priest vocation

A Married Priest Reflects on His Vocation

Note: This is a guest post from a clergy friend named Carl Hemmer. He sent me this reflection, and I enjoyed reading about his vocation. Life is never what we expect it to be. I asked Carl if I could share this homily with all of you. Enjoy! And if you’re grateful to hear his story, please feel free to respond in the comments.

Today is the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a Catholic priest. I’d like to share some thoughts about why I chose to become a Catholic priest, what the steps to ordination were, why it was that a few years after my ordination my future services were rejected by the church that ordained me, and some lessons I’ve drawn from the fifty years of ministry since my ordination especially my more than four decades of ministry as a married priest.

Why I Became a Priest

First of all, what was it that made me to want to become a priest? As a boy, I came to know many priests and admired them. They generally seemed to be men of learning and dedicated to the service of others. My uncle was the pastor of several small parishes and he stood out in my eyes as a leader of people and someone my family honored. During high school, I got to know priests of the Jesuit religious order; its formal name is the Society of Jesus. This worldwide group opened a college in the city where I grew up and I admired these priests as accomplished teachers and scholars of an order whose work had gained worldwide respect for more than four centuries.

One of the Jesuit priests I met back then inspired me with his simple rule of life: cultivate a spirit of generosity, he said, and a sense of responsibility. In 1951, at the age of 19 and after two years of college, I joined the Jesuit Order. Thirteen years of study and preparation for ordination began. First, there were two years of spiritual “boot camp” training as a novice in the basics of prayer and disciplined living. Two more years of college followed to complete my bachelor’s degree, another year of study to secure a philosophy teaching degree, and still another year to acquire a Master’s degree in Economics.

Training & Education

During the next two years, I taught Economics at Fordham University in New York City. And then it was back to studies: three years of training in theology at Woodstock College just west of Baltimore that prepared me for ordination in 1962. Woodstock was an exciting place to be. It was then the largest Jesuit school of theology in the world and several of my teachers were also serving as advisers to the Second Vatican Council in Rome. After ordination, I took another year of theology that culminated in a two hour oral exam, conducted in Latin and covering seven years of philosophy and theology studies.

The next step was a year of spiritual “finishing school” that I spent in Spain. It was a time to focus on life goals and to learn basic ministry skills through work at a Spanish prison, a Madrid barrio, and a U.S. air base. Returning to the U.S., I settled into a doctoral program in economics at Columbia University, with daily pastoral work at a nearby convent and weekend ministry at metro New York parishes.

Now, it may surprise you but during all the years prior to ordination, it never occurred to me that I might marry some day. For a recently ordained priest, marriage was a choice we had long-since set aside. Catholic priests then and now are not permitted to marry. If they do, the Catholic Church forces them to withdraw from ministry. I didn’t expect the heated debate over celibacy that was beginning to erupt during the 1960s in the Catholic Church. Fairly quickly, I got into the debate and came to some life-changing conclusions.

Why Celibacy?

First, I realized for the first time that priestly celibacy was just a man-made rule of the Church and, more important, that it was a bad rule for ministers of the gospel. Mandatory celibacy implied that marriage was incompatible with personal holiness and leadership of worship. I worked with other priests to measure the support among U.S. priests and practicing Catholics for an end to mandatory celibacy. While support for change was strong and widespread, there were also those who expressed a shocking contrary view that official teaching implied. One priest wrote his view that “the hands that have touched altar linens should never touch diapers.”

Within months, I realized that I needed to be taken seriously in my work for an end to mandatory celibacy, the test for which was whether I was ready to get married myself. I had marketable skills as a married priest — teaching economics — and could support a family. I talked to sympathetic Church leaders, including one Cardinal and also the Jesuit who had initially helped me choose to seek priesthood, and decided that I had to join others in challenging the rule of celibacy and even face the penalty of being barred from any further work as a Catholic priest if I married.

And Then I Met . . .

Some months after taking up this battle to end the Church’s celibacy rule, I met a young woman during a weekend parish assignment who understood and supported my efforts and ultimately became my wife-to-be. For nearly two years, we shared the hope that the Church would agree to a carefully designed plan to restore married priesthood to the Church and would even bless our marriage. It was not to be. Eventually, we decided to follow our beliefs. We married, and hoped that somehow my work as a priest could continue. This is how my more than 44 years as a married priest began.

With the support of other married priests and many lay Catholics who were opposed to the Church’s teachings against the use of contraceptives, I began to lead weekly worship groups of Catholics in the Washington area and to preside over a growing number of marriages and baptisms. And with a federal government job to protect me from Church reprisals, I began to publish accounts of what had happened and to appear on a number of TV shows about celibacy.

