Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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In just over one month I will be ordained a Catholic priest. My wife will be in the front row.
BY DWIGHT LONGENECKER
over one month I will be ordained a Catholic priest. My wife will be in the
front row. My oldest son will be an altar server. My daughter and younger sons
will present my priestly vestments as part of the ordination rite.
Since I was a married Anglican
priest when I became a Catholic, the Church allows me to be dispensed from the
vow of celibacy. Remember, celibacy is a discipline of the Church and not a
doctrine. This exception is processed through a special office set up to deal
with each case as it arises.
When a married former Episcopalian
or Anglican is given permission to marry, is Rome changing the rule about priestly
celibacy? No. These few exceptions prove the rule. Those of us who are given
“special treatment” are not pushing for clergy to marry or for the Church to
ordain married men. The tradition of priestly celibacy is the norm in the Roman
Church, and none of us wishes to campaign for a change to that discipline.
However, the presence of married
clergy through this exception (as well as their presence in the various Uniate churches) does raise some interesting questions.
They are questions that I ponder as I face a life within the Catholic
priesthood while being married with a young family. The questions are
practical, theological and spiritual.
When considering married priests,
most people think only about the practical problems one way or the other. They
point out that married men have a wife and children to support. Bishops have to
find a suitable post that will provide a salary for a married man. Usually this
means he will serve as a chaplain of some sort. He and his family have to be
housed and provided with necessary insurance coverage.
As priests, the married men must
follow Church teaching and set an example to their flock in all matters. This
means they would not use artificial contraception. If the man is young and he
and his wife are fertile, the diocese and the local church must be willing to
support not just a neat suburban family with two or three children, but a large
Catholic family. Can the Church support such large families? With such a large
family, can the man really be devoted to the priesthood as he should be?
There are other practical problems
that are not so joyful.
Is the Church ready to deal with
the question of clergy marital breakdown and divorce? Who will support the
widows of clergy? Is the Church ready to provide Catholic education for the
large families of married men? While these are real practical concerns, they
are red herrings in the larger debate. Non-Catholic denominations accept all of
these practical challenges of clergy families and have done so for years.
Furthermore, there are many practical problems to clerical celibacy, but this
does not mean that we abandon the discipline.
The practical problems of having
married priests are not the primary concern. What interests me more are the
When we have married priests, what
are we saying about the sacrament of holy orders and the sacrament of
The traditional theological
understanding is that the celibate priest is “married to the Church.” In an
exclusive union, the celibate has given all in loving service to Christ and his
Church. This view of the celibate calling does not negate or denigrate
Christian marriage. Instead, it reinforces and supports the sacrament of
marriage because it reveals to the married the self-sacrificial love and the
ultimate union with Christ that is to be at the heart of their nuptial union.
Conversely, those who are married
remind the priest of the daily, nitty-gritty demands of the total commitment of
love. When a marriage is fulfilled with the gift of children, that gift reminds
the celibate priest of all the spiritual children who are born again through
In the whole life of the Church,
the total consecration of celibate priesthood and the total consecration of
marriage complement one another neatly, but can the two ways be held together
by one man? How can he give himself totally to both priesthood and marriage? It
is impossible — and that is why the Church expects clerical celibacy as the
norm. The only way forward is to see that the married priest’s self giving
still has to be total; the difference is that his total self giving is
expressed through the demands of two complementary commitments.
This will make for real tensions.
When I am ordained, the pressures
and demands of the priestly calling will impinge on my family life, and vice
versa. There will be times when I will have to say No to a request for priestly
ministry, but there will also be times when I will have to say No to some duty
My family and I will need the
support and understanding of the community in which we minister. The tensions
will be real but I believe that, within the tensions, there will be real growth
in grace for all of us. If the theological theory is true, then the self-giving
that exists within our marriage should enlighten, inform and strengthen the
self-giving that is demanded within the priesthood — and the self-giving of the
priesthood should be a constant reminder of the self-sacrifice that is demanded
every day within marriage.
Finally, there is a spiritual
dimension to a married man serving as priest. In Ephesians 5, St. Paul speaks of marriage. He says, “This
is a mystery … but I am speaking of Christ and his Church.”
Each person who is married enters,
by that sacrament, a mystery that takes him or her into the heart of the life
of the Church. Every priest, through his identification with Christ in holy
orders, also enters into a mysterious union with Christ at the very heart of
the Church. I hope that, in my own spiritual experience, being both married and
being a priest will not be simply a canonical exception to an ecclesiastical
rule — but that both sacraments may spiritually work together in my life and
the life of my family to draw us ever deeper into the eternal mystery of
I felt truly humbled and unworthy
the day I got married. I feel even more humbled and unworthy as I face priestly
ordination. The adventure our family is about to embark on is unusual. The road
ahead is full of pitfalls and problems. It is our prayer that this unusual way
forward will be blessed with an unusually strong gift of grace.
Only through that gift will we be
able to ensure that marriage and holy orders strengthen one another in our
lives rather than being a tension that destroys both. As this grace is given,
it is our prayer that my priestly ministry will be an unusual gift to both the
sacred priesthood and the family life of our Catholic community.
Dwight Longenecker will
be ordained Dec. 14
in Greenville, South Carolina.
He’s online at dwightlongenecker.com.
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