Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Michael Clarke, 32, and his fiance, Lynn Dixon, 34, were raised Roman Catholic. They want to raise their children the same way.
But they can't be married in the Roman Catholic Church. Dixon had been in a previous marriage, and the church forbids divorced couples to remarry in an official church ceremony. So the Allison Park couple began looking for priests who would conduct a traditional Catholic wedding ceremony outside the church.
"It wasn't as easy as I thought it was going to be," Clarke said. But then Dixon stumbled upon www.rentapriest.com, an online directory of more than 300 married priests across the country willing to perform services traditional priests can't or won't.
While the concept sounds kind of like a sacrilegious Rent-A-Center, it's actually a spiritual quest to aid couples or individuals in finding a priest to help them in their time of need, said Louise Haggett, who founded the nonprofit organization.
"They're like priests without borders," Haggett said.
Church canon law stipulates once a priest, always a priest, Haggett said, and they can perform valid sacraments in times of emergency. Haggett contends the priest shortage has left the Catholic Church in a constant state of emergency.
"That is a stretch and somewhat naive," said Fr. James Wehner, director of the St. Paul Seminary. An emergency would be if a car accident happened in front of a married priest and the priest was there to offer the "last rites" to a dying person, Wehner said.
Although Rent A Priest weddings are legal and binding, they are not recognized as being valid by the Catholic Church, he said.
Since 1996, Rent A Priest members have performed more than a quarter of a million baptisms, weddings, funerals and anointing of the sick, Haggett said.
On Friday, Clarke and Dixon were married in North Park by the only Western Pennsylvania member of Rent A Priest, William Podobinski, who was ordained in 1973 but then married a nun, Donna, in 1984.
"After we got married, half my family would have nothing to do with me," Podobinski said. "A lot of people that I was associated with in the church wouldn't have anything to do with us."
After marriage, the couple settled on the South Side and tried to resume their religious activities. "We were very open and honest about who we were," he said. "Every Catholic Church there on the South Side Flats told us we would be a scandal coming to church."
The Podobinskis, of Baldwin, now attend Christ Hope Ecumenical Catholic Church, which was founded by Catholics who felt some of the traditional Roman Catholic rules were arbitrary and man-made.
Haggett, who formed Rent A Priest in 1992, after her ill mother had trouble finding priests who could deliver communion and blessings to her in the senior care center.
"Had I known there were married priests around, I would have engaged one to come and visit my mom," she said. "But it never happened. She didn't see a priest until she was comatose in the hospital."
Clarke said the marital status of Podobinski wasn't a concern to him and Dixon.
"We want to raise our kids Catholic, but some of the things we just don't agree with. One of the things is I believe priest should be able to get married," Clarke said. "If they don't allow priests to marry, they're not going to have priests."
Facts and figures
- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has 214 parishes and 282 active priests. Officials project that within five years it will have fewer active priests than parishes.
- In 1985, there were 57,317 priests and 1,051 parishes without a resident priest. By 2005, there were 42,839 priests and 3,251 parishes without a priest in residence.
- 71 percent of priests polled by the Los Angeles Times said they would "definitely" choose to become a priest if they had to choose again. Seven percent said they would choose a different vocation.
- Nine out of 10 priests who leave clerical priesthood do so to get married.
- Married priests are the norm among Eastern Rite Catholics in their homelands in eastern Europe and the Middle East.
- Because of the priest shortage, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has begun appointing "parish life collaborators" to oversee day-to-day pastoral care and administration of the building.
Sources: Tribune-Review research, Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, Associated Press