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a priest forever

By Diogenes (articles ) | Nov 16, 2003

Still dismayed by Cardinal O'Brien's apparent unconcern for the spiritual destiny of priests who abandon their vocation, I was pleased to read Prof. Ralph McInerny on the subject. He writes of the moral shock he felt on first encountering a man who had put his priesthood behind him. The year was 1949:

The number of those who deserted the priesthood was minuscule then, and few Catholics were aware of their existence. So unthinkable was their deed that a cloak of silence fell over them. The practicing Catholic, aware enough of his own sins, was unlikely to think that the priest to whom he confessed was subject to temptation, let alone that he would actually desert his post. For a young man thinking of becoming a priest, such desertions were a sobering reminder that ordination did not grant immunity to sin. The paradigm of such defectors was of course Judas Iscariot.

Any sin can be forgiven, thank God, but the priest who left and married created a dilemma for himself impossible of solution. But ... forgiveness was available, although restitution to the active priesthood was often out of the question. One’s sense of dread was balanced by a sense of the infinite mercy of God.

As McInerny says, "All that was long ago. In the wake of Vatican II, men left the priesthood in droves, some by applying for and receiving laicization. Others simply went over the wall." The situation was, and still is in many places, close to anarchic. Yet there are a few indications of a new appreciation of the gravity of one's solemn commitments. McInerny relates an instructive example of a bishop who left his post amid great fanfare to marry and, we have reason to hope, regained before his death a measure of humility:

After so public a departure and so long a public estrangement to return like Nicodemus in the night, eschewing the spotlight at last.

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