Friday, February 23, 2018

A Letter to A Brother Priest Thinking About Leaving the Priesthood

Dear Brother Priest,

One day five years ago, I found myself searching the Internet. The search terms were something that I never imagined I'd be writing: "leave the priesthood." I can't say I was on the verge of leaving the priesthood, but I was disillusioned enough to at least be reading about it. It was a little bit maddening because I knew through and through that I am a priest forever. I knew that I would always be a priest. At the same time, I had a hard time imagining myself remaining a priest in my archdiocese. 

I wasn't having a moral crisis, looking to get married, or rebellious against Church teachings. In fact, I was just the opposite. I had been happy in my priestly life, was a successful pastor, and found joy in teaching the Catholic Faith in all of its fullness. Then, one afternoon I received a phone call from the personnel director informing me that a new pastor was replacing me as part of a new pastoral plan. Although the thought of leaving my assignment was difficult because I really loved the people there, that was not what I found most painful.

What considerably bothered me was that for a month or more after that phone call, I was left in limbo; no assignment, just hanging in the wind. The new pastoral plan for me was neither a plan nor pastoral. It felt to me how I imagined people whose neighborhoods are knocked down by city planners might feel when they are told, "Don't worry! In fifty years this neighborhood will be something really special." That's nice for the people fifty years from now, but the people who live here now don't feel too great about it. One person commenting on the lack of concern for the priests affected said, "Well, we knew there would be some bumps in the road." I remember thinking how nonchalantly one could say that if you didn't happen to be one of the bumps in the road! 

Most distressing to me though was the disillusionment caused by the realization that there was more at play than simply bureaucratic processes forgetting about human realities. There was that type of political maneuvering that is injurious to priestly fraternity. And that is when I began to wonder why I would want to be part of a presbyterate that treats its brothers in this way. It totally shocked me to be thinking in that way, but there I was typing those words into the search bar, "leave the priesthood." Do I think I would ever have done it? No. Thankfully, the Lord had given to me a very strong sense of priestly identity and a strong faith in what the priesthood is. But, the very fact that I was writing those words made me feel a bit like the married person who is going through a rough patch and who decides to read about divorce. 

None of the articles that I found really related to me because they were all about priests who opposed the Church on various moral issues, who fell in love with a woman, or who simply hated the Church. I wasn't angry or hurt because I hated the priesthood or the Church, or because I found another love. I was angry and hurt because I loved the priesthood and the Church, but felt no love in return. 

Then, I came across a homily written by a priest who shared his experience of having been on the verge of leaving the priesthood. There were the words, "disillusionment" and "anger." I didn't know exactly what his experience was, but I knew it was similar. He spoke about how, at the verge of leaving, he was advised by a holy priest to pray more. For whatever reason, this priest's homily touched me. It caused me to give the Lord the benefit of the doubt (though I think I gave the Lord a timeline). I doubled down on prayer. (Eventually, I called that priest. We've been friends since.)

So, I'd like to pay it forward, in a way. I'm writing this blog post in the hope that some priest in similar circumstances might be helped in the way that I was. Let me share with you what I learned from my prayers and from my experience during these past five years. I hope that it helps you.

God wants to use your priesthood. Don't deny him that chance! I know that the experience of being treated poorly can be crushing, but God takes what is crushed and uses it to bring Him Glory. Good wine comes only after the grape is crushed. Good bread requires that the wheat be ground. I cannot tell you how many times in the past five years, I've thought about Genesis 50:20 when Joseph said to his brothers, "You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good." For the past five years, the Holy Spirit has placed those words in my heart repeatedly. The beautiful friendships I've lived over these past five years, the conversions I've witnessed, the profound confessions I've heard, the steady flow of men entering the seminary, vesting newly ordained priests and deacons, preaching at First Masses, the opportunity to witness the spiritual depth of college students; these things, and many more, have all been an affirmation to me that "we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). God wants to use your suffering for His Glory and to produce abundant fruit.

You will also learn to love the Church in a deeper way because you're willing to suffer not only for her, but because of her. You will learn to forgive your enemies and to pray for them. You will learn that you do not need to out calculate the calculating. You will learn to have greater concern for your brother priests, to be even more fearless in preaching the Gospel, to be more attentive to the suffering of others, and to love the priesthood of Jesus Christ even more. You will have a deeper gratitude for the friendship and fraternal bond of good bishops and priests, and you will be more grateful for the friendships you share with the lay faithful . You will be a more authentic priest because you've experienced what it is like to be united not only to Christ's priesthood, but also to his Victimhood. 

Hang in there, brother. You are not alone. You are united to Jesus Christ!


  1. Very well written and moving David. I was in a similar boat 5 years ago and feeling the same way, disillusioned and abandoned. I wished I had had it in me to schedule out to you at the time, bit I felt very much alone. I enjoy following you ministry at BU, you have done amazing things. You are indeed a fine and dedicated priest of the Church! Thank you for your priesthood.

  2. The pastor of my parish (St. Mary’s, Norwalk, Connecticut) long has felt that priests need a greater sense of community to support one another. In recent years he has been inviting a (usually young) priest to preach at Vespers (at 5 PM on first Sunday of each month; usus antiquior cum cantu gregoriano). He then prepares dinner for them in the rectory. He will retire in June, but I hope that his (already-named) successor will continue this practice.

    1. Fr. Cipolla is a great priest. I sent him a note this morning complementing him on his "Better a Millstone" on Rorate. I'm sorry he's retiring. There aren't too many like him. Fr. Barnes comes close.

  3. Thank you for sharing your heart. Over the years I have known several priests that have left the priesthood and it breaks my heart to see them discouraged to the point of leaving. One day I sat down and wrote the name of every priest that had been a blessing in my life, the list was long and put a check next to those that had left the priesthood. The list was too long. It was then that I decided that my most important ministry within the Church would be to pray for and encourage those that are priest and those that are considering the priesthood and/or religious life and to pray for their saintly and holy perseverance. I have been blessed to know some very good priests but I have also known some that were abusers be it sexual, emotional, and/or spiritual. Praying for our priest, if we want good priest is crucial!!! When I see a priest do something I like I tell him, write a note of encouragement, and let him know that I appreciate his ministry. When he does something that I do not like - I keep it to myself and pray all the more for him. God bless all the priests that faithfully serve our Lord and His Church and may their eternal reward be beyond their wildest expectations! Thank you Fr. David Barnes for sharing your heart with us. How are you doing today? Please be assured of my prayers for you and your ministry.

    1. Sounds like you are a great supporter of priests. Thanks for asking. I’m doing great (which I hope came across in my post and in many other posts). The priesthood is a joyful vocation. Thanks for all that you do.

  4. Beautifully written, and utterly true. Optime fecit!

  5. Believe me, we also felt betrayed when the bureaucracy showed itself more concerned with their collaborative plan than with the shepherding of real people. It has been a big adjustment, especially for the people of St. Mary's. Some of us are adjusting, but some are not. It is a real test of faith to continue to be faithful in these circumstances, but I have learned that it is all part of God's purpose in allowing these trials. The test is whether to be faithful to Jesus and the Church that He lives and breathes in, or to abandon Him because we don't like the temporal circumstances we live in. Being older, I have lived through many changes in the externals of the Church, many different types of personalities in the priests assigned to our parish, many "fads" in liturgy and religious education. The weeds and the wheat grow together, but eventually the chaff is separated from the wheat. Most of the great saints lived through trying times WITHIN the Church, but they triumphed and reformed the Church from within. May we do the same. Jesus said that only one thing is necessary: fidelity to Him. May we live for Him amidst of the passing things of this world to arrive in His Eternal Kingdom.