72-year-old says he plays unique role for community
BY ABBOTT KOLOFF
Anthony Padovano knew what he wanted to do with his life when he was a teenager sitting up in bed one night, unable to sleep. He says he had a "quasi-mystical experience," a calling from God, and afterward told his parents he wanted to become a priest.
He used another word to convey urgency.
"I need to be a priest," he told his parents.
Technically, and he says spiritually, he remains a Catholic priest 32 years after he left his church ministry to marry a nun he met while teaching a graduate course on theology. Once ordained, priests always are priests, even though married priests are not allowed to function as clerics within the church. That creates some internal stresses, Padovano said.
"The official church keeps saying you have to live as a lay person, but you're not one," he said. "It's like telling a surgeon that because you get married, you can never do surgery again."
Padovano, 72, a college professor and author who lives in Parsippany, said he once expected Roman Catholic officials to end mandatory celibacy for priests. He hoped to return to a church ministry. But that didn't happen, Padovano became a critic of church leadership, and he decided long ago that it was better to keep talking about issues in the church than to go back. And, like hundreds and perhaps thousands of married priests across the nation, he said he has a ministry outside the traditional boundaries of the church.
"I respond to pastoral needs," he said.
He did not attend this weekend's married priest convention held at the Sheraton Hotel in Parsippany, and said he didn't want to make extensive comments about the movement that led to that convention -- criticized by some for its connection with the Rev. Sung Myung Moon. But he applauded the movement's leader, Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was excommunicated after ordaining married men as bishops, for taking up the issue of optional celibacy.
Wave of marriages
Padovano and his wife, Theresa, were among thousands of priests and nuns who left church ministries in the 1960s and 1970s to get married. Church historians say the exodus peaked in 1973 when 900 American priests left their ministries. Priests who left church ministries at the time often received dispensations that allowed them to get married, a practice later restricted by Pope John Paul II.
Married priests are still priests, said Monsignor Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University, but are not allowed to function as clerics except in emergencies. They created support groups in the 1980s and lobbied the Vatican to change its rules on celibacy. Many continued to function as priests, outside the boundaries of the traditional church. Three hundred married priests nationwide are listed by a group called Rent-A-Priest. They typically perform weddings traditional priests won't -- for example, for Catholics who have been divorced and who have not been granted an annulment.
Padovano does not belong to Rent-A-Priest but said he does perform weddings. While he once wanted to return to the church, he said that no longer is his goal. He said he disagrees with church leadership on a wide range of issues, such as birth control and the role of women in the church. He advocates lay people having more say in the church. CORPUS, a national group once headed by Padovano that represents 1,500 married priests, supports ordaining women as priests, a subject church officials won't discuss.
"If I went back and was compelled to serve under (a conservative) bishop, what would I gain, and what would the people of God gain?" Padovano said.
Theresa Padovano, 65, his wife, also has become a prominent church critic. She co-founded the northern New Jersey chapter of Voice of the Faithful, formed to provide support to victims of clerical sex abuse and to promote discussions about changes in the church. She said a group of married priests and their wives used to get together to provide support for one another. They expected the church to change its stand on celibacy for priests -- but Pope John Paul II closed discussion of the issue.
"We prayed for it to happen," Theresa Padovano said of optional celibacy. "But I think the Holy Spirit knew what she was doing. We would have been so grateful that I wonder if we would have been free to say what we really believe. ... We wouldn't have been free to criticize the hierarchical system."
The Padovanos, who have four children and are expecting their first grandchild, joined a religious community in Nutley, and Anthony said he still has a ministry. He performs wedding ceremonies that traditional priests won't. Those marriages are not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, according to experts. But Padovano said the ceremonies he performs have some benefit to the church, even if church officials don't see it that way.
"A priest who is married can reach out to people in a way that keeps them tied to the church ... as opposed to feeling abandoned and neglected," Padovano said.
He said he heard his father's dying confession in a hospital in 1987 after at first resisting. He told his father they were too close for him to hear the confession. He told him he could find another priest in the hospital. His father responded that he didn't know how much time he had left.
"I won't go to anyone else," his father said.
Padovano said he embraced celibacy when he became a priest, but after he fell in love he began to see it as an institutional requirement rather than a spiritual one. He said he wasn't disillusioned about the priesthood.
"You don't have to be disillusioned to fall in love," Padovano said.
The Padovanos fell in love over dinner with friends, during theological discussions following summer classes. Anthony taught in Houston in 1973. He was attracted to Theresa because she is "an extremely beautiful person." She was impressed by his progressive theology, including his stand on sexual issues, and remembers him talking about people having a say about the size of their families. That was "radical" at the time, she said. When he went back to New Jersey, and she returned to Montana, they stayed in touch by writing letters and talking on the phone.
Anthony said he didn't want to take Theresa away from a life that made her happy. Theresa said she didn't want to take Anthony away from the priesthood. They had a decision to make -- accept their love or never see one another again. Anthony told Theresa he wanted to spend his life with her. He says now that getting married was a calling from God, every bit as powerful as the one he had when he was a teenager. Theresa said she also felt a calling. She wanted to set an example.
"I had the feeling that the Spirit was doing something unusual, something new," she said. "There was a need for people to see there isn't a contradiction between ministry and marriage."
Theresa said nuns in her community referred to Anthony as their "brother-in-law." They both said their families understood. They were married on Sept. 1, 1974, in the living room of the house where they still live and where they raised their four children. Theresa said their lives have been no less spiritual than when they were part of the traditional church.
"We see the home as a sacred place," she said as she talked about laughter in her house over the years, children playing, taking music lessons, dressing for Little League games, going off to college and starting their own families.