Today I bring a greater sense of dedication to my priesting than I ever did when I was attached to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. That awareness is shared by every active married priest I know.
When I am preparing to celebrate Mass, I spend an extraordinary amount of time in sermon and liturgy preparation - in part because of all the poor preaching and liturgy I endured over the years sitting in the pews. When I am asked to witness a marriage, I do so but only after many hours of preparation sessions. (I witnessed about 75 marriages last year alone.)
How can I resume ministry after having been dispensed and allowed to marry?
A dispensed priest is still sacramentally a priest; dispensation only relieves him of the obligations of the clerical state. A priest cannot be unordained any more than a person can be unbaptized. However, in the Code of Canon Law, the service of married priests has been very narrowly circumscribed to emergency situations. This should change.
Canon law allows any priest to hear confessions and even administer confirmation when there is "danger of death." But that doesn't mean death has to be imminent. Any priest can administer these sacraments to the seriously ill at home or in hospitals; those weakened by advanced age; anyone about to undergo major surgery. And there should be no question regarding baptism administered by a married priest since anyone, even a non-Christian, can baptize in a situation of need.
Obviously, no married priest should be so impolitic as to intervene with his services when the parish priest or hospital chaplain is available.
In addition, any priest is allowed to take Holy Communion to the sick, either in a case of necessity or at least when permission to do so can reasonably be presumed. This could be, for example, if someone fell ill and the parish priest could not arrive in time. And any priest is allowed to anoint the sick if there is adequate reason.
It would be surprising, therefore, if a Catholic married priest felt unable in conscience to administer these sacraments if reasonably requested. For example, a group of people who meet together for prayer, Bible study or for days of recollection could ask a married priest to celebrate the Eucharist with them in private if there is no other priest able to do so.
Finally, there is another canon dealing with the case of a priest who has been suspended from administering the sacraments. Under that provision, he is still allowed to do so for any just reason if asked. Thus a married priest not censured can and should consider himself justified in responding to such requests.
All this is in conformity with the supreme law of the church, the salvation of souls, and with the duty of any priest not to refuse the sacraments to those making a reasonable request for them and who are suitably disposed. In fact, the faithful have a right to avail themselves of the sacraments in this manner.
But how can lay people take advantage of the service of married priests unless they know who such priests are? In every parish in which there is a married priest living (and there are many given the sheer numbers), his name and telephone number should be clearly contained in the church bulletin.
This would allow the laity to enjoy a more plentiful ministry from all their priests. Of course, the knowledge that married priests can still function authentically under canon law, together with seeing these priests in action, will lead the laity to ask why married priests are allowed to minister in some ways and not in others. I strongly suspect that's the reason why the applicable statutes are not readily available.
And the laity should certainly know of Canon 212, which gives them the right to make their views known to the hierarchy. After all, the Holy Spirit works through them, the majority, as well as through the clergy, the minority. Even in doctrinal matters the sensus fidelium has its place, and the use or non-use of married priests is simply a disciplinary matter about which lay people could well become more outspoken - especially when threatened with becoming part of a priestless parish.
It is an understanding of these provisions of the Code of Canon Law that has allowed hundreds of priests like myself to resume their ministry of service to the people of God. And the people's response has been overwhelmingly positive. Men and women repeatedly tell me that married priests are the best kept secret in the church. It would appear that the bond between us is forged by a sense of integrity and honesty, of wholeness and holiness, and a shared perception that married priests are where the people are.
We know what it is to have to find employment, to pay bills, to build relationships, to mold a family, to worry about job cutbacks, to meet financial obligations, all the while carrying about a care and concern for people but denied any public priestly identity by the institutional church. In that sense, also, people identify with us because so many of them have experienced that same sense of rejection. And yet in their very souls they know that is not how Jesus treated people.
We married priests become that tenuous link that people seek with regard to their faith tradition, their faith family. We are given the opportunity to correct misunderstandings, to open the door to a deeper sense of what faith is all about and to show people what their baptismal mission is - to be the loving, healing presence of God in the world and among the people with whom they live and work.
The requests for ministering generally come when there has been a lack of response by the local clergy. The requests span the gamut of the human experience from marriage and interrelational issues to hospital visitation to funerals. And none of this involves any duplicity. I let people know up front that I am a priest "without portfolio." For the vast majority of them, my institutional status is of little or no consequence. Their want is simple: to have the presence of a priest at critical moments in their lives. For myself, once I ask how Jesus might respond to a given situation, my duty and accountability become quite clear.
And, thankfully, I have the support and guidance for all of this time and effort from a very understanding and compassionate wife.
For additional information, visit rentapriest.com.