Different forms of priestly ministry?
Leaving the Priesthood?
I was ordained a priest in 1986, but, since 1998 I have not been involved in the formal clerical ministry. In April 1998, on advice, I took leave of absence from the ministry , because I had major issues around compulsory celibacy: I could not live the life. Nonetheless, I have never let go of the idea that I do still have a vocation to the priesthood, if not to celibacy ; in some deeply existential way, priest is who I am.
I am not asking to be allowed to publically celebrate the Eucharist or the other sacraments – this I realise is no longer possible – but there are so many things one can do in the areas of faith development and pastoral care which don’t require the gift of ordination; some kind of non-sacramental ministry of the word – I don’t just mean being a reader in church, but being allowed to use one’s theological, spiritual and pastoral gifts to help others on their journey of faith – should be possible for men who are no longer allowed to officiate at the Eucharist.
Funnily enough, even so-called “lay pastoral ministry” doesn’t seem to be possible for men who have left the formal clerical ministry. Recently, I applied for the position of lay pastoral worker in an Irish diocese. Unfortunately, I was not shortlisted for an interview, but here’s the interesting thing; the letter turning down my application explained that selection for interview was based on the candidate’s educational qualifications and experience. Now with regard to the latter, I have twelve years experience of working in the clerical ministry, plus an ongoing involvement in a number of diverse pastoral projects in an unofficial, non-clerical capacity; for example, I have actually done a study of religious beliefs and practices in a small rural community at the behest of the local pastoral council. Regarding my educational qualifications, as well as having primary degrees in theology and social science, I have an M.A. in Practical and Contextual Theology. I can only conclude that most of the other candidates for the position must have Ph.D’s! So what’s going on? Could it be that someone in my position has less canonical rights, has less opportunity to actually be employed by the Church, than a person who has never been ordained.
Nevertheless, I refuse to give up on the idea of ministry. Although the official Church doesn’t really know what to do with people in my situation, there are multiple possibilities for service in the Christian community, even if at times one has to operate under the radar of the hierarchy. In this regard, I will be eternally grateful to the handful of brave parish priests who have invited me to use my pastoral gifts, such as they are, in the service of their parishioners. These men have also remunerated me for the work I have done. Thank God for brown envelopes! Like Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, I have a “cunning plan” and I hope to continue to be faithful to the call to ministry I received all those years ago. The priesthood continues. I cannot deny what I know in my heart to be authentic and true: the ongoing call to some kind of ministry in the Christian community, even when church authorities are reluctant to recognise this. Of course, the devil is in the detail but being a “priest without portfolio” is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps being on the margins, and working on the margins of church life, is not the worst possible situation to find oneself in.
Married priests: “We have taken another road but have not forgotten our past”
When a priest decides to marry he sets out on a new road in life, a new road which will lead him to places and situations he never experienced before.
First of all he will be faced with the problem of finding a job, something which is not easy for seminary life and parish life do not prepare priests for a secular job in the world. Secondly there will be the question of where are they going to live. Most priests when they marry have very little or almost no financial backing so a small rented house or flat will be the only option open to the couple at the beginning of their married life until such a time as they can buy their own home.
With the passage of time and both of them working they will be able to build a home, raise a family and he will, if he wants to, be able to take on pastoral work. The married priest with the love, understanding and support of his wife will discover that he can reconcile being a husband, a father and a pastoral worker.
In the world that we live in today most people accept the idea of optional celibacy and married priests. There will be a few though who will continue to use that horrible and degrading term “ex-priest” when a priest marries but the majority will welcome his pastoral services. Just like the many other volunteers in the community he will not be a financial burden to the parish, for his secular job will give him financial independence. On this point of financial independence we can learn from other Christian churches such as the Episcopal Church in the USA. In this church there is an increasing number of Protestant clergy who are serving small congregations in return for little or no compensation. The Presbyterian Church (USA) too encourages new seminarians to plan for non-church employment so they can serve fledgling congregations that can’t afford a full-time pastor(source: The National Catholic Reporter September 18 2013).
There is a wide range of pastoral activities open to the married priest, if he wants to do them. I have people calling me and looking for my pastoral service at all times of the day and night. I’m called to visit the sick and offer them the sacrament of the sick, I go to the cemetery to celebrate the last rites for the deceased. I’m invited to give Bible courses and Retreats. I do house to house visitation. I am a member of the organization that fights Human Trafficking. I am a member of the parish council. I train leaders to give popular missions. I’m responsible for the Apartments Pastoral. I’m invited to celebrate ecumenical Graduation Ceremonies, I know other married priests who also do these pastoral activities. All these pastoral services and others are open to the married priest if he has a missionary spirit and answers the call of the people. Admittedly things are made easier when he works shoulder to shoulder with the P.P. and the people see this team work and they like it, they can see that there is no conflict of interests.
If the Conference of Bishops have the courage to call married priests back to public ministry they will find that they can walk with the married priests along many different roads for the good of the people.
Brian Eyre, Catholic married priest, Recife, Brazil
Brian, I think that much of what you write is spot on. There are parishes throughout the world with priests who have left active ministry but are still willing to offer must needed pastoral support, but many of them are left sitting in the pew because parish clergy are reluctant or maybe afraid to encourage their assistance. Furthermore, there seems to be the belief that if a priest leaves active ministry they become an ex-priest. Only yesterday whilst speaking in the secondary school, I was asked if I got married, would I cease to be a priest. The kids seemed surprised when I told them that you cannot be unordained, and that yes I would still be a priest. It would be interesting if the Church began to seriously reflect upon this question. I know that JP II had a very black and white stance, but I feel Francis is encouraging Bishops to reflect more deeply, I’m not sure he has spoken about this particular issue.
I have three comments following the entire above entry. Firstly, how many women, who have not been officially ordained, would confidently and gladly say….”priest is who I am”. Secondly, do not underestimate the importance of the First Reader and other lectors. There are many of us, with or without theological education and spiritual competence, who welcome this ministry. The lectors are the carriers and communicators of the Word of Life, the Word of Life, that so many of our congregation, come to Church to hear, savour and act on. Thirdly, while a married male priesthood appeals to many, and will probably find a niche in the RC Church, it will do nothing, to heal a Church that is starving for the feminine principle, particularly, in the ministry of the priest.