When A Priest Leaves the Church

It happens. Our beloved priest. The priest that said Mass for us that one time. The priest that celebrated your niece’s First Communion. The priest that helped out at my neighbor’s kid’s school.

Sometimes, priests leave the priesthood.

Sometimes, it is a friendly departure. The priest’s discernment led him to understand his role within the Church to be different from that of a sacramental minister. He and his superior come to an understanding. He remains a member of the community in good standing, albeit standing at a different place in the church.

Sometimes, it is horrific. A trusted leader of the community commits a horrible, unspeakable act. He is removed from the clerical state. We are shaken and outraged—and rightfully so.

Sometimes, it is out of defiance. The priest, for whatever reason, is dissatisfied with the Church and decides to leave it to continue ministry elsewhere. The priest excommunicates himself from the Catholic community.

What does this mean for us? What if it was the priest that married us? What if he baptized our children? What if he was the one to hear my last confession or celebrate last rites for my father? His homilies were the only ones that I really liked! The other priests at our parish don’t get it like he did. I really looked up to him as a spiritual leader.

No matter the circumstances of a priest’s departure, it’s hard. If the separation was on less-than-friendly terms, there might be some pull to follow the priest to his new ministry. If he seemed like the perfect priest, our sense of what the priesthood is can be shaken. There are a lot of questions and emotions.

The easy answer: Before his departure, all of the sacraments celebrated are still valid. Baptisms, marriages, reconciliations, the whole lot. Nothing to worry about there. Except for marriage (whose minister is the couple themselves), our sacraments are celebrated by the priest in persona Christi, as in the person of Christ through the priest is celebrating the sacrament. It doesn’t matter if the priest is in a state of sin or not, if he was already planning his departure or not, or anything else. If he used the form required by the Church and had the intent of conferring the sacrament, it was conferred and can’t be “taken back” because of his state of mind.

After his departure, it’s questionable. The short answer is don’t receive a sacrament from a priest not in good standing with the Church. At best, it’s illicit. At worst, it is invalid, meaning that the sacrament never occurred. An invalid baptism isn’t a baptism at all. An invalid celebration of the Mass means Jesus was never made present. We, as the faithful, can almost always trust that a priest in good standing will celebrate the sacraments in a valid way, but once no longer in good standing, we can’t trust that anymore.

The harder part is dealing with it emotionally and how it can impact our faith. Whether the priest leaves the priesthood or simply reassigned to a different parish, it can take a toll on us spiritually. The key is to remember that we follow the High Priest, Jesus Christ. We may prefer some priests over others, but, at the end of the day, we can’t build our faith upon any single priest, or bishop, or pope. Our faith is built upon a person, yes, but only the person of Jesus Christ.

Whether it is a famous case—like Fr. John Corapi’s departure or Fr. Alberto Cutie leaving the Catholic Church to become Episcopal, or LifeTeen’s founder, Msgr. Dale Fushek’s excommunication or Legionary of Christ founder Fr. Marcial Maciel’s despicable actions—or just a simple pastor of a parish or chaplain at a school, we have to remember that we were not following those men or even simply members of the organizations they founded, but we are followers, only, of Jesus Christ and members, primarily, of His Church.

Don’t get me wrong. Our priests are important and are necessary as our spiritual companions on our pilgrim pathway to our salvation. A great priest will bring untold number of people closer to God. For better or worse, though, priests will come and go in our lives. Priests are far from perfect and we can’t expect them to be.

Anytime someone leaves the Church, it hurts. It hurts that person and it hurts the entire community. Whatever the reason, our reaction should be one of mercy and humility. We shouldn’t gossip about the circumstances or be joyful that he’s “not bothering us anymore” or whatnot. For ourselves, we should pray that we too can learn from the experience, to look for Christ in a different way in different priests, to allow ourselves to remember the great diversity in personality in our spiritual leaders.

For the priest, we should pray for healing, for peace, for the Holy Spirit to continue to be with him. If the circumstances were other than friendly, we should pray for his soul, for his reconciliation with the Church and for the forgiveness of his sins.

While our priests aren’t perfect and some leave ministry, we can remain steadfast in our faith resting firmly on the Eternal High Priest of Jesus Christ and his Church.

  • http://twitter.com/jdzondo Jason Elizondo

    Great post Brandon. 

  • http://lindsayloves.com/ Lindsay

    Awesome post! This is so important to remember, and it applies even more broadly than just priests leaving the Church. It’s important when a friend leaves the Church. It’s important when people who go through the RCIA decide they’ve made a mistake. It’s important when you just don’t gel with certain priests. As with sin, leaving the Church affects the whole community, as you said. However, we’re not supposed to be in the Church for the people, but for the Persons—of the Blessed Trinity.

  • Lorelei Gray

    I would say compassion and love should be extended in most cases — and perhaps the view that God may have called that particular man to another kind of service. We tend to forget that priests and other clergy are first and foremost human beings, and human beings value intimacy above all things. I think in most cases, priests who leave the ministry in good standing are simply moving into a different phase of life. I don’t see why it would be hurtful for a man to, at some point, find that his needs have changed, and is doing the honorable thing in stepping away from the altar. I would trust that man well above the one who forces himself in a life he no longer can honorably serve.

  • Fr A

    Thanks for the post. Just to clarify; technically a priest cannot stop being a priest but he can leave the clerical state. In the loss of the clerical state the priest would lose his faculties to celebrate the sacraments. Here, it gets complicated: when the priest loses his faculty to hear confessions the sacrament is invalid – although if the sacrament is received in ignorance and good faith it is said that the Church supplies the faculty on that occasion; when the priest loses his faculty to say Mass publicly the sacrament remains valid but is illicit; when the priest loses his faculty to assist at marriage the sacrament is invalid; baptism would also be viewed as valid but illicit.
    Your advice is correct – do not seek the sacraments from a priest who has lost the clerical state.