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Australian pastor wonders if resigned priests have a message


It is 20 years since I was ordained as a priest. I look at my ordination photographs occasionally, and I recall the joy and wonder of that happy July evening in 1979.

It does cause some sadness, though, when I recognize that quite a few of the priests present that night are no longer in active ministry.

I remember their example of youthful exuberance, and the hopes and dreams they shared for what lay ahead. Some served for many years in various parishes throughout the archdiocese, but they are not with us now.

A number of reasons lie behind their absence. Many of those who have resigned the priesthood in the past 20 years have done so because of their desire for meaningful and romantic intimacy with a partner (be they a woman or a man).

The promise of celibacy precludes that individual intimate connection and any genital activity that might follow.

However, some young seminarians and priests experience their first “falling in love” while training for or even after ordination.

When that happens, they are faced with life-changing decisions. If ordained, they must decide whether to stay, to leave, to become involved in a secret affair or to suppress and deny the very human feelings they are experiencing.

The priest may no longer be a young man either, and his decision may include separating himself from a ministry that he has exercised all his adult life.

Some who leave the priesthood would still be actively ministering in parishes if it were possible to combine their priesthood and their desire for a singular relationship with a partner.

So what happens to such men if they decide to leave? Some, sadly, are never heard of again.

The process of laicisation (rescinding of priestly ordination) is far from an easy one. The present pope appears willing to expedite only the cases of those who are very old or those with life-threatening illness.

Many former priests have been told not to bother applying for laicisation (and are then referred to as being “on leave” even though they are married and have children).

Others have been asked to admit to being psychologically “disturbed” so that their priestly obligations can be dispensed. They find this demand to be demeaning (what is “disturbed” about falling in love?) and feel that the church they have faithfully served for so long in the past has rejected them.

And so they walk away angry and disillusioned.

Some choose to worship in other Christian denominations.

Quite a number continue to be part of parish communities, but are restricted in how active a role they can play.

Some bishops will not even allow them to proclaim the word of God or distribute Communion at weekend Masses.

To me, it seems quite silly and rather wasteful to ignore their gifts and talents, especially in these times of low and ever-decreasing clergy numbers.

Those talents include pastoral leadership, counseling, liturgical expertise and parish administration.

It is even sadder when those gifts and talents are not just ignored but actively rejected by the official church.

How can we continue to pray for an increase of vocations when we turn our backs on men who have years of experience and who are willing to give of themselves?

We should remember that a person is not ordained to the priesthood or received into religious life as a reward for their piety, goodness or holiness.

No, they are only ordained or professed because God chooses them, and they have the courage to respond to that call. And God often chooses that which is weak and fumbling and sinful. That is God’s business.

A question I often ask myself is why there aren’t as many young men answering God’s call to priesthood these days. I believe that the young people of today are no less generous than those in former days, and they would be just as willing to respond if they received a call or invitation. Could it be that the Lord is sending us a message?

Why call more when we say no to those who have already said yes themselves?

A number of years ago I read the book Prophets or Losses that recounted the stories of some of the Australian priests who left active ministry in the 1960s and ’70s because of the Humanae Vitae, conscription, war and celibacy debates. The author invited his readers to determine whether they considered the men who left priesthood to be unfortunate but inevitable losses to the church, or prophets who had a message for the church that was perilous to ignore.

Even though we live in different decades, with different issues confronting us, it seems to me that the question is still relevant for us to ask and answer today.

Fr. John Kilinko is pastor of St. Flannan’s parish in Zillmere, Queensland Province, Australia. This article appears with permission of The Courier-Mail in Brisbane.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999