Some of the priests who married at that time joined other denominations in order to continue their ministry. This was one way to continue ministry work but I chose to remain a Catholic Church member in order to remind Church leaders of the unfinished Church reform that had begun with the Second Vatican Council. It was painful to accept that the Church no longer wanted me as a priest. Over the years, however, I’ve found that many Catholics, including many fellow priests, still welcome me to join them in worship services.

Lessons Learned

So, what are the lessons I hope I’ve learned over the past half century, and especially during my last 44 years of marriage? We should all welcome the lessons that our life experiences deliver to us. In my case, there are at least five big lessons I should grasped in the years since my ordination.

#1, Learning Never Stops

First of all, learning is a process that never stops in life. In order to qualify for ordination, I took on a preparation for ministry that included constant application to classroom studies and taking more exams than I can remember over the first 13 years. With graduation and ordination, my formal studies and periodic exams were over and I discovered the life of learning that would be my responsibility for the rest of my years. Instead of just reading books and getting the judgment of professors on how much and how well I had learned, each day became a challenge to read accurately the needs of those who came to me and to pass the informal exam of being of real use to others.

It’s a lot easier to read the Bible and understand its history and nuances than it is to decide which teachings of the bible are really relevant in daily life. The secret of success after ordination requires you to learn what the bible writers were trying to say to their own age and then tweak the words you use so that the enduring messages make sense to people in our age. Words that had a clear meaning a thousand years ago can convey something very misleading to a modern audience. This kind of study and learning never ends unless an ordained person gives up on being a religious guide to others.
And with this kind of learning, the cost of failure is no longer just a disappointing grade on an exam. If you fail to understand the problems another person brings to you, they lose too. Listening to others is a key skill in this process and it’s very hard to acquire. Really hearing what someone else is trying to say requires you to hold off your own line of thinking for a while. It takes a lifetime for many of us to acquire the skills needed for good listening. It was so much easier in earlier years just to take notes and pass academic tests.

#2, Who Is Left Out?

A second big lesson for me during the past half century will sound strange to those of you who come from different religious denominations. I slowly became aware of the large number of qualified humans who were excluded from the ordination I was preparing for. Most Catholic seminarians were Caucasians but, at the time, there were relatively few African-American Catholics who sought training for priesthood. The enormous missing piece we should have seen was the absence of the other half of the human race — women. A growing number of Catholic women were studying religion and were just as knowledgeable as we were to qualify for ordination. The only barrier they couldn’t overcome was their gender and a Church judgment that God didn’t want them to be priests.

I don’t remember any serious protests by any of us against this gender bias of the Church. Why were we so complacent with the exclusion of women? In a subtle way, our acceptance of celibacy was blinding us. We couldn’t see the gender bias of the Church largely because we had joined a sub-culture, the Catholic clergy, that required us to live apart from women most of our waking lives. From the age of 19 when I entered the seminary until my mid-30s, I lived in all-male communities and never had a friendship with any woman. Celibacy was protected by keeping one’s distance from humans who might challenge this choice. The price we paid, without knowing it, was that women and the wrongs they suffered didn’t count in our lives as they would have if we had had normal male-female relationships. Friendships with women were discouraged and we grew through our twenties knowing only our teenage memories of women. As priests, protecting celibacy was a priority of the system that defined our lives and kept us from seeing the injustices when any issue involved opportunities for women to serve as our partners. As I age and appreciate what 44 years marriage have taught me, I’m amazed how my Church could have dared to elevate its own man-made rule of celibacy to require me to conspire in denying a basic human right for half of human race.

#3, Why Clericalism?

A third lesson is probably also a discovery that wouldn’t occur with those from other than a Catholic training. I developed a strong distaste for clerical dress and titles. When I was ordained, there was a common understanding that priests should stay arms-length from other people by their clothing and how they were addressed. Wearing a roman collar, being called Father set priests apart. Uniforms and titles serve a useful purpose in many other areas of life but I’ve come to think that the opposite is true for a priest. What matters most in ministry is the kind of moral standards your represent and how you approach human problems. Jesus and his earliest followers avoided special dress and titles. When most modern orders of Catholic nuns began their work, members adopted the common dress of the time, not garb from some long-past age.

During thirty years in a government job, no one called me Father but many came to me for advice or to preside over a family wedding. By and large, I related to others like everyone else, usually by my first name. Mother Teresa won the affection and trust of those she served because of how she lived and how she embraced everyone, not by insisting that Hindu beggars treat her as a Catholic nun. Special dress and honorific titles are human inventions that tempt people to attribute a special status to a minister before it is earned by the quality of his or her service. These symbols really belong to an age of history long since past.

