Why Catholic Clergy In Poland Are Leaving The Priesthood En Masse
Poland's powerful Catholic Church is facing yet another crisis: following an exodus of parishioners, notably among younger Poles, now priests are leaving the clergy too.
WARSAW — Last month, priests from the archdiocese of Poznań received a list from Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, regretfully informing them that over the summer holidays, several members of the clergy had decided to leave the priesthood. Father Daniel Wachowiak, a parish priest from the Poznań area, along with publicist Tomasz Terlikowski, revealed that a total of five curates— priests in training — decided to leave their posts.
The letter deeply moved the priests belonging to the archdiocese, including a vicar from the Poznań district we spoke to, who was under 40 years old. “The scale of this probably even shocked the archbishop, considering he decided to write such a letter,” he said. “Up until this point, they told us that a few clergymen have been leaving the priesthood, but they framed the numbers in yearly terms. Now, they announce the number of priests leaving within two or three months of summer vacation.”
In spite of all the justifications he provided for clergy members leaving the priesthood, the archbishop's letter concluded on a somewhat surprising note, as he asked priests to remain “faithful to the Church,” and called leaving the priesthood “a personal tragedy,” “a great evil and sin” which will have a ripple effect on others, and “an excuse for their own infidelities.”
Gądecki has called upon former priests to return to their past roles in the Church. “If any priest is involved in sins and evil connections, let him come back, instead of abandoning the priesthood!”, he wrote. “God never withholds grace from those who convert,” he added, continuing that “life in celibacy and priesthood is undoubtedly difficult, but it is not outside the boundaries of our strength and potential.”
Why are Polish priests leaving?
Archbishop Gądecki took it upon himself to diagnose the issue. In his list to the archdiocese, he named, among other reasons, the quality of education available in seminaries as well as the poor level of pastoral work accessible to priests. He also cited certain factors in the priesthood that might be “limiting to their personal development,” which might have contributed to the high number of recent departures.
Take, for example. the lack of efficient movement within the structure of the priesthood. “For systemic reasons, these people are condemned to serve as curates or vicars, rather than priests, for up to 20 years,” Gądecki said. “At a certain age, they stop developing altogether, and often live their best years like children reliant on their parents,” he added.
We are dealing with a vocational decline.
He also criticized the relationship between priests and their trainees, who are largely expected to be obedient without questioning senior members of the clergy. “A 40-year-old man can become the President of Poland, but he can’t become a parish priest, because he is apparently too young,” Gądecki said. “Unless they are given total and personal responsibility for the work they carry out, a person is unable to develop, and a lack of development leads to stagnation.”
According to the archbishop, “the ability of priests and vicars to work together in a team requires reconsideration”. He also placed blame on the system of the Catholic Church itself. “We don’t feel like we belong to a family," he said. "It’s more like we belong to a corporation, in which with some hard work, obedience, and patience, we can somehow build a life for ourselves.”
March 26, 2022, Poznan, Poland: 30th anniversary of the episcopal ordination of Poznan by Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki.
Young priests building churches
“The situation has gotten worse every year. In Poland we are dealing with a demographic decline, and in the Church we are dealing with a vocational decline,” said Father Daniel Wachowiak, a parish priest from Koziegłowy, a village outside of Poznań.
He, along with a significant number of priests, were confused that in spite of accurately diagnosing the situation, Archbishop Gądecki did not propose clear any plans to change the situation, and instead blamed the priests themselves.
“The archbishop writes a lot about vicars and curates nearing their 40s,” said an anonymous 30-year-old vicar working for a Poznań parish, who had his own solutions to offer on the matter. “It would be enough to introduce, for example, a term of office for parish priests. The position can be held for five or 10 years, after which younger ones are given a chance,” he said. “This is quite a common idea, but no one has officially made such a proposal. Of course, out of fear of the consequences.”
“In our archdiocese, you only become a parish priest before 40 when they decide to build a new church costing several million złotys” and need the money to do it, said another vicar from Poznań, who is himself nearing that age. “Eventually they’ll give you a small parish in a village, where you even have to get water from a well yourself,” he continued, adding that “otherwise, there’s no chance” for promotion.
