Monday, August 31, 2009

France: Recognizing priests' children

By Catherine Coroller (translation by Rebel Girl)
August 21, 2009

Father Jacques Nieuviarts, director of the national pilgrimage to Lourdes (the one on August 15) was not aware. Mgr. Jacques Perrier, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, had vaguely heard about it on the radio. Father Marie José de Antonio, head of pastoral care for migrants in Hautes-Pyrenees too. Officially at least, the possible recognition by the Vatican of children of priests, revealed on August 2 by the Italian daily La Stampa - and denied the next day by the Pope's spokesperson - was a non-issue for the clergy present in Lourdes last weekend.

According to that newspaper, Claudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, has organized several meetings on the explosive issue of children of priests. Objective: to keep the existence of DNA testing from raising a multitude of lawsuits on paternity recognition before the courts, with the damage it would cause to the finances and image of the Church. The counter-attack devised by the Vatican, according to La Stampa, is a kind of civil contract guaranteeing the social rights of the mother and child. The child could inherit the personal property of his father, and the latter could give him his name, which is difficult for him to do today, except by leaving his ministry.

"Innocents". Fathers Nieuviarts and de Antonio are not against this development. "These children are innocent," says the first. The second agrees: "It's not their fault." Father de Antonio is an elderly man. However, the rule of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, which ordain married men, leaves him dreaming: "When I see Lebanese Maronite priests who are fathers, I sometimes think if I had done my studies in Lebanon, I could have married too."

Ideally, Jacques Perrier is not against the recognition of children of priests either. "There may be something to do." But for him, it's a microproblem. "There are certainly cases, but perhaps fewer than we imagine. We have not seen a group of 500 fellow-priests come forward. In the three diocese where I have been, I was aware of only one case. And the priest left the church to get married." "The bishops always repeat the same arguments," retorted Jean Combe, a former priest, a member of Plein Jour, the support group for companions of priests in the struggle for abolition of the rule of celibacy in the Catholic Church. Although there are no statistics available for France, there are 3,000 children of priests in Germany, according to the British Catholic weekly The Tablet.

As for the key stakeholders, the children, priests' companions and defrocked priests, reactions vascillate between hope and bitterness. Marc Bradfer, son of a priest is convinced that Rome is condemned to proceed: "The DNA tests are conclusive and the church will be forced to clarify its position so as not to be cornered by the judgments and scandals." "It is true that there are descendants of priests who could turn up, and that the Vatican is afraid of scandals of the kind that happened in the United States" with pedophilia, Bernard Corbineau, a member of the European Federation of Married Priests, also opines. However, he does not believe in a rapid evolution of the Vatican: "I am very skeptical."

Money. Would the recognition of priests' children radically change their situation? "First, it is not established; the Vatican is feeling its way," observes Dominique Venturini, president of Plein Jour. And then, the reason that Benedict XVI is considering this evolution is neither humane nor humanitarian, it is a question of money, so that the children do not claim an inheritance from their father. "Finally," she stresses, "What about women in this story? Nothing. They do not exist. What we want is recognition of the couple." For Marc Bradfer, however, recognition of the child includes that of the mother: "There is no child without a woman. To recognize the fruit is to recognize the trees that made them ripen and be born."

Also the son of a clergyman, Jean-François Jaudon wishes that the Church would go further. "It seems to me important that the Vatican allow priests to live their lives as men as they see fit, allowing them to marry and to start a family in the same way as in Islam or Judaism." For Bernard Corbineau, "the Church would have to finally recognize that a man can serve religiously in a marriage as well as in celibacy." For "it is not chastity or celibacy that makes the priest, it is his commitment."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Catholics in Saltillo, Mexico divided on celibacy

By Jesús Castro
Vanguardia (Mexico)
August 23, 2009

The old debate on priestly celibacy continues and now in the Saltillo community, public opinion is divided. According to a poll by Vanguardia, 55 percent of Catholics surveyed agreed that priests should be allowed to choose between getting married or being single.

Over half of those surveyed think that the number of priests is insufficient to tend to the Catholic community.

Sixty-seven percent of those who were polled think that if the Church allowed clerics to marry, it would be a motivating factor for young men deciding to enter seminary.

The survey also showed that priests continue to have the esteem and trust of the faithful, since 52 percent would allow their children to live in the house of a priest, concluding that it would be good for their spiritual formation.

Nonetheless, 84 percent believe that many of the pedophilia scandals and priests with secret families are due to the celibacy requirement for clergy.

On the other hand, among those who are not in favor of allowing priests to marry, there are many answers such as "because it's a rule of the Church", "people would view it as wrong", "that's how Christ ordered it", without offering any weighty reasons, like those raised in the report last Monday in Semanario.

"Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus asked his disciples to be bachelors," said Mario Mullo, president of the Latin American Federation of Married Priests, and even Bishop Raúl Vera himself agreed that celibacy "is nothing essential to priestly ministry, and that is precisely the reason why there are arguments about celibacy, because celibacy is not essential to the sacrament, but it is a discipline," that the Pope can change if he wants to, but the subject is "not up for discussion", the prelate stated.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"I am a priest and I am married"

By Jesús Castro (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Vanguardia (Mexico)
August 17, 2009

"I am Veremundo Carrillo, I have been a Catholic priest for forty years and have been married for twenty years to Rosario Reveles, with whom I have two children."

"My name is Flor de María Sandoval Vázquez, a doctor by profession, I am the daughter of Eulalio Sandoval Trejo and María Vázquez Sosa; he is a priest and she was the mother superior of a convent."

Luis Miguel Sánchez: "Yes, I am a priest, I live here in Saltillo, but I am from Acuña, I have had my wife since 2000 and I am happy with my three children, two boys and a girl."

They, like over 100,000 cases in the world (3 thousand in Mexico according to the International Federation of Married Priests), dream that one day the Roman Curia will agree to optional celibacy for priests.

But now, in this 2009 that Pope Benedict XVI has consecrated and dedicated as the Year of the Priest, Rome's interest in its ministers does not appear so genuine. The Vatican has closed the door to dialogue with those who would open the debate on priests being able to marry or married laymen being able to receive Holy Orders.

"That is not going to change, celibacy is a gift of the Church, a gift from God," says Christopher Pierre, the apostolic nuncio, refusing to go deeper into the subject. Raúl Vera himself, the bishop of Saltillo, sustains in an interview: "That (celibacy) is not up for discussion in the Church at all."

Nonetheless, Vera, Mario Mullo, president of the Latin American Federation of Married Priests, and Veremundo Carrillo, all agree that the first apostles had wives and children and that up to the 16th century it was a very common situation.

That has been proven historically. There have been popes whose sons were popes, saints whose sons were popes, saints whose sons were priests, bishops, cardinals, archbishops, and even kings.

Then "if it doesn't say in any part of the Bible that Jesus required or obliged priests to be celibate, why does the Church demand that they be?" -- it's the voice of Mario Mullo, but also the root of a debate that has not been listened to by the Church for centuries.


He looks like a priest -- you an see it in his walk -- his speech is like a constant homily. It was easy to identify Veremundo Carrillo in the Instituto Zacatecano de Cultura. He had barely opened his lips when he revealed what could not be concealed: "Yes, I am the priest." We had not asked him anything, but he already knew we had guessed.

A dark jacket over a polo shirt and dress pants give him the appearance that he surely acquired in seminary, and maintains today, half a century later.

"But I am no longer in the ministry, I have been married since 1982," he confesses as if he were going to come out with a story worthy of Almodóvar.

"I always liked women" -- that was one of the first sentences that from him, a gentleman of almost seventy, sounded strange. He uses glasses, but the movement of his eyebrows and his shining eyes show a natural gallantry that he says he always had with women.

So, why did you become a priest?, we asked him.

"From the moment I entered seminary, at that age, I began to see the implications of celibacy. Of course I felt a great attraction to women and to one in particular. And, well, I renounced that -- I don't think that even the girl I liked realized that I was renouncing her. I saw that this was one of the requirements and I decided to accept celibacy -- God would help me now, I said."

I was 12 years old. The rest of his stay in the Zacatecas Seminary and then in Montezuma, New Mexico, United States, was a struggle against this natural instinct, that the formation directors in the Seminary characterized as sinful.

Jean Meyer, in his book Celibato sacerdotal ("Priestly Celibacy") cites on several occasions how Rome condemned sexual practices including between spouses:

"Now, Lord, you know that I take this wife of mine not because of lust, but for the desire to have descendants that will bless your name forever" (Tobit 8:7) is the Biblical text on which the Church even today bases its indication in Canon Law that coitus should have procreation as its main goal.

The author notes that from the 1st to the 10th century, even priests were required to "abstain from having sexual relations with their wives on the day in which they would be celebrating the Eucharist."

"Nothing more contrary to what the Bible itself says," Mario Muller, president of the Latin American Federation of Married Priests observes, and he quotes from the book of Genesis: "It is not good for the man to be alone...and [he] unites with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."


But Veremundo's priestly vocation was genuine. "It was the most beautiful phase of my life, I do not regret my priestly vocation, I was completely sure I wanted to be a priest," he says.

He was ordained a priest and because of his intellectual gifts, they sent him to study in Salamanca, Spain, from which he returned a doctor in Greco-Roman Classical Philology, also steeped in liberation theology and partaking of the principles of the Cuban Revolution. It was 1968.

He worked close to the poor and with the peasants. In the University of Zacatecas, where he gave classes, he identified with the masters of the left -- even his own bishop came to accuse him of being a Marxist. "You are not able to distinguish between the Christian motivation of the Cross and an atheistic one. It doesn't bother me that I walk with atheists, many of them are better than you," Veremundo answered.

