Priests taking the decision to leave priesthood are faced with long and complex processes that are further exacerbated by the Church’s reluctance to let its members go, according to a Gozitan priest.

Fr Anthony Zammit has been a priest of the Conventual Franciscan order for 27 years and says that for a number of years he has tried different avenues to leave the order, to no avail.

As you advance in age, it becomes harder to find a job and earn a living

“The Vatican and religious institutions can give a person who wishes to leave priesthood a hard time,” the 58-year-old told this newspaper.

He says he first wrote to his superior of his wish to leave the priesthood for a number of reasons several years ago.

However, the answers he received seemed to lead nowhere.

“I’ve since been to Rome four times – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have a thick report of me there, detailing my request to leave.

“A friend of mine once told me the Church authorities keep stalling as much as possible so that you grow old and it becomes even more difficult to leave. As you advance in age, it becomes harder to find a job and earn a living.”

The dispensation papers from the Vatican recently arrived and are awaiting his signature to enable him to regain his secular state.

Fr Zammit explains that as an altar boy and later as a young man, he wished above all to become a priest to help people.

He has worked tirelessly and joyfully in the missions, first spending 10 years in Warrawong, New South Wales, Australia, where he built a church, a friary and modernised the local primary school.

For the past eight years, he has spent a lot of time in Peru, where he has helped another Maltese missionary build a clinic and a kitchen/dining room in the poor parish of Arequipa.

Fr Zammit has founded a high school in Santa Rosa, which currently caters for Form 1 to Form 3 students. Forms 4 and 5 will follow shortly.

He has also cared for countless of children, driving them to hospitals in the capital Lima and paying for their operations.

“A 16-year-old girl can walk after I funded her hip operation,” he smiles. “There are disadvantages to being a sole missionary and not forming part of a society or group but there are also advantages as you can account for every dollar.”

After a number of years serving as a member of the clergy, Fr Zammit experienced a change of heart.

Already people whisper that God has punished me by breaking my hand

Factors that are often cited as having spurred members of the clergy to leave include lack of collegiality, the inability to make important choices about their personal lives, and rigid dogma and ecclesiastical laws that no longer seem credible.

Fr Zammit touched upon a number of these factors.

He also strongly believes that education is the key to eradicating poverty. The formative years of a person, he says, are between birth and age seven.

Children that age are too young to grapple with the abstract concepts inherent in the Church’s teachings, such as Jesus and how He died for us.

“I realised that the Church can be somewhat limited in its teachings. And to be a founder of a school, you must have the possibility of teaching the truth, free from any religious connotations.”

As a priest, his time was also taken up by ceremonies and other priestly duties.

“I have dedicated 27 years of my life to the service of the people of God, under the mantle of the Catholic Church.

“Now I feel I can continue serving the Peruvians under the cloak of education, which I am convinced can turn out to be more efficient in view of the dire situation of the Peruvians I have been working with for the past years.”

Fr Zammit also speaks about the cultivated negative stereotype and tendency to gossip about ex-priests in our culture.

“This is most unfair and already people whisper that God has punished me by breaking my hand,” he says, cradling his bandaged wrist which he fractured after suffering a fall in Peru.

However, many people, he continues, have showered him with their generosity and he feels they should know he will no longer remain a priest.

“I would like to thank Gozo Bishop Mario Grech for his wise counsel and his continued support.

“I hope to be able to return to Peru soon. I pray that my friends will continue to help our registered NGO in Peru with their unconditional altruism and generosity as they have been bestowing in the past.”

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