Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Priests Leave

Fr. Federico Bolletin, a young recently married (and suspended a divinis) Catholic priest, has published an article about the clerical situation in Padua, Italy, titled "Le ragioni dell' abbandono: A Padova un prete su quattro se toglie la veste" ("The reasons for leaving: In Padua one in every four priests takes off the cassock"). English translation by Rebel Girl.

The Facts

A year after the suspension a divinis signed by Bishop Antonio Mattiazzo (which was followed by excommunication and reduction to lay status), and after Don Sante Sguotti's notification, a calm and serious reflection about this hard phenomenon must take place. The fact is that in recent years, the resignations of Paduan priests continue to increase, mostly among the youngest ones. It has not been just the "Don Sante case", which was revealed in Il Mattino di Padova, that has aroused regret, shame, and scandal among faithful practicing Catholics, but also the precedent of Don Ugo Moretto, director of Vatican radio and television. On February 21, 2002, an article came out in L'Espresso, "Don Moretto, papá perfetto" ("Don Moretto, the perfect father"), that would cost the journalist [Pino Nicotri], who was condemned to a two-month suspension from the profession; he was acquitted three years later.

In between the two most famous scoops, the Corriere del Veneto reported on April 18, 2004 about the wedding of Don Fabiano Prevedello, presided by Don Giovanni Brusegan. The latter was immediately recalled by the Bishop of Padua and after a few years, ironically, was sent to the Monterosso parish to resolve the matter of the "priest in love" [Don Sante Sguotti].

If the Curia has preferred to remain silent, unless blunders reach unbearable levels, on the secular front, almost paradoxically, a sharp debate has been sparked that has filled the third page of newspapers and numerous Web site forums for days. Everyone has been able to express their view freely.

The data

By browsing the yearbooks that the Church in Padua issues periodically with the names and positions of all the priests in the diocese, you can make some calculations. Some history and memory are required, since the data of those who leave are erased, despite the fact that the sacrament of Holy Orders -- according to Catholic doctrine -- remains imprinted forever on the ordained.

If we look at the past 10 years, 76 diocesan priests were ordained. At least 19 have resigned from the ministry, while those who are currently pausing for reflection can be counted on one hand. This means that approximately one in every four priests in Padua has been defrocked, as they say.

Not to mention the cases in which the bishop himself has recommended to the priest involved in a problem of public order that he step down from his pastorship (see the case of Don Armando Rizzioli, former pastor of Due Carrare, charged on November 4, 2007 with obscene acts in public places and corruption of a minor, or that of Don Silvio Cauduro, the pastor of Pontecorvo, who asked to borrow money and didn't return it). Indeed, if a similar exodus had occurred in any business, management would be asking why.

It is also interesting to note how some priests are engaged in activities not approved by the bishop. Presidents of associations, TV personalities, and do-it-yourself psychologists persevere in their missions, without the approval or stamp of their higher-ups. Are they disobedient?

Those who take advantage of the wealthy and manipulatable faithful are not lacking. And it was known to his superiors that one pastor in the city was taking 800,000 euros a year from the parish coffers to support his lifestyle with his lover. He was simply transferred to another parish; one hopes that he won't drain the account of the new community. Moreover, because of canon law, we know well the faces and names of those who decided to retire, but not of those who tacitly abused their clerical role to satisfy their personal interests.

All of this is happening in one of the most important diocese of Italy, both in geographical size and in fame and prestige.

A recent study was made of the clergy in Padua and two terms best express the current condition of most of the diocesan priests -- "tired and always in a hurry." With all respect for those who perform their duty honestly and with continuous searching, with humility and evangelical radicalism.

But what are the main reasons that lead many priests to leave the ministry?

The reasons

It is difficult to penetrate the minds of those who decide or are forced to leave the ministry. Often insurmountable walls rise up that separate the past from the present, memories from future projects. Almost all have married, but the motive is not just suddenly falling in love. We will list below the main motives that lead the priest, voluntarily or involuntarily, to descend from the altar and sit in his pew with common mortals. The reasons?

1. The impact of a complex and dynamic reality that reveals itself as very different from the forecasts offered and expectations created during the years in seminary. Imagining how the future could be may not always match a reality often made of unexpected encounters, illuminating discoveries, and radical transformations. Finding himself a full-time functionary of sacred ritual was not included in the evangelical dreams of the ordained priest. People want a bureaucrat-priest, ever present for stamps, keys, and photocopies, a harmless preacher of spiritualism far removed from the real dimensions of life, whether economic or political. In the end, the priest who opens his eyes to the real world prefers to break a disciplinary regulation, contingent and imperfect, rather than abandon his fulfillment as a man and a believer. So, better to live in happy disobedience than survive in unhappy obedience!

2. The encounter with the woman awakens those mysterious feelings repressed by exalted rationalism and narcissistic activism. Once he has moved beyond the macho and misogynistic attitude that is present in a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and in a certain Christian tradition, the priest rediscovers himself as a lover and is attracted to someone who can complement him. The discomfort he first tried to manage alone and moralistically, he comes to share with a woman, "she who receives" par excellence. She dries the tears, listens and consoles him. Emotional stability, a relationship with his peers, and the family dimension are so strong that they make him forget the solemn promises he made before the bishop in the light of the selfishness and immaturity of one who has grown up in captivity.

3. The counter-testimony of superiors who preach good and practice evil disturbs the sensibilities of the simplest. What might a young priest think when he realizes that his pastor, a member of the esteemed Diocesan Council of Priests, is entertaining a married catechist late at night in his office in the rectory? Or when he discovers child pornography Web sites on the computer? Not finding the courage to correct his master, the assistant reaches this bitter thought alone: "Enough already! I would rather be true to myself and others than look like a saint and behave like a hypocrite." These situations often become really and truly traumatic ones that require an extensive course of psychotherapy.