But that was not all that his return to Mexico awakened in him. "I asked God, with that phrase in the Bible that says 'where your treasure is, there will your heart be'."

And where was your heart?

"Well, in women."

Then, being pastor of Jerez and after ten years in the ministry, he realized he could no longer go on carrying that cross. He made a decision: to seek a girlfriend, leave the priesthood, and then get married.

"I am offering my resignation as a priest, I am going to get married," he told the bishop. The prelate, it seems, already learned in how to solve these problems, answered him: "If you want, I'll move you to a better place," but Veremundo didn't accept.

Over the years, Rosario, who became his wife, remembers a similar case. "Once a priest who also left the ministry told us that he said that to the same bishop -- 'but it's that I already have children and a woman' -- and the bishop answered: 'Well, have them, but don't let it be seen, and we will help you to support them.'"

It seems to be the Church's typical solution to avoid scandals, but what bishops like that really foment is what hundreds of married priests are fighting for, "that it be accepted that priests can have children and get married", "returning to the roots of the Church, when celibacy was not obligatory, because this question of obligation is just a discipline, the Church invented it," Mario Mullo opines.

Raúl Vera explains it thus: “Celibacy is imposed on them (priests) because it is a discipline of the Church, but it is also voluntary -- Jesus said clearly in the Gospel of St. Matthew that continence should be voluntary for the Kingdom of Heaven."

But other economic motives existed for this prohibition. Vera says that the clergy from the 4th century on assumed a mentality of feudal advantage: bishops with lands, clerics with princely ranks, priests whose objective was receiving economic compensation.

"Within that mentality, the issue of maintaining a family of course influenced the turn to priestly celibacy," Raúl Vera said.


Veremundo Carrillo knows this; he talks about it his way once he is in his house in the town of Guadalupe, Zacatecas, where he introduces us to his wife, 20 years younger than him. She, with wavy black hair, tells the other part of the story that marked her forever.

A story similar to those that Jean Meyer reveals in his book, when the Church from the Middle Ages on persecuted, jailed, and condemned priests who got married, who had children. Their women were accused of being sinners, provokers, almost demons.

Veremundo met his current wife in Jerez -- she was a parish secretary and taught catechism. Their relationship, before marriage, was never carnal -- they confess that they never kissed. But in 1981 they were already in love and after he separated from priestly ministry, they decided to get married. Then other problems came.

"I lost all my friends in the town. One day when I went up for communion they asked me if I would dare to take communion with that mouth. My best friend told me I could not longer come in to her house. We both went to our old friends, and they shut the door on us", Rosario says.

Flor de María Sandoval Vázquez's parents, Eulalio y María, endured the same thing. He was the priest-chaplain in the convent where his wife was Mother Superior. There, the priest and nun fell in love.

"Well, my mother left the convent in '81, more or less, because she was pregnant and she went to live in Torreón, my father continued to serve in Zacatecas, then my mother went to San Luis and my dad came to visit her each week," says the doctor, seated in the Carrillos' dining room.

They were rejected too, says Flor, "we had no contact with our blood family, they cast us aside. One of my dad's uncles who was also a priest said that we were the daughters of sin, and people spat on my mom in the streets."

Then both the Carrillos and the Sandovals found an association of priests who had resigned that was founded by the late married priest Antonio Quintanar. It was called “Presencia Nueva” ("New Presence") and it later affiliated with the Latin American Federation of Married Priests.

There they found company. Their children learned to view it as normal to say that their fathers were priests. "I told them at school, my dad is a priest, isn't yours?", Flor says.

Also from this trench they have been working to talk with the Catholic Church and present arguments about why they believe that priestly celibacy is now obsolete, archaic, and therefore should be optional.


In spite of his appearance -- more like a good-natured bishop than the father of a family -- Veremundo in particular is not interested in going back to the ministry -- he says that his fight is so that others can take advantage of this possibility, not for himself.

"No, no", he said hurriedly.

Ever since he offered his last Mass in a little town in the Zacatecan mountains, when he announced that he was leaving the ministry, he has not consecrated a single host. Now he says it on the edge of tears: "I didn't cry that day; but now I want to, because the people said goodbye to me with so much affection and I have not forgotten that."

Rosario also speaks: "We are in the Church, there are those who did this in hiding, but not those in the association -- we don't want problems with the Church."

On some occasions, Veremundo says, he has given extreme unction, especially in extreme cases, such as an accident, since with that he is not incurring a violation of his "a divinis" suspension, since those cases are anticipated in Canon Law -- he even heard someone's confession once because it was also an urgent case.

With respect to this, Mario Mullo says: "On some occasions the Eucharist is valid in the family, in small groups, in extreme cases where there is no priest -- in short, they are cases anticipated by Canon Law, but it should not be done publicly, or in defiance of the hierarchy, we are not claiming to be a schism."


