Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reverend Father

The Press-Enterprise
Saturday, June 16, 2007

Photo: Fr. Jerry Ochetti and his daughter Diane.

Some parishioners do a double take when they glance at the wall above the Rev. Gregory Elder's desk at St. Adelaide Catholic Church in Highland.

Next to his diplomas is a photograph of a smiling Elder with a middle-age woman and two young adults.

The woman is Elder's wife. And the young people are the couple's children.

The Rev. Gregory Elder, of St. Adelaide Catholic Church in Highland, is a priest of the Diocese of San Bernardino. He has three children, among them his son William, 18. Elder, who is married, was an Episcopalian who converted to Catholicism.

"They have a 'what's going on here' look," Elder, 49, said of perplexed parishioners. "I normally ask them, 'Do you know my background?' If they say no, I say, 'I need to explain this picture.' "

Of 263 priests in the San Bernardino diocese, Elder is among the four who have children.

He is a former Episcopal priest who converted to Catholicism. The Rev. Jerry Ochetti is a divorcé who received an annulment. The Rev. Howard Lincoln, diocese spokesman, identified the third priest as the Rev. John Benjamin, who is no longer assigned to an individual parish but who fills in regularly for other priests. Benjamin's marriage also was annulled. Lincoln declined to provide details about the fourth.

According to its official teaching, the Catholic Church has mandated celibacy for priests since 1139, to ensure they have a single-minded devotion to serving God. Elder received a rare dispensation that allows Episcopal priests who are married to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it is probably more common today for priests to have kids than in the past, even though their numbers remain small.

Recently ordained priests tend to be older than their predecessors, so they are more likely to have married and become fathers, Walsh said.

The Parenting Experience

Ochetti spent 25 years managing ice-cream parlors and doughnut shops, and working as a computer consultant before he felt a calling to the priesthood. Ochetti, 54, is now associate vocation director at Blessed Junipero Serra House in Grand Terrace, where he provides spiritual guidance to men on the path toward priesthood.

Ochetti's 1986 divorce and subsequent annulment spurred him to reflect on his life. About 10 years ago, Ochetti told his daughter that was planning to become a priest.

Diane Ochetti, now 29 and living in Redlands, was stunned -- and worried.

"I was afraid I wouldn't see him anymore," Diane Ochetti said as she sat with her father on a sofa at Serra House on a recent afternoon. "I didn't know if it would be a taboo issue to be seen with him, which turned out to be completely contrary to the way it is."

Far from tearing Jerry and Diane Ochetti apart, his immersion into religious life brought them closer together.

Before Jerry Ochetti became a priest, Diane Ochetti avoided asking him for advice on personal matters. She saw him as a disciplinarian, not a counselor.

"I can come to him for any problem I have," she said. "Before, I had a deep appreciation and respect for him. But I saw him as the authoritative figure."

Ochetti said he learned in the seminary to listen more carefully to people's problems and to allow them to work out their own solutions to difficulties, rather than just issuing top-down directives, as he did as a manager of businesses -- and as a father.

Ochetti counsels many people, including members of a Redlands parish where he used to serve. He said he advises non-family members the same way he counsels his daughter.
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Diane Ochetti said she doesn't mind sharing her father with so many others. She realizes that her relationship with him is special.

"He's not Father Jerry to me," she said. "He's my dad. I have experiences with him that no one else has, and no one else ever will have. And I will continue to have those experiences with him that others will never have, as my father, not as a priest."

Ochetti said having a daughter makes it easier for some parents to relate to him. He can use his own parenting experiences when counseling people.

Even so, both he and Elder said they support the church's rule requiring celibacy for the vast majority of priests.

Every priest gleans more insights about human nature and becomes a better counselor to all types of people as he gains greater experience helping others, Elder said.

Episcopal Exemption

Elder is one of only about 80 married former Episcopal priests in the United States who have received papal permission to serve as Catholic priests, said the Rev. William Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The special exemption exists for Episcopal priests -- and not most other denominations -- because of the similarities between rites in the Episcopal and Catholic churches, said Stetson, who helps review applications from Episcopal clergy who want to become Catholic priests.

Elder said that, although he felt a calling to become a Catholic priest, it would have been a more difficult decision if his children had been younger when he was ordained. Today, daughter Mary is 20 and son William is 18.

The primary reason for the celibacy rule is so priests can devote their lives to serving God and the church, he said. A good father, though, is actively involved in his young children's lives, Elder said.

"Having a father who's a priest and an absentee dad isn't going to do anyone any good," he said.

As an Episcopal priest, Elder had to balance the responsibilities of being a religious father and a biological one. Yet the time demands of an Episcopal priest typically are not as great as those on a Catholic priest, he said.

Catholic parishes are usually much bigger than Episcopal ones, said Elder, who went from overseeing an Episcopal parish of about 250 families to serving his Catholic parish of 2,400 families in Highland.

William Elder said there are advantages to having a priest as a father. In a high-school lesson on European history, William's teacher mentioned John Calvin's theory of double predestination, that some souls are destined to end up in heaven and others in hell.

That night, William asked his father about the Catholic perspective on the matter, which he discovered is that God wants everyone to be saved and that one's faith and actions determine salvation.

"It's convenient to have a theologian whose brain I can pick at the dinner table," he said.

In some matters, it is better to separate the duties of a father and a priest, Gregory Elder said. For example, if he found out one of his children was using drugs, he would react differently as a father than as a priest. That's why, even though he regularly offers his children advice, he sends them to another priest for confession.

"Confession is not the place for punishment," Elder said. "Confession is the place for forgiveness. A priest is there to forgive and say God loves you unconditionally. A father is there to do that as well, but also to be a disciplinarian."

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