CLEBURNE, Texas – The offices of St. John Vianney Catholic Church are somewhat unusual.
My desk is covered with sermon notes, Bible study materials, parish records, and so forth. I straighten it up when I know I have a meeting, but mostly it’s a mess.
That part is not so unusual for Catholic priests.
What may be a little different, however, is the fact that on any given afternoon, my office plays host to my two young sons arguing over who will be the altar server and who will be the priest in today’s installment of “play church.” The winner gets to carry the small brass chalice around wearing miniature-sized priest vestments, while trying to put a Styrofoam communion wafer in the dog’s mouth. If our youngest son, Alexander, doesn’t get to be the priest that day, he registers his protest by stealing the sacrament (an excommunicable offense) or by simply walking around chanting in monotone, just to annoy his older brother.
This is a Tuesday afternoon at the offices of St. John Vianney Catholic Church, which also happen to be the living room of my family’s home. And this is what a married Catholic priesthood looks like. (Read more about how it is possible for some priests to be married.)
Long before becoming an ecclesiastical anomaly, though, I could “play church” with the best of them. Unfortunately, as a child I didn’t have the benefit of Catholicism’s many tangible accessories. There were no chalices or altar servers for Pentecostal children. When I wanted to be like my father, who was a country Pentecostal preacher, all I could do was mount the modest pulpit of Highway Tabernacle Assembly of God in Marion, Arkansas and practice giving long sermons and altar calls.
Now, having traded in long sermons for short homilies and altar calls for actual altars, I’m part of a small number of men who have been allowed to come into this ancient fraternity, bringing our wives and children along with us for the ride. For my wife, it’s a vocation that simultaneously makes her proud and very often annoyed; for my children, it’s just what dad does. Some dads are firefighters and policemen; their dad chants loudly and carries a big chalice.
Why I converted
For me, coming into the Church was not about fleeing one religious tradition, but rather recognizing the absolute necessity of union with the See of Peter and realizing that the authority the Magisterium offers is not a burden, but a gift.
The most crucial passage, or verse, for me, in all this, was Luke 22:32 where St. Peter receives the commission from Our Lord to “strengthen the brethren”. I began to see the ministry of the papacy as a gift from Jesus Christ for the strengthening of the Church.
This gift of “strengthening the brethren” means, for me, a strengthening in worship, a strengthening in mission, and, most of all, a strengthening in teaching. I began to understand that without that gift, it was impossible for me and my flock to truly live as Catholic Christians, a desire that we, along with many others in the “Anglo-Catholic” portion of Anglicanism, had long held.
After theological study, and life as an Anglican priest, I came to understand that Catholic truth and Catholic life could only be truly found and fully lived within a Catholic Church, guided and strengthened by the successor of Peter, the ultimate gift of authority.
Persuasion vs. power
While the externals of ministry in the Catholic Church don’t look all that different from ministry in the Episcopal Church, beneath the surface there is a marked difference.
Episcopal priests have to pastor by persuasion. Episcopal churches are set up so that the priest and the church vestry (lay leadership) are in a relationship that can easily become adversarial. While the Episcopal priest has authority over spiritual things, such as preaching, teaching, and conducting liturgies, the vestry has ultimate authority over finances and assets. With the power of the purse strings, vestries have the potential to wield a great amount of authority over the Episcopal priest and his ministry.
What this really means is that you’re less likely to hear hard truths from Episcopal pulpits. Our ministry tended to be one of persuasion, not of authority.
In Catholicism, I found a different kind of ministry, one with the burden and responsibility of both spiritual and temporal authority.
I’m at St. John Vianney not because a vestry took a vote and decided that of all their choices of hires, I was the one they liked the most. I’m at St. John Vianney because my ordinary appointed me. This means that my authority comes not from the parishioners, but rather from our chief pastor and ordinary, Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson.
This kind of authority was a new experience for me. What I have found, though, is that this authority is a tool to be handled carefully. Like any tool, if it’s used timidly or fearfully, you can hurt yourself or others. At the same time, wielding it recklessly can also do real and lasting damage.
This is where my vocation as a dad and a “Father” overlap. My children didn’t choose me. I am their Father, because our Heavenly Father, in his mercy, gave them to me, just as he gave me the people of St. John Vianney. If I don’t exercise authority over my three children, I risk them hurting themselves. If I act like a dictator over them, I risk doing the damage myself.
Not a solution, not a spy
Of the plethora of reactions we get to my situation, two general responses stand out.
For some, married priests are a panacea for every woe the Catholic Church has or could ever have.
Decline in vocations? We need a married priesthood.
Sexual abuse scandals? The answer must be … you guessed it, a married priesthood.
People are always surprised, then, to hear me defend celibacy, and I always tell them that if they want a full-throated defense of priestly celibacy, they should just talk to my wife, Elizabeth, who puts up with my busy schedule. She understands the Church’s rationale for celibacy better than most. She knows what a married Catholic priesthood looks like: The good, the bad, and the ugly.
For others I meet, married priests are simply not really Catholic. The fear of some Catholics is that we’re a kind of Protestant Trojan horse, and along with our families, we’ve brought all kinds of “not Catholic” ideas and practices to undermine generations of the Faith. These skeptical Catholics are either put at ease or further confused when they attend one of our churches in the Ordinariate and see this questionably Catholic married priest singing Gregorian Chant, even perhaps in Latin, and preaching homilies that are faithful to, and even enthusiastic about, Church teaching.
So if we married priests are not the silver bullet for every crisis of the Catholic Church, nor secret spies hoping to sneak in and muck up things from the inside, then what are we?
Speaking for myself, I’m simply a man, trying to be faithful to two all-consuming vocations. Some nights we lay our heads down knowing we’ve been more faithful to one of those vocations than the other, and most nights we know we could have been more faithful to both.
As I contemplate this and write these words, I’m sitting at my desk, holding my half-naked two-year-old and praying he doesn’t pee on me while Elizabeth and I are in the thralls of potty-training purgatory. I’m also looking over sermon notes and preparing for the next Bible study, updating the website, and crafting an ad for a new organist.
(In case you’re wondering, the two-year-old didn’t make it to the potty.)
This is what a married priesthood looks like.
The future of priestly celibacy
As the Church further contemplates the future of celibacy, will we be part of the conversation? I would imagine so, but don’t expect us to necessarily be the ones ready to jettison centuries of celibacy. We know, better than most, and our wives and children better than us, the struggles and difficulties of this vocation.
For me, married priests are not champions for the next cause in the church, but displays of her diversity. If nothing else, we remind Americans that the Catholic Church is bigger than their parish, their experience; that, at this very moment, while I’m holding my two-year-old, there are millions of faithful Eastern Rite Catholics around the globe being baptized, buried, and ministered to by married priests. Many of these Catholics live and die under harsh conditions, all the while being helped and supported by faithful – and yes, married – priests and their families.
That is what a married priesthood can look like.
The Rev. Jonathan Duncan is the administrator for St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Cleburne, Texas.