ROME - Often stressed, lonely and besmirched, Catholic priests and nuns are increasingly at risk of "burnout" and some of them could do with a little therapy, experts said at an unusual conference this week.
Some 200 priests and nuns took part in the symposium entitled "Priests On the Couch" at the Salesian University in Rome, where they were asked to fill in a detailed survey to find out what psychological problems afflict the clergy.
British professor Leslie Francis, who has researched clergy in Australia and Britain, said a majority -- around 59 percent -- were introverted, preferring scholarly studies and personal reflection to socialising.
Francis said members of the clergy often feel "exhausted" by the demands of their ministry and can feel frustrated in a society obsessed with show and image that does not respect the traditional humility of the clerical life.
"The Church attracts many introverts. Our job has to be to equip them better," said Francis, pointing out that one particular focus was in helping clergy to handle human interactions outside of the strictly religious sphere.
Many at the conference felt that it is difficult for priests in trouble to be able to "knock on the door" of therapists without being judged.
Giuseppe Crea, a priest and psychotherapist, said some priests were "150 percent" engaged in their pastoral work and risked a "burnout."
They became so obsessed with their work that they lost perspective and could fall prey to narcissism, ambitiousness and aberrant behaviour, he said.
Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, who organised an unprecedented Vatican conference last month on clerical child abuse, said that integrating priests' "psychological and spiritual dimensions" would help prevent such problems.
The theme was raised publicly last year in Italian director Nanni Moretti's film "Habemus Papam", in which a psychologist is brought in to help the newly elected pope, who has suffered a breakdown and is treated in secret.
Conference participants also deplored the secondary role afforded to women in the Catholic Church and said that priests should have more contact with female instructors during their training to make them more open to diversity.
The seminar looked at issues such as how a priest should react if someone seeking pastoral help makes a pass at him, if people should rat on a nun with a secret drink problem or if stern superiors cause depression among new curates.
"In Africa, when a priest goes to a psychologist people say he is crazy or distance themselves," an African priest told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"We are always a media target but we are also men. Who do we talk to?"
Fabrizio Mastrofini, editor-in-chief at Vatican Radio and co-author of a recent book entitled "Priests On the Couch", said that members of the clergy "need a rounded human education as much as they need bread."
Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian who writes for the Vatican's Osservatore Romano daily, said she had met inspiring youngsters training for the priesthood who then struggled to fit in with the Church's "extremely conformist world."
She said the Catholic culture they entered was "closed in on itself."
Instead of books on family and Christian sexuality, future priests would be better off reading lurid novels that describe real life, she said, adding: "It would be more useful to know about the history of the sexual revolution."
© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse