by Rev. John Shuster
When a Roman Catholic priest leaves the all-male clerical lifestyle for married life, he departs wearing an iron mask. Some priests are aware of this mask, others are not since they have worn it for so long. A married priest must eventually deal with removing the mask if he is to be healthy and integral. To fully become the married Roman Catholic priest that he is, he must take off the iron mask. It restricts his view, and hides his true face from the Roman Catholic community that needs his ministry of priesthood.
The plates of the mask are messages that are meant to control him. Some messages are clear and public, others are subliminal, but all are crafted to contain the priest he is in his own eyes and to those he meets.
All of these messages are negative and manipulative. The iron mask is used to cripple the priest emotionally and spiritually. Its goal is to compel him to hide the light of his priesthood under the proverbial bushel basket for none to see.
What are the plates/messages, and what truths do they coerce the wearer to hide? Each iron mask is different. Here are just a few examples:
"You are no longer a priest." In reality, priesthood is a permanent charism guaranteed by history, tradition, and even by Canon Law 290: “Sacred Ordination, once validly received, never becomes invalid.” Once a priest, always a priest.
"You never had a vocation to the priesthood." We married priests have been called by God and the community to priesthood, not to be clerics in an institution that has become predominantly gay. We are concerned with spirituality and service, not institutional position and privilege. We are truly ex-clerics, but never ex-priests.
"Your marriage is sinful." Marriage is key to salvation and a most important Sacrament. Our marriages, our wives and our children are beautiful.
"You have been unfaithful to your promises." Married priests are faithful to the earliest traditions of our Roman Catholic Church - before the political suppression of the married priesthood in 1139 by a worldly pope. The laws demanding mandatory celibacy for priests were born of violence and greed – married priests who would not cooperate were imprisoned and their wives and children were sold into slavery. (Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs For The Kingdom Of Heaven p. 110 ISBN 0-385-26527-1) Because mandatory celibacy has coercion at its core, no binding contract is legally possible. Married priests have been unfaithful to oppression and manipulation. The enforcement of mandatory celibacy has crippled the Church and created multiple sex and money problems that dog us to this day. For these reasons and many others, mandatory celibacy cannot be from Jesus.
"You have left the sacred company of men and have associated with women." Married priests prefer women. Married priests honor women and find their spiritual fulfillment in the Sacrament of Marriage. The married priesthood is restoring the balance of the masculine and the feminine to the institutional church that was lost so long ago.
"You have compromised your personal holiness with sex." Sexuality is not sinful. It is the way all peoples find intimacy, create family, and grow closer to God. The professed sex-less clerical priesthood is rife with clandestine homosexual and heterosexual activity that is abusive to all involved. How ironic that the bishops and priests who preach so much about sexual purity have been exposed for committing the worst sex crimes imaginable – those against trusting and vulnerable children. Our children.
"You are a scandal to the faithful." People love married priests and their wives. More than 70 percent of American Catholics want their married priests back at the parish and fully active in ministry and church leadership. The reinstatement of married priests is among the first steps in cleaning up, renewing and rejuvenating our beloved Roman Catholic Church.
"You don’t believe in God or the Church, nor do you obey the Pope." We have not left the Church, in fact we have totally identified with the real Church according to Vatican II, the people in the pews. We have proven our faithfulness in the fire of exile. We look forward to an expression of papal authority that no longer fears the feminine while preferring the masculine, one that focuses on the spiritual well-being of its people above all else.
"You and your women are undermining our clerical authority. You are ruining the Church." True authority in the Church rests within the people. The people, not the hierarchy, are the true seat of authority. Servant leadership serves the needs of the people and takes direction from the Spirit of God that lives in the entire Church community. As married priests, we stand among the People.
There are more plates/messages. I’m sure you have your own to add to this short list, but we should not dwell here. THE CHALLENGE IS NOT TO COUNT AND ANALYZE THE PLATES, BUT TO FREE ONE’S SELF FROM THE MASK! Iron masks can be strong and difficult to open, but one key unlocks them all. That key is MINISTRY.
A study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA, 1996) at Georgetown University cites that more than 70 percent of Catholics love their faith, but no longer practice it within the institutional church. These are alienated and discovering Catholics who want priests to walk with them in their spiritual journeys, not the pedantic litany of rules or the approbation of clerics. It is not the law, but the Spirit that gives life. These are the Roman Catholics who will help you remove the iron mask in the hospitality of their homes.
The final proof that a priest has discarded his iron mask lies in his successful re-entry into sacramental ministry. When a married priest tells others he is a priest and welcomes all to Eucharist, he is no longer contained by the political iron mask. He has rededicated himself to the ideals he professed on the day of his ordination. Until the politics of the institutional church change to accept priests who enter into sacred marriage, married priests will use the same house church setting that was the hallmark of the Early Church - the church that was closest to the person of Jesus - to be the priests that they truly are.