The Soul of a Priest: My Conversion to the Pauline Succession
By L.H. Lehmann
Agora Publishing Company, 1933, 145 pp.
Many decades ago, Protestant literature included testimonies from ex-Catholic priests who had accepted Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone and came out of the Roman Catholic church, but in our current era of ecumenical compromise, publishers like Zondervan, Baker, and Thomas Nelson are certainly not interested in that kind of story.
In this autobiography from several generations ago that went through numerous reprints, ex-priest, Leo Herbert Lehmann, recounts his experiences in seminary and as a Catholic priest in Rome, South Africa, and the United States and his eventual conversion to Jesus Christ and Biblical Christianity.
Lehmann was born in 1895 on the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland. His parents both died when he was very young and he was subsequently raised by other family members. He endured a strict education at the hands of the cruel Irish Christian Brothers (the same religious order that taught at my high school) and resolved to become a priest, an extremely prestigious position in those days. He entered Catholic seminary at the age of seventeen at Mungret College near Limerick and then went on to Rome in 1918 to complete his training at the University de Propaganda Fideto to be a missionary priest. Lehmann excelled in his studies and was given some oversight responsibilities in connection with his fellow seminarians.
Lehmann was ordained a priest in 1921 and shortly thereafter was assigned to South Africa as a missionary priest. He recounts his challenging experiences in Rome and Capetown as a priest dealing with the superstitious laity and his corrupt fellow priests. Because of his ties to Mungret Seminary, he was called upon by that institution’s administrators to return to Rome and lend his support in their struggle with the Jesuit order, which sought to bring the seminary portion of Mungret College under its direct control. The squabble eventually reached up to the pope, Benedict XV, who ruled in favor of the seminary’s administrators, but the Jesuits were able to circumvent the papal decree through back door diplomacy and were ultimately able to wrest control of the seminary from the administrators. Lehmann’s eyes were opened for the first time to the corruptness of the Roman church through this internal power struggle. However, he also realized his role in the conflict made him a persona non grata in the eyes of the Jesuits. In 1928, he accepted an assignment to farflung, Gainesville, Florida, in the hopes that he might escape the Jesuits’ attention.
The 1928 U.S. presidential campaign of Catholic candidate, Al Smith, left a bitter taste in Lehmann’s mouth because he was often forced to equivocate publicly regarding the church’s view that American Catholic political office holders, just like Catholics in any country, were expected to place their allegiance to Rome over their obligation to any national constitution.* The suppression of that truth, along with the church’s sacramental system’s inability to actually change Catholics’ moral behavior, as well as the abject failure and hypocrisy of the celibacy rule, which was common knowledge among priests, led Lehmann into despair. His experience at the execution of a Catholic criminal was the final straw. Lehmann realized deep in his soul that he could not offer the condemned man any real spiritual solace.
Lehmann left the priesthood in 1929 and eventually repented of his sin and trusted in the Jesus Christ of the Bible as his Savior by faith alone. He subsequently became associated with Christ’s Mission in New York City, which began in 1883 as a Gospel outreach to Catholic priests and ex-priests. Lehmann was director of Christ’s Mission from 1948 until 1950.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Lehmann’s revelations about the corruption of the priesthood back in 1933 were amazingly prescient in light of the current priest abuse and cover-up scandal tsunami. I especially appreciated Lehmann’s remarks about several quasi-Protestants who famously converted to the Roman church, such as John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton. Today’s ecumenically-minded evangelicals are bewitched by Chesterton’s “verbal wizardry,” which Lehmann dismisses as tiresome “mental shuttlecock.”
A condensed version of “The Soul of a Priest” can be found here.
For a more recently published collection of testimonies from 50 priests who left Roman Catholicism and accepted Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone, see my review of “Far From Rome, Near To God” here.
*Today’s reader will view Lehmann’s warnings of the dangers of Catholic political hegemony as quaintly paranoid, but, prior to Vatican II, the Vatican negotiated diplomatic treaties (aka concordats) with countries where it held a numerical majority that severely limited the freedoms of Protestants.