#4, Getting to the Heart

A fourth lesson that I (and presumably those I’ve served) wish I had learned much earlier was to learn the art of simple speech that quickly gets to the heart of what a sermon or counseling is about. Learned people have an awful tendency to punish others with lengthy and irrelevant accounts of all they know, whether or not this information is relevant to the questions asked. Also, learned people tend to use words of many syllables, long-winded explanations of their ideas and beliefs, and endless accounts of their reasoning before they get to the point. I’ve fallen into these professional traps many times and those who have heard me have surely earned expedited passage to their heavenly rewards by their patience in waiting for me to voice my final period.

With the passing years, I’ve learned to admire and sometimes imitate those preachers and teachers who cut to the chase and tell you what you hoped to learn before you think they’ve forgotten the original issue. The secret remedy for a minister is never to fall in love with your own favorite words or stories but to focus on the simple question — what is the good news today for this person or group of people? What can I say that will assure them that someone else understands their current puzzle of faith, their pain that doesn’t want to pass, their hope for some light to take them through one more day? Perhaps the best ordination gift would be a stop-watch that sounds a loud cry, Stop now, and administers a gentle shock when the speaker has made his point.

#5, The Battle Is Long

Finally, there’s one more lesson I’ve learned that would have spared me many disappointments in life. If you set out to reform an institution like a church, you have to count on a longer-than-life battle before-the reformer can reasonably hope to see success. Back in the late 1960s when a group of us were trying to persuade the Catholic Church to restore marriage for its clergy — back to the rules that lasted until the Reformation– we really thought that, in a decade or two, we would get this change in church rules approved. How naive we were! Experience has taught me that, while individuals can change their own or their disciples’ life choices and behavior with some speed, institutions typically see change as a mortal enemy to their survival and well-being and find endless reasons to avoid change.

In the United States alone, some 25,000 priests left the Catholic Church to marry over a period of twenty years beginning in the 1970s, and the institution’s leaders never offered any compromises to stem the losses. Now, 40 years later, the Church is just beginning to accept handfuls of convert married ministers to replace a few of the life-long Catholic priests it still rejects if they dare to combine priesthood and marriage.

Would-be reformers of Reformation times faced similar disappointments when they tried to persuade their church leaders to make needed institutional reforms. All of them completed their lives with unfinished results for their reform efforts. The hard lesson is that, if any cause requires institutional reform, the odds are good that one can only hope to plant a seed that will be harvested in a later age. In my case, I’ve had to discover this slow-walk of institutional change by facing resistance to our repeated pleas for change.

For priests like me, the refusal of the Catholic Church to change left me no alternative except to put my ministry skills to work in ways that would never have been permitted by church leaders. This accomplished two things: Catholics and other believers who wanted my services for weddings or worship or counseling received the services they needed. One never needs permission to do good. And by acting publicly, I provided fuel for a continuing debate among Catholics and Church leaders about the benefits the Church could gain by allowing its priests to marry.

Our Story Continues

You’ve heard my story now and know I’m at peace with how I’ve spent my last fifty years. Each of us has our own different story of how we’ve faced the challenges of life and responded to the graces that God has sent us. In our own ways, each of us can try to describe the lessons we’ve learned from our struggles to find what was the right thing we had to do as our lives unfolded.

There are two common experiences we all share. First, we are richer for the countless people who’ve come into our lives and helped us see new things and face new problems so that we could grow into our better selves. The unexpected list of helping hands we’ve each found is perhaps the greatest gift we’ve all received. I’ve found that these few years at Ashby Ponds have made me so much richer for your friendship. And there is the ever deepening understanding that we have a God who never stops wanting us to succeed and is always there to walk with us. The passing years surely deserve our celebration.

~ Carl Hemmer
Ashby Ponds, Ashburn, Virginia
24 June 2012


One response to “A Married Priest Reflects on His Vocation”

  1. Ralph Hitchens Avatar
    Ralph Hitchens

    This is a great story, and a well-reasoned, damning critique of the Catholic Church and its man-made, non-scriptural doctrine that is self-defeating in so many ways. Aside from priestly celibacy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood, the issue of contraceptives that flared up recently is another example of how elevating debatable scriptural issues into doctrine and sanctimonious “matters of conscience” does not serve God. The Church must share the blame for, among other things, exploding population and the AIDS epidemic in Africa and other parts of the developing world.
    It’s heartening to hear that a man of faith like Rev. Hemmer can find a way to function within the framework of a dysfunctional church.

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