The Father Corapi story continues to unfold, and several bloggers have been keeping everybody up-to-date as to what's going on. I've read these accounts, and pondered them, but since I don't have any particular knowledge or insight to share about the specifics here, I'm going to discuss some general things that are loosely related not only to this situation, but to any situation in which a priest leaves active ministry (except, of course, for retirement due to age or disability or both). I'm speaking solely of situations where a priest "quits" the priesthood (acknowledging that he is still a priest forever, etc.) whether due to his own desires and requests, or against his will because of accusations, allegations, proven criminal conduct, or the like.
1. The negative feelings of the priest's parish family, friends, family, or even "fans" are real, and shouldn't be ignored. If a priest, for example, in a rural parish decides after an agonizing internal struggle that he can't honor his priestly vows and seeks to be released from them, people in his parish family are going to react. Some will be supportive, understanding, kind, and prayerful; others will feel hurt, betrayed, and angry--even if they, too, are prayerful. These feelings are, of course, greatly magnified if there is any scandal attached to the situation: if, for instance, the parishioners arrive at their humble parish one Sunday to find the bishop saying Mass for them, followed by a meeting in which the bishop formally informs them that their pastor has been removed following a serious and credible allegation of abuse of a child (a situation all too unfortunately prevalent in the last decade).
The fact that people have feelings and need to process these feelings when bad things happen is hardly news. But sometimes, some people seem to think that if the bad news involves a priest, all personal feelings are to be suspended, and any honest expression of anger, doubt, fear, a sense of betrayal, or even depression or despair are to be stifled at all costs. This is not healthy, because it is normal and human to have these feelings and to express them (always striving for modest and charitable expression rather than immoderate and intemperate expression, of course).
This stifling of emotion has led to some difficult times for some parishes when, for example, the parish splits in half as half the parishioners defend Father Whosis out of loyalty and the other half are visibly crying, upset, or frustrated at what is going on--and well-meaning peacemakers try to insist that nobody ought to be reacting emotionally in either direction, or even talking about things at all. I've seen a little of this in the various comment box discussions of the Father Corapi matter, and it bothered me, because merely having feelings about the situation and expressing those feelings isn't the same as attacking and judging or mindlessly following Fr. Corapi, as the case might be.
2. If a priest leaves the priesthood for whatever reason, this does not negate any good influence he may have had on your life or your family's lives. Many, many Catholics during the Scandal struggled with this one. How could they ever look at the baptism photos of their children, knowing what Father Whatsit did to other people's children? How could their happy memories of their own First Communion day be retained, knowing that Father Thusandso was committing terrible sins right around that time? How could Father Thatone's marriage prep class--so full of wisdom and insight!--be looked back on fondly, when Father Thatone ran away with the married parish secretary only a few years later?
The truth is, all human beings struggle with this sooner or later, because we all know people--not all or even mostly priests--who are strange combinations of good and bad (and we ourselves are, too). We remember how relatives could talk fondly of Great-grandfather even though he had a serious drinking problem and very loose habits which were a sad trial to his long-suffering wife; it is not hypocritical, but human, to cherish the good in people, even when that is hard to do. If a priest had a good effect on our lives, we should thank God for that; and if that priest later falls, whether into great sin or simply out of the priesthood, we should not think any less of the time in which he was, probably without knowing it, an instrument of God in our lives: for isn't that what we want people to do in regard to us? And isn't the command to do unto others as we would have others do sufficient?
3. No matter why the priest is leaving active ministry, being laicized, etc. the devil did not make him do it. I want to be careful here, because it is quite true that the devil hates the office of the priesthood a great deal. It offends his unholy pride that God should have allowed sinful mortal men the ability to confect the Eucharist, administer the sacraments, and serve as the living conduits of divine sacramental grace for the benefit of the whole Church--and there's no doubt at all that the devil hates the Church.
But when we speak of individuals, we must admit that the devil hates everybody. His special hatred is reserved for saints, regardless of their vocation in life--he hates them because they draw closer and closer to God, further and further away from his tricks, persevering in grace throughout their earthly lives and, drawing their last breaths, escaping him forever.
Some writers have a tendency to say things like: "Fr. Soandso is leaving the priesthood. This is very sad. The devil hates priests--lay people have no idea how greatly and fiercely he tempts them daily..." etc. This is where I think well-meaning people sometimes end up sailing in rather dangerous waters, spiritually speaking, because the undeniable implication in statements like these is that Father Soandso is not responsible for his actions, or at least his culpability is greatly diminished, because after all Satan won't leave a good priest alone and will increase his temptations until the good priest finally falls into sin. The truth, of course, is that priests, like the rest of us, have free will and face temptations from the world and the flesh as well as the devil. If I choose to have dessert when I know I shouldn't, is that the weakness of my flesh or Satan lurking in the freezer next to the ice cream? If someone trades honor and virtue for unscrupulous business dealings to gain wealth and fame, is that the siren song of the world, or Satan beckoning from Wall Street? The truth is, the devil can tempt us through our weaknesses, but our weaknesses are usually centered around the seven deadly sins, the weakness of the flesh, and the appeal to pride and vanity thrown out by the world. Before we say with assurance that Father Soandso has given in to a diabolical temptation, perhaps we should consider whether our intention in saying this is to speak seriously about the nature of sin and the ubiquity of temptation, or whether we're trying to give him a pass for his actions.
4. Praying for priests is an excellent daily habit; no priest has ever fallen into sin or left the priesthood because not enough lay people were praying for him. How can I say that? Well, again, because for a priest to fall into sin one specific thing has to happen: the priest needs to make a free choice to do something wrong. This is, sadly, a surprisingly easy thing for a priest--or any one of us--to do; we do it daily. Yet sometimes when a situation like the Father Corapi one, or like any instance of scandal involving a priest, crops up there is bound to be at least one person piously suggesting that if only we lay people would just pray more, priests would not be tempted so much, or if they were tempted, they would have the strength to resist.
We all need prayer in our lives; it is our daily connection with God. And it is, as I said, a good habit to pray for priests, whether to pray for them generally, or to pray for specific ones (particularly one's own pastor), or to do both. It is likewise good to pray for the Pope, bishops, deacons, lay religious men and women, and one's fellow Catholics, as well as all Christians, all who don't know Christ, all who don't know God, and the whole world. We don't know how, in the economy of salvation, God chooses to use our prayers; but it seems to me we ought to be sure that God is not looking from Heaven on a priest wrestling mightily with some serious temptation and thinking, "Oh, dear. Only 23% of this priest's parishioners have prayed for him in the last week--so I will withhold My grace from him so that he has no recourse but to fall into this sin." Anybody who thinks that's how God operates needs to re-read the Catechism for starters (and I'd go to Deus Caritas Est after that, but that's just a suggestion). Again, I think the ultimate effect of the "Lay people don't pray enough for priests!" guilt trip is to remove the responsibility for the sin (whether grave or not) from the person who committed it.
None of these points are specific to the Father Corapi situation, of course. But I have seen them, or variations on them, every time a priest is accused of something, found guilty of something, leaves the active ministry seeking laicization (and sometimes marriage), and the like. I thought it might be helpful to some to offer my thoughts on these talking points that seem to swirl around discussions of priests who leave active ministry (voluntarily or otherwise).