It’s hardly news that in recent years some priests have been cast out of the church and defrocked. Some are in the middle of litigation. Some are in prison. Some were removed from parishes and simply disappeared. But has anyone noticed how many are voluntarily leaving, through the front door—no sex scandal, no embezzlement, just leaving of their own free will? Five of my colleagues have called it quits in the past three and a half years. All of them are theologically moderate, grounded in the church of the Second Vatican Council, and were effective and talented ministers in highly regarded parishes or diocesan offices. And I wonder—is it just coincidence, or an alarming new trend?
For one of these guys, a two-decade struggle with celibacy finally took its toll. Peace came to him after years of meeting with an insightful spiritual director, and through reading the powerful writings of Fr. Donald Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood and an eloquent articulator of the problems of priestly celibacy. My friend finally figured out for himself that despite what we were told in the ’70s, the “gift” of celibacy doesn’t come with holy orders automatically, like a side of fries, and he decided to leave.
For another, disillusionment proved the decisive factor. For years he had worked hard to “clean up” a significant parish in his diocese, laboring to build an integrated and functional community in his multicultural parish. After twelve years and many bold tasks successfully completed—including raising money for the complete renovation of his church’s interior—he asked for another assignment, only to be denied. He asked again when a different parish opened a few months later and was denied again. After a third denial he realized that he was literally irreplaceable: no other priest wanted his parish, so he was stuck there. His enthusiasm battered, he’s currently on leave from active ministry, and according to the last coffee chat I had with him, he’s unsure if he still wants to be part of the system at all.
A third friend was an administrative official in his diocese. He was on the fast track, gaining a great reputation nationally and all but certainly headed for a miter and crozier—a fact that gave many of us who knew him a great deal of hope for the hierarchy. This friend had never lost touch with parish life. He had a deep understanding of both Catholics in the pew and those who are leading them spiritually. The problem was, the closer he got to the “inner workings” of the machine, the more the machine appalled him. Repeatedly he found himself forced to promote a party line inconsistent with the values of the church he loved and believed in. Ecclesiastical politics, financial sleight-of-hand, and good old-fashioned human corruption wore him down. This “golden boy” surprised everyone with his goodbye—including his bishop, who still doesn’t speak to him.
As for my other two friends, well, they more or less just vanished. Though they return an e-mail occasionally, they were so burned out by the “business” of religion that they really don’t want to talk to me or anyone else who was part of their “old life.” In a kind of reverse baptism, they are making completely new lives for themselves, and have no interest in looking back.
The departure of those five was a curve ball I never saw coming. I know their decisions did not come quickly or easily, but only after long-accumulating frustrations. I knew them to be good priests and supportive brothers. I miss them a lot. Whenever I sensed the black-and-white rigidity of some pastors or the walking-dead apathy of others, whenever I came home from a clergy luncheon dumbfounded by the criticism and negativity toward congregations or other clerics, whenever I had a craving for some “shop talk” with another pastor who actually got excited about the shop, these were the guys I would call. And now they are gone. I keep thinking that they might still be actively ministering if the system were set up differently, with more options and greater latitude in working with diocesan administrations. A twenty-year commitment period for clergy? An option for marriage? Less isolated living situations? Creative outlets for education and enrichment? Something.
There remain other colleagues with whom I can share the ups and downs of parish living, but the church has just lost five good ones right out the front door. Not a trend, I hope. I have to hope.