop is more than a boss, even more than a biological father. They are bound together by the sacrament of orders. The priest shares in the ministry of his bishop, and the same grace that courses through the spiritual veins of the bishop runs through his priests as well. They are one in the ministry of Jesus and together share the same spiritual lifeblood. This is a relationship which transcends the shifting sands of public opinion and cannot be fully understood in sound bites.

There must be a personal and confidential aspect to their relationship. The priest needs to place his trust in his bishop; he needs to see the will of the bishop for him as an expression of the Spirit's will for him. In times of difficulty he needs to be able to talk honestly and plainly with his father. If not, at such critical times he becomes a man without a home and left to fend for himself. This is not the spirituality of the Catholic priesthood.

And on a personal level, each priest wants his bishop to care for him - not just materially and not just ministerially. He wants it to come from his bishop's heart, as from the heart of Christ.

I was recently in a diocese giving a convocation. At one point I was speaking to the priests about the relationship of priests and bishop, and I offhandedly mentioned that they were fortunate to have such a fine bishop in their diocese. The priests spontaneously burst into a warm and rousing round of applause. They enthusiastically affirmed him. It was very clear that they loved their bishop, and well they should.

It was only a few hours earlier that he and I were chatting over a meal. The bishop said he was happy in his diocese and hoping that the nuncio wasn't looking his way. He specifically mentioned one of the major reasons for his happiness, "I love my priests," he said. "They are a great bunch of guys. And I think that they know that I love them." That morning it was obvious that they did indeed know it.

The relationship between priest and bishop in this country is currently in flux partly in the wake of the crisis but also due to the larger shifting relationship of church and state. It is happening in this country; it will spread throughout the world. I believe this shifting is necessary, and it creates some unrest and anxiety. But the priestly foundation is strong.

Priests support their bishops, and they are standing behind you. So many years ago they promised obedience to you and your successors; they said it and they meant it, and their promise has not wavered.

There are many things I could suggest you do for your priests such as sending them cards on the anniversaries of their ordinations or birthdays; attending the funerals of their parents; visiting them in the hospitals and nursing homes; stopping by their parishes or simply a random act of calling just to see how he's doing. These are all good and important. But the core of what is wanted and needed remains the same: love your priests. And let them know it.

Ultimately, this is what the priests want from you. The presbyterate is hoping you'll be a good administrator, but you may not be. The priest is hoping that you'll be a strong leader, but you may not be. He is hoping that you will bring a dynamic plan for the future, but you may not have one.

But he will know and he will always remember that you loved him. In this you will show yourself to have followed in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd.

On behalf of our priests, I thank you for your tireless labors, your fatherly concern, your dedication to us and to the people. We priests pledge to you our support and our obedience. It is a privilege and a joy to serve under you as sons and beside you as brothers.

Most especially, we want you to know that we love you. In this they will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.