"So, the Church, the Pope can abolish the celibacy law for priests?" -- that is the last question we ask Veremundo.

"Of course, because when it did not exist, they created it, clearly they can undo it, they have to study it, propose it and do it, the Pope has that authority," answers the one who now is only called Father by his two sons, professional who would never, he says, be allowed to enter the seminary.

Armando Martínez confirms the fact. “The Pope himself has all the ability to make the change. He could do it with a Papal decision. He would not have to convene a council.

"Surely if such a thing were to happen it would come from a pastoral recommendation, from listening to his bishops, from calling on his cardinals for advice."

Raúl Vera agrees with him, but he sees as impossible that after Vatican II, a Pope would decide to call on the Church again to reflect on a subject that is, he says, "not up for discussion." The president of the Catholic lawyers also indicates that he is certain that the subject of optional celibacy is not on Benedict XVI's agenda.

Jean Mayer cites a conversation between Monsignor Samuel Ruiz and John Paul II, where he asked the Pope's permission to ordain married men in Chiapas, "the Pope answered literally, 'I can't make that decision, but I am not shelving the matter, I am leaving it to my successor.'"

For his part, Mario Mullo is hurt when he admits the impasse with the current Church. "I can't tell you either that celibacy is going to be abolished as long as this Pope lasts or another one comes in, but we will continue to raise consciousness and that will produce change someday. I am sure of that."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is it time to let priests marry?

Following the shocking revelation of Fr. Peter McDonough's love child and his decision to leave the priesthood to focus on being a real father, the Manchester Evening News posed this question to a couple of people...

by Paul Taylor and Simon Donohue
August 13, 2009

NO, they shouldn't marry, says Dr Robert Aston, a former medical officer for Bolton and Wigan:

"The fact that our priests are celibate is something that the great majority of us find of tremendous value," says Dr Aston. "Our priests are fathers. They have given themselves totally to us without reservation.

"That is the essential thing - total self-giving, service, dedication and loyalty to their own people and through their own people to God."

To Dr Aston, 64, the concept of self-denial is a basic Christian principle, and "we as Christians are expected to take up the Cross and follow God, our Lord, and we do that by total self-giving according to our state in life."

But how can a priest plausibly minister to families if he never has a family of his own?

"I can understand people thinking that," says Dr Aston, of Horwich, Bolton.

"But you don't have to be in a particular position yourself to be able to advise others. That's what we expect of lawyers, doctors, all professional people. We don't expect them to be in the same condition as ourselves. In many ways, independence, impartiality and fairness can sometimes be better."

Should the rules of the church alter with the changing times?

"St Paul in the New Testament refers to celibacy as being a desirable state, so we are talking of a tradition which goes right back to the origins of Christianity," says Dr Aston.

"Should truth bend with the fashions of time? I would hope the church would not bend to passing fashions or strong public opinions or democratic process in the form of pressure groups."

Is there a discussion among Catholics as to whether the priesthood should be celibate?

"All things are discussed and have been discussed not just by modern Catholics but throughout the history of the Church. Don't just look at celibacy, look at anything within the Church," he replies.

There are, of course, some Catholic priests who do have families - priests who have come to Catholicism from an Anglican ministry, and been permitted to bring their families with them into the Catholic priesthood. Where do they stand in this argument?

"I would regard them as dedicated people who have given lifetimes of services within their own community," says Dr Aston. "I speak as a former Church of England member myself. I was brought up CofE and became Catholic in my twenties. These are people who had terrible pangs of conscience in not being able to accept the way their own church was going and have sought communion with the Catholic church. There has been a pastoral awareness within the Catholic church of the needs of these people, and an exception made, out of compassion."

YES they should marry, says the Rev Michael Gaine:

AT the age of 79 and having served for the vast majority of his life as a Catholic priest, the Rev Gaine admits that his one regret is never having had a wife and family.

"Perhaps that is something I have missed out on," he says.

"I think that I could have done my job just as well with a family."

Rev Gaine has campaigned for 20 years now on the subject of the ordination of married priests - or priests who might one day go on to become married - and says that it has been a frustrating battle for him against both senior bishops and the might of Rome itself.

He has now disbanded his campaign group, the Movement for the Ordination Of Married Priests, and says that the Roman Catholic church might be inflicting damage upon itself by failing to modernise.

"Twenty years ago, when I first started out on this campaign, it was suggested that lay people within the church simply would not accept the idea of priests who were not celibate.

"I now think that many lay people within the church wouldn't mind so much at all.

"I have written any number of articles to senior people stressing the spiritual, historical and psychological reasons why it makes sense, but to no avail."

Rev Gaine, who served as a teacher at a Catholic college in Liverpool and was a secretary to two prominent north west bishops, says that there are good practical reasons why the ordination of married priests would be good for the church today.

