'Celibacy may come and go, but the priesthood is forever'

February 18, 1994|By Stephen J. Stahley

SARA died in a motel bathtub in Baltimore during the early morning hours of a cold March day in 1988. As her two daughters slept in the one bed they all shared, Sara suffered an epileptic seizure, slipped under the bubbles and drowned.

It was Michelle, the 15-year-old, who discovered her mother motionless in the soapy water. And so a homeless family dissolved one step further into a pair of motherless children in a new city where a motel room with one bed had been their address for almost nine weeks.

The ringing of the phone roused me from a heavy sleep. It was 5:15. A woman officer politely requested that I come as soon as possible to police headquarters. Two homeless children, she said, needed assistance. Memories of countless pre-dawn sick calls from my days as a parish priest returned as I groped for my clothes.

Sara had fled with her children to Baltimore to escape an abusive spouse in Indiana. She had grown up in Baltimore, and most of her family was still in the area. Arriving in the city a week before Christmas, she found no welcome from her relatives. She and her daughters ended up on the street. The Department of Social Services referred them to our agency.

About 10 days before Sara's death, I had made a major transition in my life. Nearing the completion of a year's leave of absence, I had resigned from the Catholic priesthood and the religious order to which I had belonged for almost 20 years. My decision to marry was incompatible with the vocation I had embraced for the better part of my life.

Since June of 1987, I had been living in Baltimore and working for Midtown Churches Community Association, a nonprofit agency serving the homeless. My work with the association consisted of running a soup kitchen, Manna House, and administering a motel program for homeless families. My job had many similarities with the pastoral work I had done in inner-city parishes in Cleveland and Chicago. The most accurate introduction to a city, I had learned, was always from the bottom. . . .

By 6, I had found my way to the basement office at police headquarters. Michelle and her younger sister, Kim, were there with the officer who had called me 45 minutes before. Both girls came over to me and held on to me so tightly that I struggled hard to breathe. The sound of their crying filled the small room.

By midmorning, our caseworker from the soup kitchen had arrived. As I was leaving, I asked Michelle if there was anything I could do.

"Yes," she said without hesitation. "Can you preach the funeral for my mother?"

Her request caught me off guard. My status as a "priest-on-leave" had been well known to everyone at Manna House. No one was too concerned about the details. To them it was a simple matter of my making up my mind whether I needed to be married. Manna House had a refreshing way of reducing everything in life to the essentials.

I immediately lapsed into a detailed explanation of how my official status had changed, that I was no longer an "active" priest. As I was elaborating the rules of the Catholic Church, Michelle cut me off with two blunt questions.

"You're a reverend, aren't you?" she asked. Not waiting for an answer, she followed up with another. "You're our friend, aren't you?"

The only appropriate response to both questions was a very quiet "Yes." I found myself smiling as Michelle asked me to wear my "reverend suit" and to "bring a big Bible to preach from."

It was a clear, bright Saturday morning with a biting wind when we held the services for Sally in a small rowhouse funeral home on the edge of Patterson Park. The family, which had refused to help Sara when she was alive, somehow managed to pull together the resources to dispatch her in death. I'm not sure if it was shame or a revived sense of compassion that prompted them to make a home for their two nieces.

The services consisted of prayers, a reading from the Bible and a brief sermon. It was one of the toughest ministerial challenges I ever faced.

The cemetery occupies a hill with a sweeping view of the city from the east. It was here that we laid Sara to rest on a bone-chilling morning. The girls were stoic, with a maturity well beyond their years. Homelessness either destroys children or gives them survival skills.

When I became a Catholic priest, a bishop laid his hands on my head in the ancient ritual of ordination. When I was recalled to that priesthood, it was through the request of a homeless child to speak at her mother's funeral. I have been married for over five years now, and I work for a county government in Maryland. In that time, there have been a growing number of requests for my priestly services.

lTC So the Catholic tradition continually reaffirms itself: Celibacy may come and go, but the priesthood is forever.

Stephen J. Stahley writes from Baltimore.

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