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Issue Date:  November 24, 2006

Spiritual storm leads priest away from church, back again

Des Moines, Iowa

It took an emotional and spiritual tempest to lead Fr. Ray McHenry away from the church that had nurtured him and to which he had always been loyal, and an equally turbulent squall to bring him back.

“It was the perfect storm,” said McHenry about the mix of emotions and circumstances that led him to leave the Roman Catholic church last year. He has now returned -- for the same reasons he left.

His story is of a faith journey that included elation with the priesthood, disillusion with an assignment, involvement in a romantic relationship, disenchantment with the church, experimentation with a schismatic church, ending the romantic relationship, and ultimate reunion with the church of his birth.

He understands the frustration of many Catholics who have problems with the Roman Catholic church, but believes staying and working for change is the best solution.

“I understand people’s frustrations,” he said, “because I’ve felt them myself. But if people really want what they say they want, they have to be here. They can have an effect on the local church, if not Rome, and that’s what church is for most of us.”

Having entered the seminary at age 44, McHenry was ordained a priest in 2000 for the Des Moines, Iowa, diocese. He left the church three years later to join the left-leaning National Catholic Church of America only to return to the Des Moines diocese after less than a year.

McHenry makes no bones about the most important circumstance that led him away from the church: He became involved in a relationship with a parishioner -- a single mother of two children.

“I was lonely and vulnerable,” he said. She and her family supported him early in a parish assignment that proved difficult, “and the relationship developed out of that.”

Other elements figured into his growing disaffection.

After ordination, McHenry had been assigned as associate pastor at a parish in an affluent suburb where new parishioners were joining at a pace of “a family a day.”

Instead of the traditional rectory, he and the pastor had their own townhouses. He hit it off with the pastor. In short, he loved the assignment.

Then, after three years came reassignment as associate pastor in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He and the pastor took care of three parishes, and he lived in a rectory. He lacked the easy relationship with the pastor that he had had before.

“We had a different understanding of ecclesiology and the role of the priest,” he said. “There was a difference in theology and personality. And there were different management styles. I had less to do.

“I’m not pointing the finger at anyone,” he added. “It was how I reacted.”

Meanwhile, the romantic relationship developed, and McHenry began to have second thoughts about the church and priesthood. The clergy abuse issue was full-blown, “and there were lots of unhappy Catholics, lots of negativity.”

McHenry wanted to remain a priest, but began looking for an alternative to the church he grew up in, looking especially at “schismatic” Catholic churches. He decided to look into the National Catholic Church of America, established in 1998, with headquarters in Albany, N.Y.

“They have the seven sacraments and apostolic succession,” he said. “It was all there.”

McHenry believed he was OK with the National Catholic church’s theology and practice, including ordination for women, married people and gays, and approval of second and third marriages and family planning. He believed that the National Catholic church was where the Roman Catholic church might be if the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had been allowed to progress.

He took a leave of absence from the diocese, and after a time left it altogether. He began holding Mass for a group of Council Bluffs dissidents, at first in homes, then in space loaned by a Presbyterian church.

He spoke on the phone a couple of times with the National Catholic Church of America’s primate, Archbishop Richard Roy.

“He was personable,” said McHenry. “I liked what I heard.”

So when he and his female friend traveled to Albany to meet with Roy, he could offer a community in Council Bluffs -- though only 15 or 20 members strong -- willing to join him as new communicants. McHenry and his friend attended Roy’s Masses and met with National Catholic church members in Albany and Philadelphia.

But his new church was less structured than he expected. It was “Roy and a couple of other priests,” he said. And he saw that in Council Bluffs, he and his congregation would be “out here by ourselves.”

On the return trip, McHenry began asking himself questions. “Is it really a church?” “Is it going to hold together?” And the big question, “Have I done the right thing?”

“I had lost stability,” he said.

His friend was more enthusiastic about the church than he was, and he knew that their relationship was over.

So at age 52, he found himself in a failed relationship, with no job and no prospects. It was the fall of 2005, and he often made the two-hour trip to his hometown of Des Moines, occasionally running into friends who asked, “Why don’t you come home?” The question was more than about where to live.

He continued to preside at the Eucharist for the Council Bluffs group, but in January of this year sent them a letter of resignation. Back in Des Moines, he began working as a volunteer at the St. Mary Family Center, which distributes food and clothing to the poor. He renewed acquaintances with priest friends who agreed to talk to Bishop Joseph Charron about meeting with McHenry.

McHenry met with the bishop, and was surprised that Charron said it was possible for him to return to his ministry, and that the process didn’t have to go to Rome. He asked McHenry to get counseling, which he had already begun, and make an eight-day retreat. Afterward, he could make a profession of faith and renew his promises to the bishop.

“I can’t say enough about Bishop Charron,” said McHenry. “He was the forgiving father to a prodigal son.”

After a brief ceremony in the bishop’s office on Wednesday of Holy Week, he returned to his volunteer work at St. Mary and began helping out in parishes on weekends. Then in July, he became administrator of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianola, just south of Des Moines.

McHenry said he is grateful to the people in parishes where he helped out and to people in his new parish. “They’ve been incredibly warm and receptive,” he said. “They’re a gift from God.”

McHenry’s was a long, stop-start road to the priesthood. As a youngster, he often “played priest,” offering “Mass” on the family’s piano. Though he considered priesthood several times during high school, he never did so seriously. He went on to Creighton University in Omaha, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration, then an MBA. He went to work in the family’s beer distributorship business, where he stayed for more than 20 years.

He dated off and on, and had a “serious relationship” in the years before deciding to enter the seminary. He became active in his parish, especially in the catechumenate, which “got me reading more,” he said, “and got me involved with people exploring their faith.” He became a parish religious education teacher.

When the family sold the business in 1995, “there was only one way to go.” With Charron’s backing, he entered Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., which specializes in second-career vocations. He took to the studies, the camaraderie with other students, and the faculty. “I loved it,” he said.

Now, after an emotional and spiritual journey he could never have imagined in his seminary days, McHenry says he’s “a different person.”

“I know more about myself,” he said. “I know I have to stay connected to friends and family. I know I have to deal with disappointments in the ministry. I’m also more aware of others’ and my own feelings, and I’m more aware of others’ struggles.”

He believes he can live a celibate life, and that doing so is worth it, he said.

He tells people he left the Roman Catholic church and returned to it for the same reason: He was seeking the Lord in his own roundabout way. And he believes he’s closer to finding him than ever before.

Tom Carney is a former reporter for The Des Moines Register.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2006

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