"The number of clergy is declining substantially," he says. "When I first became a priest, there were many, many priests and they tended to live together in a presbytery.

"That meant that there was companionship and support for priests.

"Today I fear that many priests are working alone in communities where they can be quite isolated.

"Allowing married priests would alleviate that problem of isolation and help to increase the number of people seeking ordination."

Rev Gaine says his situation is all the more frustrating given the way the Roman Catholic Church has permitted married priests who have converted from the Anglican church into the fold.

"Those people tend to work in hospitals and prisons and other institutions rather than within parishes, but they are still celebrating mass," he points out.

"It seems to suggest double standards that we have married men leading mass in some parts of the church, but we still do not allow the ordination of men who do not wish to remain celibate into the priesthood."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Priest to the deaf Catholic community resigns

This posting is dedicated to all those priests who think that by hitting their silver jubilee they are home free, as a reminder that the price of celibacy is eternal vigilance. It also makes me very sad that the Church is continuing to lose good men because of an outdated policy. As Padre Alberto was important to Spanish-speaking Catholics internationally, this priest is very important to the deaf community and not just in his native England.

One of the deaf Catholic community's best known priests, Fr. Peter McDonough, who had been serving as pastor of St Joseph's Mission to Deaf People in the Salford diocese, England, has stepped down after admitting he has a four-year old child. Fr. McDonough, who is profoundly deaf and communicates with his flock in sign language, was ordained by Pope John Paul II himself 27 years ago. After a period of reflection and conversation with his bishop, McDonough decided that his first responsibility was to his family. Vicar General Mark Davies said McDonough would be greatly missed. He added: "It was with great sadness that the deaf community and the whole Catholic community in Collyhurst learnt of Father Peter's decision." A video of Fr. McDonough's 25th jubilee is still available on the diocesan Web site.

Fr. McDonough's expertise on deaf ministry will also be missed internationally. He is the author of Ephphata, the proceedings from the first International Catholic Deaf Religions Conference in Liverpool, in 1996. The title 'Ephphata' meaning 'Be Opened', reflects the spirit of the conference, in which thirty-one Deaf Religious and Priests from ten countries came together to share their experiences of deafness and deaf ministry and vocation.

Other articles online by Fr. McDonough about deaf ministry:

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A map to the future church

By Tom Roberts
National Catholic Reporter
July 16, 2009

Part of the "In Search of the Emerging Church" series

She is listed on one Web site as belonging to a "set of people" who "are unfortunately acting like JUDAS -- Just Undermine Doctrine And Spirituality," the designation complete with garish red upper case letters.

OK, so it's not difficult to find off-the-wall extremes in the Catholic ether, and Sr. Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, is somewhat accustomed to being depicted, in her words, as heir to "the bad girl of the Bible."

All of that, however, may say more about how deeply invested we are these days in caricature rather than truth about such matters. In most cases the reality -- conservative to liberal -- is usually less jagged around the edges and more complex than the opposing side would like to think.

In the case of Schenk, the sound bite composite of what she's about -- ordain married men, ordain women, solve the priest shortage -- is as unfair as it is easy to construct.

The reality is that FutureChurch, an organization based in the Cleveland diocese, was one of the first, if not the first, Catholic church groups to understand the deep implications of the growing priest shortage and to begin to act on information that was available to many but spoken about by almost no one. There is, at this point in history, a certain poetic balance to FutureChurch's existence in the diocese, which is going through the throes of a realignment caused largely by the priest shortage.

FutureChurch was organized here in 1990 when the parish council of the Church of the Resurrection, following an eight-month study, passed a resolution in response to a decision by the U.S. bishops to initiate the ritual permitting Sunday worship in the absence of a priest for parishes that didn't have access to Mass on Sunday.

That was a time when parishes in some dioceses could still imagine doing such a thing and when organizers like Schenk could go to the local bishop (it was Anthony Pilla at the time) "to be clear that we respected church leadership and that we respected his leadership. We knew that the decision-making for these issues rested not with him but in Rome," Schenk said in an extended interview in Cleveland in April. The group told Pilla that "we would always do everything we could to be respectful of his leadership, but that we would be public about our concerns." In return they asked that he "avoid undercutting the legitimate theological presuppositions about married priests, and certainly in 1990, the whole discussion of women's ordination, which had not been opposed yet by Rome."

The group was ahead of its time in understanding the problem and took advantage of the leading edge of research that eventually would define one of the fundamental realities that now shapes any conversation about where the church is headed -- there just aren't and won't be enough priests to continue to organize the Catholic community as it has been.

Anyone searching for what might be emerging in the church of the future would do well to pay a visit to Schenk.

That is not to suggest that Schenk and her organization -- which has grown from 36 people representing 16 faith communities in the Cleveland area to 5,000 members from across the country and internationally -- have an inside track at the Vatican or influence with U.S. bishops. Quite the contrary. As one writer once put it, she is among those Catholic idealists who advocate for change but are under no illusions about what they might change. Groups like FutureChurch are at a point in history where they keep assembling the information, educating and wondering what will come of it all.

