Young people speak about priesthood

Fr Krzysztof Pawlina

Priests have always been exceptional people in Polish society. When Poland was under the partitions and the communist system they played various functions apart from the religious one. After the fall of the communist regime one can sometimes hear the opinions that priests are not needed any more.
What do young people think about this issue? What does ‘Priest’ mean to them? What does ‘Sacrament of Holy Orders’ mean to them? These questions inspired us to make surveys in randomly selected gymnasiums in Warsaw. The survey did not include questions about sex and social background. The pupils were asked five open questions.

Question one: What does ‘Priest’ mean to you?

Analysing the results of the survey I was astonished to see that a decisive majority of the gymnasium pupils showed positive attitudes towards priesthood. Almost 90% of the group tried to characterise what priest meant to them and wrote positive opinions about priesthood. So what do priests mean to them? About 33% of the young people say that priests are those who celebrate Mass and administer other sacraments. The same number, 33%, claim that priests are those who teach about God, proclaim the Gospel and help people get to know God. 16% of the young people define priests as mediators between men and God. 12% of them define priests as spiritual guides and counsellors. For 8 % priests are those who help them in daily life and for 5 % priests are those who love God and are examples to follow. 3.5 % of the pupils see priests as those who they can talk to about all matters. 2% of the respondents treat priests as their friends. The same number of the respondents says that priests are good people and worthy of respect. Summing up, one can state that the above-mentioned numbers clearly show that a high percentage of the young people have positive attitudes towards priests. As far as the negative attitude is concerned, only 10% of the pupils have it. Responding to the question ‘what does priest mean to you?’ this group uses mostly pejorative terms. Most likely, this attitude results from their negative encounters with priests. Moreover, the respondents in question show a complete lack of elementary knowledge about priesthood.
Answering the question ‘What does priest mean to you?’ they answer, ‘he is a fellow that has chosen a hopeless profession’, ‘a parasite and liar’, ‘he means nothing to me’, ‘he does not play any role in my life’, ‘certainly he is not any kind of authority’, ‘ a businessman’ and ‘an evil man’. Some answers suggest what priests should be and many a time they are not. About 1.5 % of the pupils write, ‘I think that a priest should be a model of faith, an encyclopaedia about God, a good man who can listen to people and give advice.’

Question two: What does ‘Sacrament of Holy Orders’ mean to you?

The analysis of the respondents’ answers leads to the conclusion that regardless of the level of education or their teachers the young people lack knowledge about the meaning of this sacrament. The results clearly show that they do not understand the very term ‘sacrament’. Many of them, ca. 43%, do not differentiate between the person of priest and the sacrament of Holy Orders. They show big helplessness to formulate answers to the question, ‘What does ‘Sacrament of Holy Orders’ mean to you or how do you understand the Sacrament of Holy orders?’ For example, they write, ‘I do not know because that subject has never been taught during any religious instruction.’ Others say about the sacrament, ‘It is something that gives priests authority over God’; ‘A priest is the one that gives communion’; ‘He has Mass.’ 2 % of the respondents have a negative opinion about priesthood. For example, they write, ‘This is something I would not like to meet in my life’; ‘This is a misfortune’ or ‘This is a curse.’ 56% of the gymnasium pupils try to say something positive about this sacrament. Almost 29% state that the sacrament of Holy Orders constitutes ‘a proof of great love for God, total dedication to God and his cause.’ 11% of the respondents say that ‘the sacrament is the result of vocation and vocation is following the call.’
One respondent dared to reflect, ‘The sacrament of Holy Orders is the most binding decision in the life of the man that decides to receive it. He does not only take the oath of faithfulness and obedience to God but assumes the enormous responsibility towards the faithful and other people.’ Almost 8% of the young people, reflecting on priesthood, state that ‘then you cannot have a wife and must renounce your family.’ And 4% of the respondents conclude that this is ‘a decision for the whole life’. 2% of the respondents add that this sacrament constitutes ‘an oath given to God’ whereas 1,6% define it as ‘a difficult task, a mission.’ It is worth noticing that only 1.8% of 500 pupils state that the sacrament of Holy Orders is one of the seven sacraments.

Question three: What is the difference between the sacrament of Holy Orders and the other sacraments?

