Through Web site, married priests continue ministry despite objections from Catholic Church
By Stephanie Morris
Star-Banner (Ocala, FL)
There's certainly not a shortage of items or services available for rent these days. You can rent a Hummer if you want. You can rent someone to escort you to the office Christmas party. You can even rent a Prada handbag if you can't afford buy your own.
But did you know you could rent, dare we say, an ordained Catholic priest at www.rentapriest.com?
Thanks to Louise Haggett, who founded the non-profit Celibacy Is the Issue Ministries in 1992 after her devout mother passed away in an assisted living facility without a priest to read her last rites.
Haggett, of Brunswick, Maine, said her family assumed that because 80 to 90 percent of the residents there were Catholic, the center would have a Sunday mass and a priest available to perform the sacraments. But as it turned out, because of a shortage of priests in the area, there was no Sunday mass, and there was no priest around to minister to the community.
"I didn't want other seniors who had been devout Catholics all of their lives to go without seeing a priest," said Haggett.
That prompted her to start researching the shortage of priests and the issue of celibacy in the church.
She found that all over the country there were meetings of married priests who no longer pastored parishes but still had a desire to minister.
Haggett saw this as her opportunity to minister.
A year after her mother's death, she created the Celibacy Is the Issue Ministry that offers Rentapriest.com, a free online directory of priests who are available for sacramental ministry - weddings, funerals and baptisms - for a fee.
Almost all of the priests who are listed with Rentapriest.com are married, and for that reason, no longer pastor. But according to Haggett, under Cannon Law they have every right to administer the sacraments.
"Cannon 290 says once a priest, always a priest. Cannon 843 says a priest cannot refuse ministry to someone who asks. Cannon 1750 says the salvation of souls is always the supreme law of the church," explained Haggett. "This is what motivates the work of these priests."
But according to Father Patrick Sheedy of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Ocala, the Catholic church, as a body, does not endorse or accept the practices of priests who function outside of the body.
"It's a gimmick," Sheedy said. "To practice, they have to be approved by a bishop. They have no status within the church. They're not covered by anybody."
Like any other licensed minister, clergy who are listed with Rentapriest.com must adhere to state laws regarding marriage ceremonies. Rentapriest ceremonies are recognized by the state, but may not be recognized by the Catholic church.
Haggett said that in some instances, priests who have retired and gotten married, or who have left the priesthood to get married, have been blacklisted by their bishops, but she said there are some bishops who are extremely supportive of her ministry.
"I didn't want to do anything that went against the church. I guess that's why after 15 years they haven't come after us," she said.
According to Haggett, people typically contact Rentapriest.com when they want to be married somewhere outside of the church, like the beach, or when they have not been affiliated with a parish for some time, but would like a priest to preside over a ceremony.
The Rev. John O'Callaghan of On Top of the World is a married priest who lists his services with Rentapriest.com. He said he has performed 37 weddings in the Fort Meyers area through Rentapriest.com, but in spite of advertising efforts, he hasn't performed any since he moved to Ocala in September.
"Many young Catholics are alienated from the church," he said. "But they want a Catholic service because their roots are in the Catholic church."
Priests from Rentapriest.com set their own rates for officiating ceremonies, O'Callaghan charges $350 to officiate a wedding. O'Callaghan said that offering his services through Rentapriest.com is a way to keep his toe in ministry.
"If it weren't for Rentapriest, I'd be hungering for ministry," said the Rev. Pat Wenrick of Tampa. He married Paul and Johanna Chovlin of St. Petersburg in an outdoor ceremony last year.
"If anything, I feel more comfortable with a priest who is married," said Johanna. "They can understand more what I'm going through as a married person much better than a priest who's never been with a woman."
Haggett's organization believes that being married does not make a priest less effective in his ministry.
"We've helped about 75,000 people in the last 10 years," she said. "In these priests, I see the holiness of Jesus."