Let's organize

What about doing nothing and waiting to see what happens? One gets the sense that Schenk is genetically incapable of such passivity. There's a community organizer in her background, and an activist in the Civil Rights era. "It's not good to sit on your anger," she said at one point in the conversation, "You've got to organize."

And so she has.

One of the first things that FutureChurch did was exploit the data that had been generated by sociologists Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence A. Young for their groundbreaking 1993 book, Full Pews and Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priest Shortage in the United States. Schoenherr had been working on the issue for years and the project that resulted in the book was originally sponsored by the then United States Catholic Conference (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) with a grant from the Lilly Endowment. However, as the picture emerged of a church that would increasingly suffer a shortage of priests, some high profile bishops began to disparage the work and ultimately the conference pulled its support.

The work continued under different auspices. Schoenherr's and Young's gloomy predictions may have proven an inconvenient truth for the hierarchy, but it was solid social science that has held up in the years since as the numbers of ordained clergy continued to fall off.

If the bishops didn't like the data, they couldn't refute it. "We were able to use that data diocese by diocese when we went out with our work to let Catholic people know what was going to happen. Over about three years, I probable spoke at about 60 or 70 dioceses," said Schenk. "I lost track after a while."

The organizer had a strategy. She coordinated often with chapters of Call to Action and other local reform groups who would notify the religion writer at the local paper. "We would go in with the statistics from Schoenherr-Young. The news media would go to the diocese and say, 'Is this true?' The diocese would say, 'Yes, it's true,' and then the whole story would come out. Very often it was the first public acknowledgment that the diocese made that yes, the priest shortage was real and it was happening."

All of that occurred between 1995 and 2000.

The group had also developed a program called The Future Priestly Ministry that "laid out all the other ways of meeting the sacramental needs of Catholics besides a male, celibate priesthood," Schenk said. "It had information about a married priesthood and the history of celibacy. It also had materials about women's roles in the church, going back to Jesus and the women [of the New Testament] and the whole history of the suppression of women's leadership in the church."

But then came Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that declared ordination is reserved to men and slammed the door on any discussion of alternatives to an all male celibate clergy. By extension, most parishes slammed the door on the discussion, so FutureChurch had to adjust. The group developed a second project inspired by a study done by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that named 15 things that could be done now to advance women's roles in the church.

Rehabilitating Magdala

The new program meant "putting the whole issue of ordination on the side because women's roles in ministry in the church is a much more convoluted effort politically than the issue of a married priesthood. There was a lot of work that needed to be done on that, so that led us into the whole issue of our Mary of Madgala celebrations."

Schenk and FutureChurch probably had the greatest effect of any single group in rehabilitating, at least for a U.S. audience, the woman who had previously been depicted by male preachers as the reformed prostitute of the New Testament. It all went with raising awareness about biblical women. "When we first launched the study in 1997 or 1998, we were actually written up in The Wanderer saying this is terrible and heretical. In fact, when they checked their facts, they found out that in 1969 the Vatican had acknowledged that she wasn't a prostitute."

FutureChurch began with a few Magdala celebrations, 23 to be precise, around 1997, and the following year the number grew to 153, "and ever since then, we've had between 250 and 400 a year."

"What I realized is that this Mary of Magdala, retrieving historical memory, was touching something very deep in the psyche of women because much as we love Jesus and revere our Catholic Christian tradition, most of us never saw ourselves in the Jesus story because it has always been presented to us as Jesus and 12 men," Schenk said.

"Lo and behold, once we get into the biblical scholarship that's not the case at all, because we know the Galilean discipleship had both women and men."

Schenk speaks with certainty of such things now, and she acts with assurance even though Vegas would give slim odds on her accomplishing the kind of radical change she has in mind for the institutional church. It is difficult to imagine a time when she thought of herself as "a little corn-fed hick from Lima, Ohio" convinced that she'd never get the scholarship to Georgetown University that a priest in high school had encouraged her to pursue. But even back then she thought of herself as "high energy and pretty smart." She got the scholarship and eventually the degree. Then a master's in nursing from Boston College. And later, in 1993, a master's in theology.

All of that and experience as a community organizer with the United Farm Workers Union in Philadelphia and a nurse midwife in Cleveland working with low-income pregnant women. She was 25 before she joined a religious order, the Medical Mission Sisters, with whom she stayed for six years. "But I kept getting depressed and I wasn't so sure about the celibacy thing, so I left. About five years later, I found out I was horribly hypothyroid, and that cured the depression once I figured it out."

In the meantime, she had become deeply involved in her parish and fallen in love with a guy, but it didn't work out. She stayed in touch with her Medical Mission friends, and kept dating, but "it seemed like every time I was dating, I was two-timing God. I just couldn't shake it."

