2. The Church has established a position on sexual activity for priests that scandalizes anyone who understands it. Put simply, a priest cannot marry unless, as a convert minister, he agrees never to repeat this "mistake" if his spouse dies. Otherwise, priests who are sexually active can continue as ministers IF they'll seek forgiveness for their transgressions and let the Church move them to places where their past is unknown. This includes priests having affairs, including those who have offspring as a result, priests who abuse children sexually, and priests who are gay and discreet. The key is that, apart from the priest who marries, the rest can be controlled and their sexual activity can be interpreted as a deviation, not a commitment to another person. It's an awful scandal that runs through all levels of the priesthood and wrongly colors suspicions of priests who are faithful to celibacy. In principle, the Church rejects the mandate of Genesis that urges humans to recognize that it is not good to live alone.
3. If you're a priest and marry, you're on your own in continuing ministry. No one in authority is there to guide you or to restrict you. You're fully responsible for everything you do and say. I haven't used an authorized canon for 40 years and I've always tried to make the content of baptisms and confirmations statements that people of faith can accept -- no exorcisms or original sin. I judge remarriage cases and decide whether the new union should be blessed. In short, you become a true adult minister, responsible for building honest faith and preserving the basic truths of the sacraments and making them relevant to those who celebrate them with you. It's a wonderful but awesome responsibility which priests have exercised throughout Christian history. You get a chance to help the Church's castoffs, the people who will lose all faith unless you're there for them. You live out the words of Hebrews in walking with the Savior on a path that includes no lasting city, no holy city here on earth, but rather a journey of faith with your human brothers and sisters. I remember one wedding when the bride said that she'd like her godfather to bless the rings but she wondered whether this was permitted since he was Jewish. What a pleasure it was to honor his care of her and to make his faith and devotion part of the wedding ceremony!
4. One other surprising lesson can come to married priests about God's mysterious way of opening our eyes to the meaning of human life and revelation. We were brought up as Catholics thinking that the outer rim of humanity was just a land of religious barbarians with dim faith at best. Closer to us were other Christians with their flawed beliefs and practices. And then there was us, the blessed ones who had the core truths and the straight path to God. The paradox one can come to see as a married priest, living outside the Church's holy city, is to learn that quite the opposite is a true picture of creation. We were born into a blessed religious tribe -- and everyone else has their kind of tribe too. If we're fortunate and brave, we learned to see that we needed as Catholics to become more Christian, more aware of the breadth of Christian faith and goodness in fellow Christians. And then we needed to proceed on to become good human beings. Progress is measured by our progress from Catholic to Christian to human, not the reverse. All are God's children and all are recipients of grace. As Catholic priests, we can help all our fellow humans perceive and celebrate the holiness of human life and build bridges, the pontifex role, to help all our human brothers and sisters benefit from the wisdom of Jesus that was never meant to separate humans or put them down but to unite them. And we can learn the wisdom of others too and enrich our sense of the countless holy moments of life.
Just a simple factual note that underlies this last point. Since the beginning of human life, about 106 billion fellow humans have ever been born. Working back from the current estimate of about 1.2 billion Catholics and maybe 2 billion Christians (a very high figure), it's likely that no more than one out of every eight to ten humans ever born were Catholics. If God loved everyone who has ever seen the light of day, could it ever make sense that our destiny was to become a cheerleader for a small fraction of God's family rather than to learn from the graces of our births that our destiny was to join the whole human family and respect God's whole dream for humankind?
To conclude, looking back 40 years or more, I would never have chosen to "leave" the priesthood or the Church but imagined that I would spend my life as one of the Church's servants. But I discovered that I had to choose between continuing as I was or choosing to take a leap into marriage without giving up priesthood, and to risk the unknowns that filled the future. I'm so glad I made the choice to marry and to refuse to buy into the Church's mechanism for turning this choice of grace into an acknowledgement of a mistake -- the laicization process -- where the Church shows that somehow ordination was an honest mistake of Church officials. No, it was not a mistake and in God's good time, the grace of God that drove thousands of priests to marry and continue ministry will be recognized for the outpouring of grace that it has been.
When considering lessons that I learned in my transition from active ministry in the priesthood. I can think of two that stand out above all others there might be: 1) A priest’s ministry is enhanced by a romantic relationship; and 2) The institutional church has little or no use for a transitioned priest.
1) MINISTRY IS ENHANCED BY A ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP.
Love begets love. When I fell in love I became more capable of love and outreach. As I look back over my years in the priesthood, I can see how my focus gradually shifted from an impersonal, authoritarian and legalistic stance to one that was more personal, flexible and compassionate. This was even attested by a parishioner, who told me, on the occasion of my departure from a parish that I had served for nearly a decade, how I had changed and matured during my time there. I attribute this growth in great part to the nurturing effect of intimate and sexual love. To put it another way, my partners (bless them, each and every one!) have been sacrament for me. Forgive me if that sounds blasphemous; it is nonetheless true. There is, of course, a downside as well. There was the constant fear of being found out, though we were always discreet and never “got caught.” I can’t begin to imagine how wonderful it would have been to have enjoyed this sacramental relationship openly, and how much more it would have contributed to the effectiveness of my ministry in the priesthood.
2) THE INSTITUTIONAL CATHOLIC CHURCH
HAS LITTLE OR NO USE FOR A TRANSITIONED PRIEST.
This lesson was imparted to me by a thunderously loud silence as well as by a number of messages were delivered to me.
The therapeutic institution in which I received intensive counselling prior to my departure from ministry boasted an aftercare program. I was assured that after my sojourn there a representative of the institution would visit me to see how I was doing, and there would be, at the institution itself, an “aftercare reunion” of alumni at which we could share our journey with other counselees and refresh the course of our therapy. Neither of these events took place for me. It appears that they were meant only for priests who had decided to return to ministry.
When my decision to leave was finalized, the bishop, spontaneously, suggested putting a small announcement in the diocesan paper to that effect. Figuring that this was a great idea because it would give all of my friends and former parishioners the correct information about me, I heartily and gratefully endorsed the idea. However, the bishop changed his mind and later informed me that he was not going to do it.
Even though there were a number of needs in the diocese that I could have served, I was invited to serve none of them; no consideration was apparently ever given to how my talents and my training might have been valuable to the diocese and utilized to serve various needs. During the year that I lived alone in my apartment while I awaited my dispensation, I was visited neither by the pastor of the parish in which I resided nor by the Vicar for Priests. The only clergyman that visited me was the priest appointed by the bishop to interview me for my dispensation and inform me of its having been granted.
My computer skills and canonical qualifications would have made me useful to the diocesan tribunal, but I was informed that my services were no longer desired in that area and that the work was to be entrusted only to priests in good standing. In addition, a number of restrictions were imposed upon me in conjunction with being dispensed from the obligation of celibacy: I was not to teach in a Catholic school; I was not to teach theology in any school; I was not to manage or supervise any CCD program in the parish; I was not to be a lector at Mass; I was not to be an extraordinary minister of Eucharist; I was not to reside in any city where I had served as a priest.
It was as though, as far as the Church was concerned, I had ceased to exist. How demeaning that was to me, coming from an institution that I had served for over half of my life! In the words of one of my colleagues, who had transitioned some eight years before me, “When the Church blows you away, IT BLOWS YOU AWAY!” (emphasis his)
I wish the Church could learn these lessons as strongly as I have.