National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

Resigned priests told to give God no rest


I have always had a bit of trouble with that “once a priest, always a priest” cant. At first, it was simply that I could not spell “Melchizedek,” which was written under the soupy drawing of a skinny, hopped-up looking priest in the old Baltimore Catechism.

He was kneeling before the cone-headed bishop who was intoning: “You are a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4; and Hebrews 5:6). The sisters who taught me didn’t talk much about Melchizedek. They were into Fighting Father Duffy, who said a million aspirations a day and never got canonized because aspirations aren’t really “in” anymore and a million is considered excessive.

Melchizedek, a combination priest and king, was king of Salem, the early name for Jerusalem, and a buddy of Abraham. He gave Abe bread and wine and his blessing in exchange for a piece of Abraham’s loot. Thus, old Mel became idealized and linked with Christ. Now all priests are indelibly vaccinated with the lifetime guarantee.

My trusty old Baltimore Number Two still holds that Holy Orders comes with a special character -- the indelible mark -- that lasts forever and which assured virtually everything, including a preferred tee-time and a dinner reservation at the parish bistro, Adam’s Ribs.

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church still insists that Holy Orders “confers an indelible spiritual character” (#1582). “The vocation and mission received on his ordination mark him permanently,” the CCC reminds us (#1583).

Not long ago, I pedaled to St. Eulalia’s (she was a 12-year-old martyr) for a day of recollection for a group of resigned priests. (They are not ex-priests, they insist, only ex-clerics.) I was never a priest, but if I had any lingering reservations about the permanence of the indelible mark, they were brushed aside by this group of extraordinary men. There were enough there to staff a midsize diocese. Counting spouses, there were 83 in the church, about 75 percent of them old enough to be retirement age had they remained in active ministry.

About one-fourth had resigned without the mandatory laicization process. It hardly bothered any of them. They either had little faith in the process or were angry with their bishops, who regarded them as fallen angels.

Most had married and the glue had held. Virtually all had been at least moderately successful in their worldly vocations. (They needed to. Only a few qualified for diocesan pensions and most dioceses offer no pension at all to priests who pull the chain.)

Virtually all remain in some form of service for the church or for others in need.

If there was any residual anger toward the institution, most of it had cooled. Most were now in the evening of their lives. They reminded me of passengers at a train station: bags packed, just waiting for God.

Paul Flaherty led the group in singing “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” The stronger and seminary-trained male voices were wonderfully moving. “I thought we were in heaven,” said Joan Wilbur, a former nun and the wife of Jim Wilbur, the group’s liturgist. Jim Wilbur felt that the talks and discussion were an extension of the spirit of Blessed John XXIII, a pope who had provided joy in people’s lives. The atmosphere gave witness to the concern of the married clergy -- about one-third of all priests ordained in the United States -- for their church. They were saddened by news of their good friends -- classmates still active in the vineyard -- who were burning out from frustration and overwork. And they were angry at many of their bishops, stubborn careerists who were utterly blind to the darkness within themselves.

“You do know the trouble people have seen,” Eugene Kennedy, their retreat master, told them. Kennedy, himself a resigned Maryknoll priest, is a psychologist, author and sought-after speaker. He is the author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, including a monumental study on the priesthood, which was commissioned by what is now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops but suppressed by them after it didn’t read like the answer in Baltimore Two.

Kennedy is now retired from Chicago’s Loyola University, but he continues to write and speak. His most recent book, The Unhealed Wound, is a powerful indictment of the church’s disgraceful cover-up of the sexual abuse crisis. However, the seminal book contains a prescription for a cure. Kennedy reminded his attentive listeners that the present abuse crisis is the death rattle of a moribund culture, reminiscent of the collapse of the World Trade Center.

He reminded his listeners of the finger-wagging days of old in which frightened believers experienced the hell-centered theology of their seminary days: “Harbor a fantasy for a second too long and you risk eternity.” And they all remembered the confession jokes.

Example: “Did you entertain them [impure thoughts]?” “No, Father, they entertained me.”

Marty Hegarty, Chicago ’54, introduced his old friend by citing Isaiah 62, comparing Kennedy to the posted watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls, who will “keep Yahweh’s attention and give him no peace either until he restores Jerusalem and makes her the pride of the world!” Marty reminded his well-educated listeners that their task was to keep God awake with their pleas. Hegarty was the founding spirit of WEORC (Anglo-Saxon for work), a group organized to help resigned priests find employment. It has helped hundreds of resigned priests to secure jobs -- all without finder’s fees. WEORC is now headed by John Horan and a group of younger men who keep it alive and well.

Marty’s introduction and Kennedy’s insights were not pleas for the restoration of the once overly self-confident and unself-critical bureaucracy that saw men who favored celibacy and valued loyalty as perfect candidates for the priesthood. Kennedy was simply reminding them that people cannot be separated into their higher and lower parts. Instead, he called upon them “to be more simply human.”

“We must understand that our humanity and Catholic sacraments are all sensual, sexual and spiritual at the same time,” he said. “Unless we get our sexuality right, we won’t get our humanity right,” he continued, and “we won’t get our church’s sacramental life right.”

We had to leave before the anticipated Palm Sunday Mass. But we had absorbed enough to make us -- like Isaiah’s watchers -- want to keep God awake.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. Keep him awake at

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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