National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 26, 2003

Priests tell bishops: Marriage enhances ministry

Milwaukee example spurs growing letter-writing campaign urging reevaluation of celibacy


Bishop Wilton Gregory’s mailbox has been stuffed with more than Christmas cards this year. In the last few months, there has been a windstorm of letters from priests all across the country asking the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to urge the discussion of optional celibacy for priests.

With the decline of vocations, the large number of aging priests and the increasing workload of priests who, because of thinning ranks and clustered parishes, find themselves overworked and frustrated, many priests are convinced that there should be a thorough reevaluation of a married priesthood.

The letters began in the Milwaukee archdiocese Aug. 18 when 170 priests signed their names to a letter to Gregory and the bishops’ conference stating, “We speak out at this time also because of the ever-growing appreciation of marriage and its many blessings so compatible with priesthood and even enhancing of priestly ministry.” The letter was drafted by Frs. Tom Suriano, Joe Aufdermaurer and Steven Dunn and was also sent to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan.

“We feel that this alternative is necessary to provide a full sacramental life to the people and also to enhance the quality of the priesthood with both the charisms of the celibate and the charisms of the married,” said Suriano, 65. “We want people in high places to let go of the notion that the issue is settled. We don’t view it as a closed question.”

An Oct. 30 letter from 84 priests in the diocese of Albany, N.Y., has been the most recent in a wave of letters from around the country.

“All of us see celibacy as our way of life,” explained Fr. Dominic Engemie, 62. “This is what we chose. But we’re talking here about ordaining married men, not about priests getting married.”

In Pittsburgh, Fr. John Oesterle said he has collected 350 letters from both priests and some lay people who feel that celibacy in the priesthood should be optional. “The people should take a good look at the issue and speak up for what is good for the church,” said the 62-year-old Oesterle, who is the only priest in a parish of 3,200 people.

Although 120 priests in the Chicago archdiocese sent a similar letter to Gregory, Fr. William Kenneally said he thinks none of the bishops will act on the matter any time soon, since they see the celibacy issue as one decided primarily by Rome. “They simply don’t understand their role in bringing things to the attention of the pope rather than waiting around for his orders on everything,” said Kenneally, a Chicago pastor.

In New Ulm, Minn., Fr. Ken Irrgang said the priests’ letter-writing campaign is picking up steam all across the country. “But our own Bishop John C. Nienstedt didn’t feel that our letter was appropriate,” Irrgang noted. “He sent me a snide letter saying that the Holy See had contacted him to instruct me about the value of celibacy,” the 74-year-old priest remarked. “But no, I’m not discouraged, and neither are the 17 priests who signed our letter.”

Msgr. James Kelly and other leaders of Voice of the Ordained in the Brooklyn and Rockville Centre dioceses and the New York archdiocese said that 121 priests (including some former priests) added their support to a letter signed by Kelly that repeated the sentiments expressed by the Milwaukee priests and others around the country. Fifty-eight priests from St. Paul, Minn., signed a similar letter. So far, Gregory has not responded to most of the letters.

The National Federation of Priests’ Councils has also published a statement urging full discussion by the bishops on the matter. And the bandwagon keeps rolling on.

The priests’ letter-writing campaign that has taken on a life of its own across the country may be an uphill battle. But if the signatures of 58 Boston priests were a huge factor in the eventual resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, there is some hope for the more than 876 (and counting) priests from around the country as they mobilize for the day when ordained married men bring their gifts to the altar and to the people.

Dick Ryan is a freelance writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003

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