Both vicars provided examples of this from within their archdiocese.
One priest, Fr. Radek Rakowski, because quickly known for his activity in the parish he was assigned to and earned his community's appreciation for it. After becoming a parish priest in Poznań’s Łacine neighborhood at 37, he now gives mass in a storefront, situated on the bottom of an apartment block. Ultimately, he plans to build a new church himself.
Other priests, including Fr. Jacek Rogalski, Fr. Adam Przewoźny, and Fr. Jakub Lechniak became parish priests at similar ages, and are all investing in new places of worship themselves, building churches in Poznan and the surrounding area.
According to the young priests, the structural problems within the Church hierarchy have become especially amplified in recent years. “Today, it is rare that young priests take over large and valued parishes,” added a third priest, who currently works in Poznań. In his view, priests in the past, including auxiliary bishop Gregorz Balcerek, who is currently one of the clergymen responsible for pastoral changes, were offered more opportunities for advancement than those today. “He himself became a parish priest in Winiary when he was 35 years old. And 10 years later he was already a bishop”, said the priest from Poznań, adding that bishop Balcerek “quickly forgot that it is worth appreciating young people.”
February 2, 2018, Wielkopolska, Poland - Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki celebrated the holy mass in cathedral.
A "media attack" on the Church
We wanted to speak about the archbishop’s letter with parish priests as well as vicars, but hit a wall when trying to interview the more senior members of the clergy. The one parish priest who agreed to speak to us, said, “There have been, are, and will be departures from the priesthood. Now, however, there is more talk about them.”
“Whoever thinks that the issue is the undervaluing of vicars under forty is mistaken,” said the parish priest with several years of experience, “you cannot run a big parish in Poznań five or eight years after becoming a priest, just like you can’t become a general after a few years of serving in the army.” According to him, the reason for leaving the priesthood is “simple in the majority of cases – celibacy issues and affairs.”
The archdiocese is not in a good place.
The priest also cited what he deemed attacks by the media targeted at the Church as one of the reasons why many are choosing to leave. “How many times can we explain that not every priest is a pedophile? Not everyone can stand it.”
Some clergy members from the Poznań archdiocese have expressed interest in openly responding to the archbishop’s letter, but they remain divided.
“It would be difficult to work out a reply that at least half of the over 600 priests would sign on to,” said one vicar from Poznań. “Vicars have different interests than parish priests”, he added, arguing that such an effort would be “doomed to fail.”
Some priests are also considering responding individually to the Metropolitan Archbishop of Poznań.
The secrets of the Poznan archdiocese
We asked the spokesperson of the Metropolitan Curia of Poznań, Fr. Marcin Szczepaniak, for data pertaining to the number of priests who left the city’s archdiocese in the past year. He declined to reveal the number. He also denied that five priests left the Church in the past year, a number corroborated by several other sources from within the Church.
“Statistical data regarding dioceses in Poland are prepared by the Institute of Statistics of the Catholic Church (ISKK), and we are not in the habit of disclosing them to the media,” said Szczepaniak.
So we are left with an unofficial comparison: several (five) priests left the priesthood in the summer of 2023 and several priests left earlier in 2022.
The curia spokesman admitted that "departures from the priesthood usually take place during the summer holidays, so it is difficult to accept the reasonableness or appropriateness of the suggested estimates” when it comes to estimating the departures from the full year.
"However, the Metropolitan of Poznań certainly cares about the sanctity of priestly life, hence the letter and the request for priests to take care of their spiritual formation,” Father Szczepaniak concluded.
The ISKK data he cited shows that in 2017 alone, 73 diocesan priests left the priesthood throughout Poland. "The average of abandonments from the priesthood by diocesan priests in the years 2000 to 2017 is 56 per year,” the institute reported three years ago. More recent estimates are not available.
“There was talk about the crisis of priestly vocations and empty seminaries, but bishops rarely write or talk about abandoning the priesthood altogether,” said a vicar from Poznań. “If Archbishop Gądecki decided to do this, then the archdiocese is not in a good place.”
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