Juggling roles 'daunting challenge' for married priests

Father Joshua Whitfield, 37, is a busy diocesan priest at St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas. A recent Saturday saw him celebrating both a funeral and a vigil Mass, hearing confessions for two hours and attending an evening parish social. While his schedule is typical for a parish priest, there is one key difference: At home, he has a wife and four small children waiting for him.

Disappointed that he had missed his son’s T-ball game, Father Whitfield said, “Being a priest with a young family is extremely difficult. I make no bones about it. It’s a life of sacrifice, both on my part and theirs.”

Father Whitfield is a former Episcopal priest who entered the Catholic Church through the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, created by Pope Benedict XVI for Anglicans seeking full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. While married priests are common in the Eastern church, they are uncommon in the West — consisting mostly of former ministers from other denominations who are granted an exception to the rule of celibacy.

While some in the post-Vatican II Church have argued that it is time to end the celibacy requirement for priests in the West, in the 1967 encyclical on priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Blessed Pope Paul VI disagreed: “[Celibacy] should uphold [the priest] in the entire dedication of himself to the public worship of God and to the service of the Church; it should distinguish his state of life both among the faithful and in the world at large” (No. 14).

As the Church nears the 50th anniversary of Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Our Sunday Visitor spoke to married priests about the blessings and challenges they have as they live out their dual vocation.

Busy clergy

Father Whitfield was the son of a Disciples of Christ minister who became an Episcopalian after discovering “the beauty of high Anglo-Catholic Episcopal worship.” In 2003, he was ordained a deacon, married to his wife, Allison, and ordained a priest.

After three happy years as an Anglican curate, he came to believe the Roman Catholic Church “was the true church Christ founded” and entered the Church as a layman along with his wife. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2012.

Unlike his “part-time job” as an Episcopal priest, however, Father Whitfield has learned that “Catholic priests are the busiest clergy you’ll ever meet,” with someone in his congregation of 3,600 always in need of help.

He freely makes himself available but admits that his family is always on his mind.

Father Vaughn Treco and his wife, Norma. Courtesy photo

“I worry about getting my kids to T-ball; I worry about my kid breaking his femur (which happed last year) and about the medical bills. The rough and tumble of family life becomes part of your consciousness.”

Father Vaughn Treco, another ordinariate priest serving as pastor of the Church of St. Bede the Venerable in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is married and has three grown children.

“My schedule is so full that my family tells me, ‘Dad, you have to carve out some time for us.’”

Father Treco has adopted a “veto rule” with his wife, Norma, so if the need arises, she can tell him to cut down his workload. “If I’m asked to take on a new assignment, we talk about it together beforehand,” he said. “It has been a comfort to her to know that she has a say.”

Financial sacrifices

Money can be tight for married priests. Father Andrew Bartus, pastor of Blessed John Henry Newman Catholic Church in Irvine, California, is a married ordinariate priest with two small children. To make ends meet, his wife, Laura, works from home and he teaches history at a Catholic high school. Between the two incomes, they can pay their bills.

“It can be difficult, because the current framework of the Catholic Church doesn’t have a financial or housing arrangement to support a married priest,” he said.

Father Wissam Akiki is pastor of St. Joseph Maronite Church in Phoenix and the first married man to be ordained for the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, an Eastern rite community in union with Rome. He and his wife, Manal, have two daughters, ages 10 and 16 months. He noted that both his bishop and parish are ready to help him with his needs.

“Money would only be a problem if I thought about my work as a job, rather than a vocation,” he said.

Father Whitfield has been grateful for the generosity of his parishioners, “who have been embarrassingly charitable and kind. Roman Catholics take care of their clergy in practical ways that I never saw in Protestantism.”

He gave the example of when his young son broke his femur.

“Without my ever asking, our parishioners delivered meals to my home three times a week for about four months solid,” he said.

Advocates of celibacy

While married priests love their families, Father Whitfield said his ordination should not be viewed as a statement that “the Church should get with the times” and allow priests to marry. In fact, he said, “I’m a huge advocate of clerical celibacy; most married priests are. I don’t support changing it.”

Father Joshua Whitfield, his wife, Allison, and their children. Courtesy photo

Instead, when Catholics see a married priest, he said, they should see a man who converted to Catholicism, believed he had a vocation to the priesthood, and “the Church, in her mercy, offers a provision for that individual to live out his vocation to the priesthood for the sake of Christian unity.”

Father Treco agreed: “When people tell me that they wish all priests could marry, I say, ‘You don’t want to wish this life on everyone.’ If the norm was married priests, with men growing families while serving as priests, I think they’d find it a daunting challenge, if not impossible.”

He added, “I think the Apostle Paul was right [in 1 Corinthians 7:7]: There are decided advantages in our ability to do our mission as celibates.”

“Our case is an exception, not a door being opened,” Father Bartus said.

Father Whitfield also discounted the idea of a married priest being better equipped to counsel married parishioners.

“What matters most for the priest in pastoral ministry is holiness. A holy person, regardless of state, can relate to parishioners and speak with the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”

Yet for all the challenges and attention Father Whitfield has gotten as a married priest — “I refer to myself as a zoo exhibit,” he said — he’s not complaining about his dual vocation.

“It’s been a beautiful experience.”

Jim Graves writes from California.