Praying for Priests Who Leave, Defending Those Who Stay

For the last seven years, I have watched priests hemorrhage out of the priesthood. The reasons for leaving are varied, but center around inappropriate relationships with women, marriage, accusations, burnout, addiction, or other personal reasons. I have yet to see a priest come back once he has requested a leave of absence. It is disheartening to watch and fills me with sorrow. What can be done when 25-30% (or in multiple cases I have seen 67%) of an ordination class leave the priesthood? What about when priests have affairs? The answer is to pray even more fervently for priests, support them spiritually, seek to encourage them in their priestly identity, and become holy ourselves.

Priests are silently suffering. Whether it is enduring two decades of clergy sex abuse scandals, corruption, worldliness, and a collapsing culture or their own wounds, priests carry a tremendously heavy cross. The Church is in a dark age and the evidence is all around us if we have eyes to see. Priests are men given supernatural graces through the Sacraments, but they are weak fallen human beings just like you and I are. They have also received varying degrees of priestly formation, especially when it comes to living a life of prayer.

The lid on seminary sexual escapades and harassment was blown off in 2018, but what was ignored is the abysmal formation that came out of those seminaries, as well as seminary formation for the last 60 years. I have been told by more than one priest in multiple dioceses that they were never taught how to pray. The very place of encountering Christ’s love that is meant to sustain them as they minister to the Church in a collapsing culture was withheld from them by men who did not know how to pray either. It is this lack of prayer and union with Christ that is the death of a priest. Once a man stops seeking the face of the Lord in prayer and turning to the One who is the source of his priestly identity, all bets are off.

When a priest falls into an inappropriate relationship or burnout, it usually means he stopped praying somewhere along the way. The same is true in marriage and religious life. In that vacuum, all the temptations of this world and the overwhelming burden becomes too much. Every priest has a target on his back from the moment he is ordained. The enemy will stop at nothing to seduce him away from the altar of the Eternal High Priest where he belongs. This especially includes romantic relationships that are intended to supplant the kingship of Christ in a priest’s heart.

A man who is not praying and who is not filled with the love of Christ day in and day out will seek love elsewhere. The growing loneliness he feels because he is no longer nurturing his relationship with Christ will become too much for him. We are made for and by love. A priest is meant to remain “in love with Love,” as St. Josemaria Escriva puts it so well. This includes through the aridity, trials, and testing, meant to bring about greater purification, that come once the first fervor of a vocation passes. The same is true in marriage and religious life.

It is easy in desolation to seek consolations in this life from worldly things, including people. Priests can quickly fall into dangerous situations when they reduce a relationship to the things of this world rather than fixing their gaze on Christ and seeking to love with a holy, chaste, and pure charity that can only come from Him through a life of dedicated prayer. This is even harder for those priests who were never taught how to enter into deeper forms of prayer through meditation and contemplation. Only Christ can help the priest to stay faithful to his vocation when he falls in love with one of his spiritual daughters.

Oftentimes, once this happens it is too late to reason with the priest who chooses to walk away. I have for years hoped against hope in prayer for men who left to return, but I have yet to see one come back. Almost all of them are now married and have left the Faith altogether. It fills me with such sorrow, but all I can do is pray for them.

What can we do for the priests who remain?

The answer seems to be that we must support priests now before they fall into the traps being set for them.

First, we need to be people of deep prayer. We need to pray and offer sacrifices for them daily. The laity need to stop assuming their priest is a saint. The chances for saintly priests is about the same as in the laity and religious life at this point in Church history. We are all from the same broken culture that Christ must purify out of us. All priests need our prayers. The temptations to leave can be immense, especially as things continue to spiral out of control. If your priest is a living saint, pray he attains higher degrees of glory. No matter who he is, pray daily for your priest.

We need to pray especially for their prayer lives and their union with Our Eucharistic Lord. The priest whose heart is fixed on Christ’s Real Presence will be able to weather the storms and temptations of his priesthood. A priest whose heart is divided will be in much greater danger. When we pray for them, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to lead them to deeper prayer and spiritual union with the Most Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate Spiritual Director. He will make up for all that was lacking in their formation if they open their hearts to Him.

We need to spiritually protect them in our prayers from inappropriate relationships that could lead them to turn from their ordination promises/vows. One of the ways we do this is by praying in union with Our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, constantly asking them to protect every priest’s call to celibacy and purity of heart. We need to pray that all their relationships be grounded in Christ and against any individuals the enemy would use to draw a priest away from his priestly ministry.

Second, we need to help our priests focus on their spiritual fatherhood. One of the biggest mistakes the laity makes is in leading a priest to focus on material things through conversations that focus only on the things of this world. The lay faithful tend to try to make up for perceived loneliness with gifts, money, esteem, etc. These things are just as dangerous for his spiritual life.

We have an obligation to help them seek the things of heaven and to keep their gaze fixed on Christ, rather than worldly things. This is not always easy. In fact, it can be very difficult depending on the situation, but the Holy Spirit will guide us in helping them live their priestly vocation more fully. The holier the priest, the holier the laity in his care, but sometimes the laity needs to give a loving nudge.

Thirdly, we must be seeking holiness ourselves, so that our families can be an example to them. By living our vocations well, we encourage them to fully embrace their own vocations. Priests need holy families who they can rely on, especially diocesan priests who are isolated from their brother priests. Husbands and fathers can provide a needed example of holy fatherhood to priests. Like much of the culture, many priests have father wounds in need of healing. Strong masculine examples can help fortify and heal them in their spiritual fatherhood.

Holy women can help priests learn how to love in a holy and chaste manner. We are also able to draw out their masculinity in union with Our Blessed Mother in a way that helps them sacrifice and love their flock in deeper ways. We are also uniquely suited to protect and defend their promise of celibacy through our prayers, sacrifices, and encouragement. Given the number of priests leaving the priesthood for affairs, it is essential that we encourage and defend them through our God-given femininity and union with the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The number of priests leaving the priesthood is discouraging and disheartening, but we can still pray for those who leave and fight for those who stay. For those who remain in priestly ministry, we need to be praying and sacrificing daily in an intentional way for them. We need to be holy examples to encourage and strengthen them in their ministry. We need to defend them from spiritual attacks and temptations through our prayers and support. It is an extremely challenging time to be a priest. It is time to start spiritually fighting for them.

Photo by Reiley Costa on Unsplash


Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate with an M.A. in Theology with an emphasis in philosophy. Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths.

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