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Pope Francis meets ex-priests in gesture of mercy

Pope Francis leads a Jubilee audience with socially excluded people in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Nov. 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile

ROME (RNS) Pope Francis on Friday (Nov. 11) made a surprise visit to meet several men who took the controversial step of leaving the priesthood and starting a family.

A Vatican statement said the pope left his residence in the afternoon and traveled to an apartment on the outskirts of Rome where he met seven men who had left the priesthood in recent years. The pontiff also met their families.

It was one of the pontiff’s final gestures in his Jubilee Year of Mercy, which concludes at a Mass in St. Peter’s with new cardinals on Nov. 20, and it was one of the most unusual.

One Friday a month during the jubilee year Francis has made a surprise visit to a different group of people — the elderly in a nursing home, refugees, or infants in a neonatal unit.

Earlier Friday, for example, Francis met with thousands of homeless and marginalized people at the Vatican and asked for their forgiveness.

“I ask your forgiveness if I have ever offended you with my words or for not having said something that I should have,” the pope said, according to Catholic News Service.

“I ask your forgiveness for all the times that we Christians stand before a poor person or a situation of poverty and look the other way,” Francis added.

The meeting later Friday with men who have left the priesthood to marry was much more intimate, and no less poignant.

Former priests lose the close ties to the church they once had and their status raises controversial questions about ordaining married priests or permitting those who have left to marry to return to the clergy.

The Vatican said Francis wanted to express “his closeness and affection” to the men — five Italians, a Spaniard and a Latin American — and their families.

“They spent months and years wrestling with uncertainty and doubts before coming to the decision they had made a mistake by becoming priests,” the statement said, “then decided to leave the priesthood and create a family.”

The pope was greeted warmly by the ex-priests and their children and listened to their personal stories, the Vatican said.

The Vatican said the men had made the difficult decision to leave the priesthood despite opposition from other priests or their families saying periods of “loneliness, misunderstanding, (and) fatigue” had prompted them to reconsider their vocation.

His latest Friday visit may hearten those in Italy and around the world who have urged the pope to review the church’s long-standing policy of mandatory celibacy.

(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.


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  • It would be easy to drop the celibacy requirement since it isn’t in the bible – only voluntary celibacy. It would be easier to recruit clergy. Dropping “no meat Fridays” didn’t seem to harm the church.

  • A very sensible suggestion. Not all who desire to minister in the Church, by which I mean the Church Universal, are called of God to be celibate. And as you have correctly pointed out, it is not dictated as a commandment in any way in the bible. The Old Testament priests were clearly married, and the New Testament provides good evidence that Peter was married; Peter, of course, is claimed by Rome as the 1st pope. An eminently practical and reasonable adjustment which might in effect have some impact on sexual scandals within the RCC.

  • I’ve always been interested by the way the Greek Orthodox Church handles celibacy. My understanding is that, in that system, married priests can ascend to a particular level in the Church’s hierarchy; above that, some of the highest positions are open only to celibate priests. And, to me that is sensible; celibate priests could devote their full time, attention, and love to those roles in a way that I’m not convinced married priests could. I’ve seen married priests with families (in a different Church) have to make too many tough decisions because of their simultaneous roles, each of which is its own calling.

  • I view the position of the Roman Catholic Church requiring mandatory celibacy as a cruel way to control the lives of individuals, in order to gain more power. As a practicing Catholic and as a family physician, I am saddened by how the Church is treating its priests who have left the priesthood just because they fell in love. Also, it makes no sense to me for the Church to interfere in the freedom of choice for a priest to marry or not to marry.

    Mandatory celibacy was created in the 12th century as a method of control. Also, it does not seem appropriate for the Church to tell a priest who is married, that he cannot remarry if his wife dies. Also, life experience is so important for psychosexual and emotional and spiritual growth. Unfortunately, seminary formation suppresses this growth, in my view. Also, the churches that allow a priest to marry but he cannot then become a bishop, are short-sighted, since the celibate bishops have no life experience in certain areas that can be important for growth in the church community, in my view.

    Mandatory celibacy needs to end and priests and bishops need to be respected to make their own decisions as adults on what is best for themselves, whether marriage or celibate single life. Unfortunately, the Church robs priests of their freedom to be adults in certain areas of their lives, in my view.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, MD, MSpir

  • It shouldn’t be necessary to have to constantly make these corrections:

    There is no such entity as an ex-priest. Each of these priests is a priest forever with the indelible mark of ordination on his soul. ‘Forever’ means forever, and ‘indelible’ means indelible.

    They may be ‘not-presently active priests,’ but they did not leave the ontological cohort of the priesthood, and there is nothing ‘former’ about them when it comes to their own priesthood. Neither the RNS nor the Vatican gains anything by trying to deny reality by the use of phrases like ‘former priests’ or ex-priests.’ It doesn’t do any good to apologize for marginalizing people when the media and officials whom they quote keep doing it.

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