4. An unwanted pregnancy or being caught in flagrante forces the priest to resign. Who knows? He probably would have continued to lie and conceal the relationship! But when the evidence is so clear, maybe coming from the hands of private investigators paid by the parishioners themselves, nothing is left for him but to weep and walk away with his tail between his legs. As happened last September 14 in Chioggia, when the professor of Sacred Scripture of the major seminary in Padua was caught in bed with the wife of a parishioner friend. The bishop has defended him, casting blame on the woman temptress, and now he will be thinking of a new appointment to which to assign him. Faced with the enticing proposition from the bishop, who promises economic support for the woman and child and obliges the priest concerned to take a period of recovery in a specialized center, some accept out of personal pride. As was the case of an ex-employee in a parish in the industrial area of Padua. After leaving a girl pregnant, he escaped and found benevolent welcome within the walls of the Vatican, continuing to function in priestly ministry. He is currently running an orphanage in Burundi, while his son in Padua doesn't receive even a phone call or a financial contribution.

The reactions

Although in the past a few priests got to the point of suicide or pretended to be mental patients in order to be locked up in a psychiatric institution, now anyone who leaves the ministry tries to rebuild his life -- hopefully a decent one, but at a steep price.

The reactions are as diverse as the personalities involved and the circumstances leading to such a painful choice.

Most admit or convince themselves that they were not up to such a demanding position and it leaves a feeling of guilt. This attitude leads them to negotiate with the bishop. After all, the Church can still remain a good source of support to find work and bring home the bacon. There is even a delegate under the bishop who tries to encourage the tired priest to ask for dispensation or annulment of the Holy Orders so as to remain in communion with the official Church.

During the course of this, which seems to be increasingly shorter, the "repentant traitor" is struck by a severe identity crisis, various forms of depression and permanent burn out. Psychological therapy, antidepressant drugs, isolation and withdrawal become the most common strategies for survival until dispensation comes, and marriage in the Church and the possibility of teaching Catholic religion in some school outside the city or even in the province.

Others react with anger because of not being listened to during the period of crisis. Treated as numbers not as persons, they slam the door and disappear from circulation.

Finally, there are those who do not surrender. While recognizing the absurdity of the disciplinary rule on mandatory celibacy, they continue to feel that they are priests. The problem is finding a place where they can continue to minister and a group of people who are willing to collaborate. This combative spirit will slowly fade because of the very real circumstances and social context in which the priest lives, but the inner defiance continues. When he enters another educational environment, he tries to bring forward the human and Christian values that he first transmitted in the clerical role.

The open questions

If for some months the debate which fortunately has taken place has been linked to a single person or situation -- Don Sante, yes or no? Milingo, yes or no? -- why not begin a serious and serene reflection on the issues underlying the phenomenon of priests abandoning the ministry?

What initiatives should be proposed?

Gathering signatures to force superiors to assess the situation, listening to the various voices concerned? Of course, some might think that if input isn't coming from the top of the Vatican, what can a single bishop or a local committee of priests and laity do? Yet in the history of the Church, reforms have always come from below, from prophetic individuals or groups of convinced and stubborn people. If the bishop of Padua allows a couple of priests to cultivate special friendships with their respective women, in a brother/sister relationship, why not extend this possibility to others? If some Italian diocese, where the Catholic Church is in close contact with the evangelical, Protestant and Methodist churches, and bishops allow some priests to marry (but don't advertise it), why not send our priests into those areas with their families? They certainly would not be asking for a salary increase! In short, the proposals would be there, but is there the will and the courage to implement them?

Why the need to look for solutions?

Who knows? Maybe it's a problem that only concerns a handful of people. One priest in four! But if the people of God should realize that some ecclesiastical rules are getting in the way of faith and should be reviewed, why not raise one's voice? Where are the roots of the scandals that we read about in the newspapers in which priests and religious are involved? An absence of democracy and participation in internal Church structures, mandatory celibacy, misogynistic and narcissistic formation in the seminaries, the political and economic power of the Vatican, an attitude of superiority towards other Christian denominations, religions, and philosophies of life...

Where to begin?

It is a pity that a person who is trained in theology, the Bible, and pastoral ministry is reduced to teaching religion in primary school just because he decided to get married and have a family! Could he not be more of an "expert" on family and relationship dynamics which, ultimately, are what's most crucial in the life of a human being? St. Paul also says in one of his letters: "...if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God?" (1 Tim. 3:5) How could the value of the experience of the priests who have no assignment from the bishop because of ecclesiastical discipline be enhanced? Wouldn't those small Christian communities that have been deprived of their pastor because of the strong decline in the clergy, be willing to be guided in the study of the Bible, and in human and spiritual development, by a married priest?

About the author:

Federico Bollettin, born in Padua in 1975, was ordained a priest in 2001. After the first years of parish ministry, devoted mainly to the delicate issue of coexistence between people of different cultures, he married and continues his task with greater determination. He has traveled in Italy and abroad to learn the basic ecclesial reality that promotes the renewal of the Catholic Church, inspired by the Second Vatican Council and liberation theology. He attended the Intercultural Institute of Montreal (Canada) and currently works with several organizations that promote intercultural dialogue and encounters. He has just published an autobiographical novel, "Bianco e nera: Amanti per la pelle" ("White and black: lovers through the skin", Gabrielli Editori, 2008).

Photos: Federico 1. with his wife, Fidelia and 2. with his new novel.

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