44% of the gymnasium pupils could not give any answer to the question. They include those who wrote, ‘And how should I know?’ About 55% of the young people are aware of the difference between the sacrament of Holy Orders and the remaining sacraments but only 26 % say that the consequence of receiving the sacrament in question is a total dedication to God. I think it is worth quoting some characteristic responses. ‘Through this sacrament a priest submits his life to God, he is totally dedicated to him or at least he should be. None sacrament requires a total dedication to God’s will.’ Another respondent claims that ‘after receiving this sacrament a given person must be 100% dedicated to God.’ 14 % of the respondents answers the question about the difference between the sacrament of Holy Orders and others sacraments, ‘This sacrament obliges you to keep celibacy’. Almost 5% state that ‘the sacrament of Holy Orders is for the chosen whereas the other sacraments are for all people.’ 2% of the young people claim that this sacrament is received once in life and the same percentage think that ‘it is a great grace and even bigger commitment.’ Over 3% state that ‘someone that receives this sacrament should pray more’; ‘he assumes bigger responsibility for others’ and ‘a specific role in society is connected with it.’

Question four: How does religious instruction help you understand the role of priesthood?

34% of the respondents think that religious instruction does not help them understand the essence of priesthood. They say, ‘the religious lessons rather help us understand faith, God, religion and not priesthood.’ 4.5% of the pupils observe that ‘it is not the lessons that help them understand priesthood but direct contacts with priests in the parish.’ Reading the opinions of the gymnasium pupils who have religious instruction with lay teachers makes you realise that the presence of priests as teachers is needed very much. Some young people say that ‘if the teachers are laymen priests should also come from time to time since then there is religion during religious instruction.’ Another pupil adds, ‘the religious lessons give information about priesthood but, I think, they do not help me understand the very concept of priesthood. One needs something more...’ 14 % of the young people, trying to answer the question how they could be helped to understand priesthood, say, ‘I do not know why I would need such knowledge.’ The majority, 52%, state that religious instruction does not explain anything of the mystery of priestly life. Some pupils, ca. 12%, add that it is their parents that tell them a lot about priesthood.

Question five: What knowledge about priesthood do you need?

Like in the previous questions one can differentiate two groups of responses. 60% of the respondents state, ‘I do not need any knowledge about priesthood. The one I have is enough.’ At the same time this group shows some emotional attitude towards this issue. 33% of the respondents form a group that decisively says, ‘I do not want to hear anything about it.’ Almost 10% of the young people say, ‘What I know is enough’ whereas 13% say that they are not interested in priesthood at all and they add, ‘I will never be a priest so why should I bother about it?’ 29% of the respondents would like to learn something about priesthood.

The list of their expectations is as follows:
1. I would like to get to know what vocation means and how to discern it.
2. What are the obligations and principles that priests must keep?
3. I want some wider and deeper knowledge about priests’ daily lives, especially when they do not fulfil their duties. I mean their private lives. What do they do apart from being at church or celebrating Mass?
4. I would like to know why priests have chosen this way.
5. I would like to know what oath every priest takes.
6. Do priests experience doubts and if yes, why?
7. How do priests feel in their roles and have their lives after ordination changed a lot?
8. Do priests regret having chosen that way and do they miss women and the life they had before ordination?
9. How do priests help people?
10. Where do they get money from and how can they afford so expensive cars?
Finally, I want to quote one statement of a pupil. He wrote, ‘I do not need any knowledge about priesthood, I need a testimony of a priest’s life and this will teach me most.’ It is worth noticing that 10% of 500 pupils are convinced that they have been called to priesthood.

Other general remarks

1. When the young people speak about priesthood they stress the spiritual sphere of this vocation, its supernatural character and expect that priests will be exceptional people.
2. A considerable group of pupils see the sacrament of Holy Orders through the prism of rejecting marriage. They notice only this side of priesthood and thus they say, ‘May this misfortune not fall on me’; ‘What difficult life it is!’ and ‘It would limit my life.’
3. About 15% of the respondents see parish priest as ‘a fellow who deals with business in the parish’. But they have different opinions about young priests. For example, they write, ‘If the old priest lets them act they can do something.’ It shows how they see the relationships between priests.
4. Young people do not know and do not use proper terminology in the responses concenring priesthood. For instance, the respondents write, ‘For me a priest is the one that has Mass’ or ‘The one that gives sacraments.’ Only one out of 500 pupils used the proper term ‘to celebrate Mass’ whereas children in elementary schools are taught that Masses are celebrated and sacraments are celebrated or administered. The young people do not know these terms and replace them with the verbs, ‘give’, ‘take’ or ‘have’. At the same time the young people are not aware of their lack since they daringly state that they cannot describe and explain the reality of priesthood and that they lack proper words.

"Niedziela" 15/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: