On resignation of a clergyman

When a priest, bishop, cardinal resigns what exactly does that mean?
Are they still considered priests?
Can they still say mass?
Was there such thing as a priest resigning before Vatican II?
What does it mean exactly?

It depends.
They might resign from being the priest or bishop of a particular assignment, in which case they’d be given another assignment.
Or they might resign competely from public ministry which means that they no longer publicly act as a priest or bishop.

Are they still considered priests?

A priest or bishop is a a priest or bishop forever. Even when “defrocked” they still have the indellible mark on their soul from ordination. Its similiar to baptism and confirmation.

Can they still say mass?

Someone is ordained a priest or bishop always maintains the right to say a private Mass by himself. However, if he has resigned from public ministry then he can no longer publicly say Mass.

NewEnglandPries is quite right, but I thought I’d point out that often we hear this in the context of, “Fortunately Bishop So-and-So has to submit his resignation to the Pope on his 75th birthday, and that’s only two years away …”, that sort of thing. That just means that the bishop will no longer be in charge of running the day-to-day operations of his diocese, and he’ll be succeeded by another bishop, just like Cardinal Mahony will be succeeded by Archbishop Gomez in Los Angeles early next year. He still remains a bishop (or a cardinal, if he is one), he just isn’t in charge of running a diocese anymore.

None of this was invented at Vatican II, don’t worry.

A bishop may resign for a number of reasons. Canonically, bishops are required to turn in their letters of resignation when they turn 75. The Holy Father can either accept the letter or ask them to stay on a little longer until he finds a suitable successor.

Interestingly enough, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger turned in his letter of resignation as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith when he turned 75 back in 2002. Pope John Paul II looked at it and promptly pitched it.

Another reason for resignation may be because a prelate, often an archbishop, is asked to serve the Church in one of the curias as prefect. This was the case with William Cardinal Leveda who resigned from his post as Archbishop to head the CDF, and Antonio Cardinal Canizares Llorea who also resigned as Archbishop of Toledo to head the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Archbishop Raymond Burke also resigned as Archbishop of St. Louis to become the Prefect of the Apostolic Signature (curial department that deals with Canon Law).

It depends, it may mean they tender their resignation at the designated age for retirement, and it is up to the Vatican to accept it, or it may mean they resign from their current assignment due to health or other burdens that make it too hard to continue. A priest who retires is still a priest, still subject to a bishop or religious superior, still has the obligation to say Mass and the Divine Office unless that is lifted due to ill health. Our retired bishop will continue to reside in the diocese for the time being, assisting where he is needed, he is sharing in confirmations for instance. Retired priests often still have at least a 40 hour work week, assisting other parishes and ministries, at least here the ones not actually confined to a nursing home work very hard.

If a priest wants to leave and return to lay life he has to not only resign but specifically request a return to the lay state, which is by no means automatic, and must go through the Vatican. He may not marry until that process is complete, and while he remains a priest forever, is no longer incardinated, that is no longer has faculties to say Mass or confect the sacraments. In case of real emergency he can hear the confession of someone at the point of death, but he may not undertake any public ministry or apostolate in the Church.

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