These priests resigned but still on call

By Tim Unsworth (National Catholic Reporter March 13, 1998)

Jean and I were sharing a Greek omelet about the size of second base with Connie and Terry at the Original Mitchell's Restaurant. I was scarfing down the feta and eggs and trying not to think about Little Nellie of God (1903-08) of Waterford, Ireland.

Nellie lived her short life entirely on the Eucharist and here I was slopping up the omelet with thick sliced bread while Little Nellie withered away in my cursed memory. Guilt can be as sticky as flypaper.

Connie is a former Benedictine Sister and retired librarian. "I'm not a Catholic," she said. "I'm a Benedictine."

Terry was ordained in 1960 for the Los Angeles archdiocese. He resigned from active ministry a few years later and married Connie in 1967.

Their souls are bigger and more nourishing than the omelet.

Terry and Connie Halloran now live in Garden Grove, Calif., where he earns his living as a computer programmer. In common with thousands of other resigned priests, he has no official ministry in the church, but he spends significant hours preparing couples for marriage and presiding at their weddings.

Terry is always careful to explain to the couple that only an authorized priest or deacon can perform a valid Catholic wedding ceremony. "Usually, the bride and groom already know the church's rules," he said. "They come to me because their parish priest has said no to them."

In Chicago, a group of about a half-dozen resigned priest placed an ad in a marriage magazine. The offered a service similar to what Terry does. In days, they had booked 75 weddings.

"Joe," another resigned priest, now a retired prof, also does weddings when requested. He may bend the rules, performing the ceremony in a hotel or in a country club lawn. Presently, he is booking a chaplain's job on a cruise line, where he can celebrate the Eucharist and also offer an ecumenical service.

Joe is as careful as a good parish priest in evaluating a couple's seriousness of purpose. He tries to find some evidence of a potential lifetime warranty. He recently refused to preside at the wedding of a national celebrity, partly because he didn't want to be viewed as a "Marrying Sam" and partly because he didn't want to draw attention to his very private apostolate.

"I can't do it any other way," he said. "I'm a priest."

In general, the church does a good job with weddings. But the rules can often be inconsistent and unpredictable. Some pastors will refuse to marry couples who live together. Other crusty pastors will refuse a church wedding to a pregnant bride.

Couples can stumble over hoops such as parish boundaries, lost baptism certificates, extended and sometimes invasive wedding preparation--even such barriers as money and available dates. Often, couples first call at the parish; hear the complicated rules and decide not to return.

Again, not every pastor meets the couple with a rule book. One pastor told me he encounters so much messiness these days that he just "takes them where he finds them and starts from there." But others can be rejected simply because they are not registered in the parish, though canon law places no such requirement.

Increasingly today, weddings are not of one faith, one culture or one language. Terry once joined a bride from Mexico who works in her native country's embassy in Japan with a groom from Ohio who taught Spanish in Japan.

"Ernie" is another resigned priest who sells insurance by day and acts as a chaplain in a small community hospital on evenings and weekends. He's needed there because the local pastor is as dysfunctional as a bargain basement VCR. (In fairness, many sectarian hospitals, now administered by bean counters, not longer permit floor nurses to call for a priest. "Not the highest and best use of their talents," they caution, while the well-trained nurse counts bed linens.)

Ernie counsels, prays, listens, administers, forgives and anointsó-always careful to inform the patients of his status. Resigned priests may function in emergency situations and Ernie's dying patients constitute an emergency. He fills a growing need.

"Charlie" has an arrangement with several local funeral directors. He will quietly preside at a Catholic service in the funeral parlor and/or at the graveside of some poor soul who judges that he can't fit in the aisle of his parish church because his second wife had been married before. Years ago, the church only allowed private funerals for Mafia gangsters who were classed as public sinners but who enjoyed a clout. Today, it will bury almost anyone. Yet, some Catholics see themselves as outside the pale and in need of Charlie's services.

This can be especially true if the deceased has been foreign-born. They need an "unofficial" priest to assist them into the ground. Again, many sensitive and caring pastors will permit non-Catholics to be buried from their church but others insist on checking everything from envelope usage to Bingo cards.

When asked, Charlie also presides at funerals of nondenominational believers who have loved God and neighbor but who have never joined a formal church. Ironically, he gets calls because, as a priest, he can bring sackfuls of substance to the ceremony. The family can count on something more than a halvah.

"Malachy" met one of his former parishioners in a used car lot some time ago. The young man confided that he and his wife had a 3-year-old still stained with original sin. When he asked Malachy to baptize her, he told him that he had resigned and married. When he insisted, Malachy returned to his old parish and asked the pastor. "I'll leave everything out there," the pastor said, "including the book to sign her in."

Malachy brought a half-dozen of his fellow laicized priests with him and the little girl got a liturgy worthy of a Monacan princess.

Terry's "parishioners" often bring a Bible to the ceremony. Beforehand, he often uses his computer technology to plan the ceremony, exchanging E-mails and faxes. He often suggests St. Paul's essay on charity from First Corinthians and the gospel words about being the light of the world and letting one's light shine. He also tells Catholic couples that the church can and will bless their marriages later.

"I urge them not to go through life without the light and strength of the sacraments," he said. "I give them names of parish priests who provide good spiritual care."

So it goes. People are winding themselves up these days, not waiting for a stem turner. They're not mad. It's just that they're not waiting for the bell to ring.

It all made me think of my priest friend, "Bill." He's alone in a large city parish that still has five Sunday Masses. With luck, he can get a local university priest to help out, but if often requires hours of shopping. Some time ago, near desperation, Bill suggested that a few of them might preside. The parishioners were all for it, but one sincere pharisee rang the sanctus bell on Bill and the chancery went apoplectic. So Bill's Sundays remain liturgical marathons, so tightly scheduled that he often can't stay for the final hymn.

Research by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops shows the number of Catholics growing to 74,109,000 by 2005 while the number of priests drops to 21,030. (It is now at 31,480). Currently 10.3 percent of U.S. parishes have no resident pastor. According to Fr. Eugene Hemrick, director of diocesan relations at The Catholic University of America and an experienced researcher, we now have dioceses with as many as two-fifths, one-third or a quarter of their parishes without a resident pastor. By 2005, also, nearly half the diocesan clergy will be 55 or older.

Sadly, it may all work itself out as the number of Mass-going Catholics dwindles to meet the diminishing number of priests to meet their needs. The second largest religious group in the country at this time is composed of non-practicing Catholics, and it's growing.

Perhaps these resigned priests, happily using what's left of their indelible marks as unofficial priests, will force the issue.