Priests. all over the world are being urged by the Vatican to remain in their ministry even though they may feel frustrated or are "morally errant."
A recent issue of L'Osservatore Romano pleaded with –troubled priests" not to abandon their mission, and showed an understanding of their problems rare in Church statements on the subject.
The article, headlined "A Priest Is a Priest," was signed with three asterisks, used customarily to indicate particularly ' authoritative contributions to the Vatican daily. This, and its style, has led to the belief that it was inspired, or even written, by Pope Paul himself.
The Pope has recently expressed deep sorrow over the continuing exodus from the priesthood. In a speech to a group of Italian priests during a recent audience at the Vatican he told them that his "crown of thorns" was his suffering because of the defection of so many in Holy Orders, The article in L'Osservatore Romano said that every priest must "do the impossible to remain at his post" because he, was rendering an important service to Church members in a direct and personal relationship with Jesus.
The article said: "if you commit moral errors — you must not. but it may happen, because you, too, are weak — you have many ways of remedying."
The article did not expressly mention the Church's rule of celibacy for priests; hut the term "moral errors" was understood as an allusion to it. Experts consider the celibacy command. forcefully restated by Pope Paul on several occasions. as a major reason for defections from the priesthood. Recent surveys and polls in various countries appear to bear out this evaluation.
L'Osservatore Romano said that the number of Catholic priests throughout the world today was "about 400,000 fewer than that of doctors." The newspaper . stated that 15,000 to 20,000 priests had given up the ministry "during the last few years," without naming an exact period.
According to some unofficial estimates, almost 10 per cent of all Catholic priests have left the ministry during the last 10 years, some with the consent of Church authorities, others by unilateral decision.
The loss of clergy is aggravated by a sharp decrease in the number of students for the priesthood and the number of priestly ordinations in many. countries.
The Vatican daily said that it was "humanly understandable" if a priest did not want to continue in the ministry. It added that it would not condemn anyone who reached such a painful decision "through an interior process that one can easily imagine gruelling and anguished."
Some priests, commenting on the compassionate attitude of the article, noted that it was in marked contrast to an address by Pope Paul during a Holy Week ceremony in 1971 when he denounced the "moral mediocrity" of some of those leaving the priesthood. and conpared them to Judas,