Catholic bishops don’t get enough sleep, don’t get enough exercise, are subject to constant demands on their time — but are satisfied with their lives. That, at least, is what the first study of U.S. Catholic bishops in decades has learned.
“These are guys who get up in the morning, pray for almost two hours a day, work nearly 10 hours ... and get about six and a half hours of sleep at night,” said the Rev. Stephen Fichter, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. “It [the research] definitely changed my impression of them.”
Fichter is the lead author of “Catholic Bishops in the United States”, published last year, based on a 2016 survey by CARA and personal interviews. More than 200 Catholic bishops current and retired responded. Fichter presented the findings last week during a lecture at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis.
While most Catholics may know their bishops through confirmation ceremonies and other religious occasions, few have a clue what they do during the day or their challenges, hopes or frustrations, Fichter said.
The book offers a rare window into their world, he said.
The average bishop is white, 66 years old, and considers himself theologically moderate or traditional, Fichter said. He prays a lot, spending nearly two hours saying mass, praying the rosary and meditating. He also is a bit of a news hound, spending about 78 minutes a day reading and watching the news — in particular local news.
He rarely works near the community where he grew up and likely had family and lifelong friends. This makes it harder to sustain close friendships and confidantes, as he is ultimately the superior of everyone in his own diocese, Fichter said.
Bishops lead dioceses with an average of 250,000 Catholics served by 87 active priests and with 250 Catholic sisters, most retired, according to the research. Their job duties include priest personnel management, administration, performing religious rites, and being the chief shepherd of the faithful.
“The responsibilities never stop,” said one bishop quoted in the book. “There’s never a tiny pause, any day of the year.”
Bishops grapple with these demands even as the number of their priests decline, parishes merge and close, and reports of clergy abuse and lawsuits continue across the nation — an issue not explored in depth in the research.
“One bishop said, ‘My desk is magnet for all negativity in the diocese,’ ” Fichter recalled.
That bishop described how the stacks of papers on his desk illustrated the problem. Some were letters from parishioners upset that he transferred their pastor. Some were from Catholics who said he was too liberal; others from people who said he was too conservative. There was a stack of angry correspondence about priest sexual abuse, many incidents stretching back to tragedies “before I was even ordained.”
The vast majority of bishops, 95%, agreed strongly or somewhat strongly that secular culture “is hostile to the values of Catholicism,” the survey showed. And 62% viewed criticism of the church in the secular media as somewhat or a great problem to them.
But the bishops clearly feel personal satisfaction from their work. Nearly all, 97%, cited administering sacraments and liturgies as their top satisfactions. As one bishop said: “I just love doing confirmations. ... It’s a great opportunity to be with these young people.”
They also reported satisfaction from participating in the lives of so many people, and being part of a broad Christian community. They are hopeful for the church in the future. They rated youth and young adults as their top source of hope, followed by seminarians and lay leaders.
But some bishops quoted in the book expressed concerns.
“I think many of us are still living in an ideal world that no longer exists and that we are not looking to the real future coming at us,” said one. “Are we going to be flexible enough to figure out what the message is going to mean there?”
Fichter said the study left him with a far deeper understanding of the demands of Catholic bishops in a rapidly changing world.
“What I walked away with is they [bishops] are trying their best to keep people united,” said Fichter, who is also a parish pastor in Wyckoff, N.J. “That comment about a desk being a magnet for negativity, for me that was like ‘wow.’ The bishop wasn’t saying it in a complaining tone.”
Having completed the research, Fichter added: “I’d like to see some follow-up.”