Leaving the Priesthood, Joys And Struggles Of A Second Life

In Italy, between 5,000 and 7,000 priests have given up their robes. Some ex-priests re-enter lay society with a female companion, others struggle to build a new life from scratch.

Walking away
Walking away
Mauro Pianta

ROME â€" Some have “converted” to being social workers, some have jobs in factories, and others have reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs or salesmen or high school teachers. Many others are desperately seeking work. Few, it should be noted, say they have lost their faith.

Welcome to the (complicated) world of ex-priests, those who abandoned the cassock and returned to everyday society, in some cases accompanied by a wife. It isn’t easy to begin a new life and take on a new identity, to start over without ever having prepared a résumé or hunted for an apartment, especially without the support of the Church or the prospect of a generous pension from the Italian Episcopal Conference.

At times, former priests become prisoners of a sociological and psychological no-man’s land, because while those who give up the priesthood can no longer practice, the impact of taking on holy vows is long-lasting for devout Catholics. In a sense, then, once a priest, always a priest.

As for marriage, ex-priests who opt for a civil service land squarely outside the Church, whereas those who receive a papal dispensation for their abandonment of the priesthood â€" after a lengthy diocesan process â€" can say “I do” in front of a former colleague.

But just how many ex-priests are there? Hard to say. According to estimates from various associations, over the last 50 years in Italy, between 5,000 and 7,000 priests have hung up their robes. One support group for former priests estimates that the number is around 120,000 worldwide in the same period. “But on average, every year 10% of those who leave the priesthood have second thoughts,” says an official in the statistics bureau.

Freedom of choice

In any case, the future of Italy’s army of ex-priests is important to Pope Francis. He said as much when he met the Roman clergy last February.

“We certainly hope for, but don’t really count on, any changes,” says Giovanni Monteasi, a 76-year-old who abandoned the priesthood in 1983 and has since had a son, and pursued a career in professional development.

Dropping the clerical collar â€" Photo: James Ogley

Monteasi is the president of Vocatio, an association of married priests. “We’re not against celibacy, but in favor of the freedom of choice: Priests should be able to choose whether to get married or not,” he says.

Lorenzo Maestri, 83, the director of Sulla Strada magazine, shares Monteasi’s views on celibacy. “I’m happy to have gotten out of this medieval church, even though I paid a very high price: I was a parish priest for 20 years, and when I announced my decision to leave the priesthood I found everyone against me, from the altar boy to the bishop," he recalled.

Maestri had stints as a construction worker, then a sales representative and later a teacher. Most people would regard him suspiciously when he told them about his past, but "over the past few years there’s been less of that,” he noted.

Bills to pay

Of course, ex-priests aren’t just facing their consciences, they’re facing bills at the end of the month. Giuseppe I., 51, gave up the priesthood in January 2014 and then married his partner â€" who today is a teacher â€" in a civil ceremony in Rome. She used to be a nun.

“We were friends. I was actually the one to accompany her on a spiritual journey that led to her joining the congregation and then going on a missionary trip in Africa,” Giuseppe explains. Shortly thereafter, she left the mission, and he began to have doubts.

“We fell in love. It was as though we sensed the passage of God in our lives, almost as though He wanted to create something new and different out of our miserable existences,” Giuseppe says.

Talking to the local bishop, and to a psychologist, and spending a year reflecting in a monastery ultimately did not quash Giuseppe’s doubts.

“Today, I’m looking for a job, I’m taking English classes, and I’d like to get involved in social work with young people," he says. "I’ve sent out dozens of résumés, but no one has answered. I need to work, it’s a question of dignity. We’re renting a place in Rome, and all we have is her salary,” Giuseppe says, without using the word “wife.” He adds: “All my fellow priests have dropped out of contact …”

Would they consider having a child?

“If it happens, we are open to what life has planned for us, and we trust in Providence,” he says.

The bitterness of abandonment has also left its mark on Ernesto Miragoli, 61, from Como. Today, he’s the owner of a construction company with four employees. “I was considered a promising member of the Como clergy,” he recalls. “Passionate about art history, I collaborated with newspapers and location TV stations. Then, I fell in love. I could have served the Church as a married man, but they wouldn’t allow me to. I’d worked for my Church until age 32, and yet, from that day in 1986 forward, I became invisible, a kind of ‘leper.’"

Miragoli says a layman, the director of a local newspaper, gave him a modest paying job. "That allowed me to stay afloat, until â€" after reading a classified ad â€" I became a construction entrepreneur," he says. "Today, I’m the father of three sons, I got a dispensation, my family goes to mass regularly and sometimes, when I hear nonsense coming from the altar, it makes me want to get up their and do the preaching myself.”

For Giuseppe Zanon, 78, from Gottolengo, a town in northern Italy, the priesthood was a long journey away from home, and back again. “My parents were sick, and they put me in boarding school. When I was 13, a priest showed up and said to me, ‘Come to the seminary, you’ll be able to study and play.’ It was a kind of abduction," he recalls.

At 33, he renounced his vows. “Christ doesn’t slam the door in your face because you’re in love, that’s something men do," he said. Zanon moved on to Milan, where he went to university. "I was single for 20 years, then in 1991 I met Daniela and we got married." Only at that point did he go back to Gottolengo, to teach literature at the middle school. He's retired today, and helps out at the parish.

“Do I get offended if someone calls me a priest? Never," he says. When the parish priest gets sick, his friends at the local bar tease him, telling hie could lead the mass. "Even if I no longer ‘practice,” he quips, "I’m still happy to be a priest."

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️


We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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