She also kept going on retreats and ultimately realized that religious life "was really my life path." So she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph but not before confessing "that my whole life I seem to end up getting into these causes that can be edgy, and if that was a problem, we had better talk about it." Apparently they were then and continue to be just fine with "edgy." "They have been terrific from the beginning," she said.

The order supported her work with FutureChurch for the first three years until it was clear that it "could become a real organization." The order's leadership "really believed in what we were trying to do, and it's because of them and their belief in the mission that we are around."

Pursuing a bigger God

As much as the mission may appear to be advocating for ordination of married men and women, it is just as much aimed at preserving Catholic communities. She knows all about the demographic shifts underway and the effects of the clergy shortage. She doesn't believe all parishes should be saved, but she does believe that instead of simply mandating downsizing to better match the number of parishes with the number of priests, dioceses should look into alternatives -- from greater use of lay parish coordinators to encouraging greater economic sharing among rich and poor parishes. And, somewhere down the road, even ordaining people who now are excluded from that level of leadership.

Her motivation at times is personal. She took her master's degree in theology at St. Mary's Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland. Her thoughts initially didn't run to ordination. "I was just so glad to have the opportunity, but when I was finishing and my classmates were being ordained and I wasn't, I got it at a whole other level how wrong this was." Her teachers loved to hear her preach and wished they could hear more of her, but there came a time when the pulpit became off limits to her as her male classmates moved on.

"It was at a much deeper level that I recognized what a violation this was of the call of the Spirit in a person. I went through a pretty big grief time, but I have always been blessed with wonderful spiritual directors and I still am."

Since then, she said, she's "come to the realization that my deepest call is more about reform than ministry. I have to say [being prohibited from ordination] was extraordinarily painful because I loved all the theology. I was growing by leaps and bounds inside, and then to see that that was cut off by something as arbitrary as gender. If anything, that fuels my passion for the work I'm doing now."

Her consolation now is the understanding that "Jesus struggled his whole life with his religious tradition. He was about helping it come to a fuller awareness of the breadth and depth of the love of God and stretching their own boundaries. I feel like I'm following a good path there."

She says she regularly checks her motivation. "I ask myself, 'Where is this coming from? Is this coming because you're mad or because it's a passion about being about that big and wide reign of God like Jesus was?" If it's done out of some sense of political correctness, she said, it won't last. "The other thing is far deeper. I console myself that Jesus was rejected by his own tradition and so was Paul. He was thrown out of all the best synagogues in the Mediterranean world, so when I get upset that one diocese or the other won't let me speak on church property, I just remind myself that it's all part of it. … The end result is going to be so worth it."

What is the end?

"The end result is that we can come to a bigger knowledge of how wide the love of God is."

Culture Notes: La pasión de Gabriel

OK! Here is a new film out of Colombia (to be screened nationally in that country starting this Thursday) that showcases a priest who is equally committed to the poor, to peace, and to the woman he loves. "La pasión de Gabriel" is already getting LOTS of buzz in the Spanish media and has garnered a Best Actor award for its star, Andrés Parra (Father Gabriel), in the 2009 Guadalajara Film Festival. The film is written by Diego Vásquez and directed by Luis Alberto “Peto” Restrepo and, in addition to Parra, stars María Cecilia Sánchez as the priest's girlfriend, Silvia.

Official plot synopsis: "Gabriel is a priest who is passionate about life, obsessed with justice and in love with a woman. His deep vocation, his eagerness to help his people advance, and his human passions will be his own crucifixion."

I can't wait until this hits the screen in this country. I especially like the line in the trailer where Silvia, in a pique, asks Father Gabriel: "Do you think it's easy being the priest's girlfriend?" -- to which I'm sure many of the women who read this blog and are in similar relationships will offer a heartfelt "AMEN!" Meanwhile, here is the trailer:


Monday, August 03, 2009

Back at the altar in Fiji

This is such a lovely story, but it reminds us that we should keep striving for a Church where men like Fr. Johns won't need to wait until their wife's death to serve as priests again.

Unbroken vows
By Jone Luvenitoga
Fiji Times
Sunday, August 02, 2009

Father Daniel Robert Johns left the priesthood in 1977 and married the love of his life. She was a nun just as he was in the order of ordained Catholic leaders relinquishing all known physical needs for spiritual enhancement. He took the vow of celibacy and then left the mission again.

On Wednesday, July 28, 2009 after 32 years, he returned to his priestly duties after losing her to a long and agonising battle against diabetes. She was the comforter in his struggle against an incident in the past he held against himself, which caused the death of a very close friend. It was the very reason that drove him out of the church.

It was only after her death that he returned to the church with his spirit revived, continuing the work of assisting those in need of spiritual guidance. And before a congregation of family members, friends and church attendants, he stood at the altar and presided over his first Mass after receiving his letter from the Vatican giving him back the authority that awaited his return.

