By Ellie Hidalgo
March 2, 2007
The first married Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles will be ordained this May, the culmination of a pilgrimage of faith that --- in the couple's words --- has been full of adventure and welcome surprises
A special papal provision will enable William Lowe, a former Episcopalian priest, to be ordained as a Catholic priest, several months after he and his wife Linda celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary. Cardinal Roger Mahony will preside at the May 6 ordination to be held at the couple's parish, Blessed Junípero Serra Church in Camarillo.
Bill was ordained to the transitional diaconate Feb. 10 by Santa Barbara Region Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry. The Lowes have served, and will continue to serve, at Padre Serra in a variety of ministries --- not unlike their work in the Episcopal Church.
'Surprised by the joy'
Having served as an Episcopalian priest for 27 years at Parish of the Messiah in Newton, Mass. (near Boston), Bill Lowe was known as the "Burying Parson in New England" because of his special call to bereavement ministry and to accompanying family members through the death of a loved one.
The Lowes also raised a son and two daughters, and Linda worked more than two decades as an administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In addition, to active lay service in the parish, Linda also served as president of an ecumenical group of women that gathered monthly.
After Bill retired in 2001, the two started doing something they never had time to do before --- visiting the Catholic churches of several friends and colleague pastors.
"We were amazed at the vigor and life in those parishes. We were surprised by the joy," said Bill, 68. The Catholic churches were full, he added, with as many men participating as women and scores of children.
The Lowes also were inspired by Catholic outreach to low-income communities, which had long been one of their priority concerns. "We always had a strong feeling that Catholicism was the church for the poor," said Bill. "It was the church that cared the most for the poor --- Jesus' people."
Simultaneously, he and Linda started talking about becoming Catholic.
"We didn't leave the Episcopal Church because we were angry or upset," he stressed. "We were drawn to Catholicism for positive reasons. But we are deeply grateful for everything we had in the Episcopal Church."
The two were received as Catholics in Massachusetts. Then Bill discovered he missed being fully engaged in the work of ministry and pastoral counseling; he believed he could still be of service to his new Catholic Church.
He also knew that a special papal provision had provided for several dozen married and former Episcopalian priests to become Catholic priests. He started talking with some of them and looking into the possibility.
Linda, 66, said she raised numerous questions and possible concerns during her husband's discernment process about whether or not to seek the Catholic priesthood. However, bottom-line she told him: "If you really want to do this, I'm with you."
"Linda's support and encouragement has been wonderful," added Bill. "It's meant so much to me in my ministry."
Around this time the Lowes, who are originally from Southern California, decided to move back to the Golden State to care for Linda's aging parents. The cross-country move nearly four years ago drew them closer to their son Christopher, 39, who is married with five children and lives in Whittier, and their daughter Hilary, 36, who is married and lives in Santa Barbara. Their daughter Jennifer, 34, lives in Chicago.
Once they settled into Camarillo, Padre Serra Church welcomed them with open arms, said Bill, and the two became actively engaged in parish life.
Linda co-chairs the parish's outreach commission, including its justice ministries and charitable activities. Last year she participated in the intensive Just Faith educational program. She and several others also have started the Ventura County Interfaith Community which has brought together Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu and Baha'i faithful to engage in dialogue and conversation about one another's faith traditions.
Bill has continued his work in bereavement ministry and is being sought out for pastoral and marital counseling. He also enjoys working with parish youth.
"I did not like retirement," said Bill. "I'm very happy to be back at work. I come home whistling and singing."
He used to think that small churches were advantageous in that a priest could get to know everyone personally. He has since seen the advantage of large Catholic churches --- Padre Serra is made up of 2,800 families --- in which a multitude of ministries, events and community outreach become possible.
"It's amazing how many hundreds of people we've gotten to know," he marveled. "Big churches don't have to be impersonal. Ours isn't; it's a very generous parish. People get involved in a lot of things."
On their days off, the Lowes enjoy visiting their children and grandchildren. The two are avid daily walkers and enjoy hiking. Both like to make music playing their recorders, and Linda plays tennis weekly. They also have a small condominium on Catalina Island for occasional get-away weekends.
"We are as youthful as we ever were, except that we take more naps," quipped Bill.
A 'profound religious conviction'
As they began to settle into their new neighborhood and lay parish ministry, Bill again looked into the process, known as the Pastoral Provision, by which former Episcopalian ministers can be ordained in the Catholic Church. He received the necessary recommendations from his pastor, Father Jarlath Dolan, Bishop Thomas Curry and Cardinal Mahony and was accepted as a candidate.
Given the growing dissension threatening to split apart the Anglican/Episcopalian communion over issues like women's ordination and the election of openly gay bishops, Bishop Curry said he wanted to ascertain that Bill's call to the priesthood was rooted in a profound religious conviction.
"He really did convert to Catholicism with his wife completely for reasons of religious conversion," said Bishop Curry. "He was joining something, not leaving something. That was very positive."
The next step was two years of guided theological, spiritual and pastoral preparation for ministry in the Catholic Church. Vincentian Father Kevin McCracken of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo served as his mentor.
Bill said he also has counted on the five married deacons at his parish for ongoing support. "The hospitality and graciousness have been exceptional," he said.
Even so, the process to ordination has been long-winding, and the Lowes were initiated into "slow-speed" Catholicism. At one point Bill questioned whether he might be too old to be pursuing a second chance at ministry. But a deacon friend insisted he persevere. He also stayed in contact with other married, former-Episcopalian, now Catholic priests, including Father Gregory Elder in the Diocese of San Bernardino.
As the process towards ordination inched along, Linda worried about possible negative responses by different groups of people - her children, former Episcopalian parishioners, older family members, deacons, priests and former Catholic priests who became laicized and married.
However, time and again they have been treated with warmth, generosity and support, she observed. "All the reasons I could imagine for different groups of people to be feeling negative about it, have just evaporated," said Linda. "That realization is what makes me know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this is God's will."
'Excitement at the parish'
Last October, Bill and four other men from the Dioceses of Charleston, Denver, Scranton and Newark passed their oral certification examinations at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Orange, New Jersey. This exam marked the final milestone for Bill to receive approval to be ordained as a transitional deacon and then as a priest.
On Feb. 10, Bill was ordained to the diaconate by Bishop Curry in the presence of his pastor and several hundred parishioners.
"The whole news of his ordination to the diaconate and to the priesthood has created a sense of excitement here at the parish," said Father Dolan. "It's a parish that's open to new ideas."
At the ordination ceremony, Bishop Curry said to the Lowes: "We come to celebrate the gifts of faith, experience, ministry, reflection and courage you bring to all of us."
Catholics and Episcopalians "treasure and love the same Jesus," said Bishop Curry. "But can you also share with us, you who come to our tradition with new eyes, what you treasure in this tradition and again call us to appreciate what maybe we tend to take for granted and do not always appreciate?"
After ordination to the priesthood, Bill will be assigned to the parish as pastoral assistant, performing the full range of sacramental ministry as is needed, including consecrating the Eucharist during Mass.
"In a sense it feels very normal being ordained. It's exactly what we were doing before," said Bill. "What is unusual for us is all the attention. We're really very shy about that. We're surprised and kind of amazed at all the attention we're getting, but we recognize a responsibility in doing this."
The Lowes are sought-after speakers on the local Catholic circuit. They have shared their journey and answered questions before groups of clergy, deacons, seniors, youth, and directors of religious education.
"People want to know who we are, what our journey has been. They want to know about our family," said Linda. As the wife of a priest, "I'm not really different from any other active lay person," she said. She believes in the ministry of presence and being part of the "worshipping core" of the parish. "I feel very strongly about lay ministry and its importance," she added.
Bill said he and Linda are looking forward to the future with hope and gladness, adding, "We're both pretty keen on new adventures and continuing the pilgrimage."