Renew the church

March 26, 2002|By Stephen J. Stahley

BY THE time I resigned from the Catholic priesthood to marry in 1988, most of the straight priests I knew had already married. The gay priests I knew were exemplary men -- hardworking, dedicated and talented.

Yet as I watched more and more friends depart to marry, my sense of isolation became acute. The priesthood I left felt very different from the one I entered.

I loved the priesthood, especially the core elements that defined it -- leading worship, preaching, celebrating the sacraments and the myriad duties of pastoral ministry. The small religious order to which I belonged served the poor in inner cities, the rural south and Mexico. I was assigned to parishes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Cleveland. The work was demanding, intense and supremely rewarding.

During my years as a priest, celibacy became more of an obstacle than a support to my ministry. In my training for the priesthood, celibacy had been presented as a spiritual gift bestowed by God -- a gift that freed a person to live a life focused entirely on God and in the service of others. While I've never doubted that celibacy is, indeed, a gift, I know just as surely that it was never given to me. Still, I never doubted that I was called to the priesthood.

Central to the Catholic tradition are the beliefs that God summons individuals to the priesthood and that God grants the gift, or charism, of celibacy. The church insists that priesthood and celibacy are inseparably joined. It was not always so.

Further, the church insists that only males receive the call to the priesthood. The lived experience of thousands of married priests says otherwise. So does the increasing number of women who feel called to the Catholic priesthood.

A few years before I resigned, the first stories of pedophile priests began to appear in the media. What began as a few seemingly isolated incidents has become, over the last 17 years, a catastrophe of epic proportions. The tragedy currently unfolding in Boston and elsewhere has been brewing for a long time. The story of the pedophile priest crisis in Boston is part of the larger story of the resistance of the Catholic hierarchy to reform the priesthood.

When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) in 1962, his stated intention was to renew the church and bring it into dialogue with the modern world. Pope John wanted to "open up the windows of the church," to let in the fresh air of new ideas. In 1978, the year I was ordained, the spirit of Vatican II was still vibrant; the hope for renewal was still strong.

Under Pope John Paul II, the clock has been turned back. Renewal is out -- retrenchment and restoration are in. The current pope's model of the church seems to be something reminiscent of the 1950s version. His model of the priesthood seems to have a strong resemblance to the lead characters in the movie Going My Way. How well this plan is working may be seen in Boston and other large American dioceses.

Recent stories from Ireland and Canada about clerical child molesters indicate that the problem is not confined to the United States.

If the theological justification for the renewal of the priesthood is not sufficient, perhaps the hemorrhage of money and credibility will provide the needed impetus.

The cost of the lawsuits in Boston is staggering. The higher cost, however, is the loss of trust in church leadership. The price tag for that loss may well be incalculable.

Although my children were baptized Catholic, our family now worships in an Episcopal Church in Arbutus, pastored by a very fine, competent woman priest. Her liturgical presence is reverent yet gentle; her preaching is intelligent and firmly grounded in the reality of family life. As a wife and mother, her sermons reflect the daily challenges of the congregation she nurtures. For my children, the priesthood is primarily a women's profession, just as medicine is --their priest and their doctor are both female.

Before long, the cardinals of the church will convene in Rome to elect a new pope. The issues that Pope John Paul II has so effectively submerged will re-emerge with a furious energy. Celibacy, women priests, homosexuality, power sharing in the church and intellectual freedom will return as major questions demanding answers.

Whether the leaders of the church choose to address these questions, or at least reconsider them, will be signaled by the man they choose to follow John Paul II.

Renewing the church, especially the priesthood, will be a great risk. Not to renew the church is an even greater risk.

If any proof is needed, read about Boston.

Stephen J. Stahley, a free-lance writer who lives in Baltimore County, works for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville. He served as a priest from 1978 to 1988 in the order of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.

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