Those who knew the priest questioned his departure but it was the months of seeing the pain he caused a family that drained his strength like an ebbing tide leaving him tearful and aghast throughout his remaining time with the priesthood. Beyond all sanctity of his priestly duties, he stood powerless against the pain that devoured him day after day.

The year was 1977. A time he will never forget for the events that broke his spirit and had led to his retirement from the church. And getting married was a way to share his pain.

For the next 28 years of their lives they lived and enjoyed themselves with the fondest of memories that seem to decorate his room now. The story of their life captured in the images of time where love once blossomed captivated by the hugs and kisses.

"That was the reason I left the church," Father Johns said.

He was returning from a church mass in the province of Ra where he met a group of friends who were marketing company products to what sounded like a festival in full swing. Having the heart of a good Samaritan he offered them a lift back to their homes and hotels where they were staying.

It was along the highway where fate claimed the life of one of his passengers. They had hurriedly taken her to the hospital where doctors gave them the reassuring news of the minor state of her injuries. Without checking for internal injuries both the doctors and friends including him were so relieved leaving in a state of peace and joy.

"It was just minutes later when doctors called and said she had died while we were still on the highway back home. And being the wife of one of my best friends, every tear that followed seemed to point a finger at me," he said.

He said for months he went from priest to priest trying to find the solace he needed but to no avail.

"Under the power of ordination, there are prayers for everything in the world. A prayer for confession and penance which I seek both, but inside I was dying for comfort and it got worse whenever I met my friends."

He said the belief is such for the Catholic priests who are given the power to forgive sins through confession that lead to the prayer, 'whose sins you forgive will be forgiven. Whose sins you retain will be retained'.

"My sorrows led to the feeling that mine were not forgiven seeing the damage I did to a family so in love," he said.

Leaving the church he said at times he was forced to defend his choices, stating his departure was not against the church nor was it done for another human since he married just months after his departure from the church.

"But marriage took its place in my life as another comfort zone I was desperately seeking."

Withdrawing from the priesthood, they married. For the church wouldn't recognise their marriage provided he was released from the priesthood first. And in the comfort of marriage his life built back the wall once shattered.

She remained in the church as a school teacher but worked from numerous Catholic schools around the islands packing their bags and moving wherever her posting took them.

Together they reaped the luxuries of life with him working in a managerial position always. First at Hookers Fiji where he was the sales manager before joining Flick Pest Control which he assisted in a managerial position and then to Red-All. He was still in the pest control business before the coups of 1987 when he moved to Parliament House as the General Voters Party secretary until 2005. It was the year his soul mate left him forever.

In the final days of her life just minutes away from death, he was sitting beside her holding her hands. She opened her eyes and took one last look at him before closing them forever. He said the colour seemed to drain from her face as death made its claim again.

"It was at that time as I was taking my last long look at her when a miracle took place right before my eyes. And I saw the hands of God at work once more as a reminder of my work that is left here on Earth."

He said her face seemed to glow and she looked full of radiance. Never once had she looked so beautiful as she did back then. It was only for a while but it was enough for him to understand the reward that awaits a beautiful person is given straight after death.

And on July 28, he returned to his first mass at the Sacred Heart cathedral. A week held holy in the hearts of every Catholic worldwide known in the as 'the feast of Saint Martha, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead.

"Her name was Martha also. Lazarus came back to life. The same thing my wife did for me."

Photo: Father Daniel Robert Johns (right) performing his first mass after 32 years. Assisting him is Father Iosefo Tuvere at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Suva.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Amnesty for priest-fathers?

UPDATE 8/3/2009: In response to inquiries about the story that appeared yesterday, the Vatican press spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi today denied that any such meetings are taking place and called the La Stampa account baseless. I'm leaving both versions up and you can decide what you want to believe. So far, La Stampa has not responded, modified or retracted their initial story.

Some very exciting news out of Rome today. The Italian newspaper La Stampa reports that the Congregation for the Clergy is holding a series of meetings about the issue of priests who have fathered children out of wedlock, essentially aiming to take a pro-active approach to the issue and avert the onslaught of expensive lawsuits that accompanied the sex abuse scandal.

According to La Stampa, some components of the suggested solution, which is based somewhat on the pastoral provision that has allowed for an influx of married priests from other denominations into the Catholic priesthood, include allowing the priests to publicly acknowledge their offspring and give them their last names without losing their clerical positions. The priest's assets would be divided into personal vs. ecclesial and the priest would be able to give his children support and an inheritance from his personal assets, such as his clerical stipend or salary.

Some experts quoted in the article are even suggesting that this might also be paving the way for allowing priests who have sought formal dispensation to get married and who continue to be of good character, to return to some kind of pastoral role, given the indelibility of the sacrament of Holy Orders.

It's not a lot but it's a little sign of hope. Let's keep our fingers crossed.