Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Married, ex-Baptist minister to become Catholic priest

Wow! The Pastoral Provision has expanded away from just Episcopalians and Lutherans!

By Peter Smith
The Courrier Journal
August 25, 2008

David Harris never considered his conversion to Catholicism six years ago to be a rejection of the Baptist faith that nourished him from childhood in Eastern Kentucky.

But as a married man, Harris did think the switch meant he would leave one thing behind -- his status as an ordained minister.

He was wrong.

Early next month, he'll make history as the first married, former Baptist minister to become a Roman Catholic priest in the United States.

He'll also be only the second married man from any former denomination to become a priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Harris, 53, is scheduled to be ordained Sept. 6 at the Cathedral of the Assumption.

He is the only priest being ordained in the archdiocese this year.

His ordination is allowed under a seldom-used exception to the church's requirement that priests be celibate.

Exception to the rule

The exception, which requires case-by-case permission from the Vatican, allows ordination of married converts who had been ordained Protestant ministers.

While about 100 former ministers from Episcopal and other American Protestant denominations have taken that path, Harris is the first former Baptist known to do so, according to researchers and others familiar with the process.

"All I could do is say, 'Church, would you consider this?' " said Harris, now a deacon at St Aloysius Church in Pewee Valley, where he will become associate pastor upon his ordination. "If the church had said no, I would have gone on and enjoyed my faith and done something else."

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who supported Harris' application to the Vatican, said he's looking forward to the ordination.

"I think the world of him," he said.

Elayne Roose, a spiritual director who has advised Harris, said "we'll all benefit" from his ordination.

She said he blends spirituality with practical experience.

"He understands what it's like to be married, to have children, to have that life, besides being a very spiritual person," she said.

The spiritual journey

Harris, who knew few Catholics in his native Middlesboro, traces his spiritual journey to his upbringing by "good Christian parents."

"I loved the mountains and nature, (which conveyed) a sense of closeness to God," said Harris, whose church office is decorated with pictures of sunflowers -- and a real one from his garden -- alongside icons and liturgical books.

He said he was baptized by immersion around age 10 at his church, beneath a painting of John the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan River.

Harris later earned an engineering degree from the University of Kentucky, where he met his wife, Pam.

They now have two adult sons.

Harris worked as a design engineer in Lexington, but he said that as he volunteered in his local Baptist church, he felt a call to the ministry.

He earned a master's of divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville in 1987 while pastor of a church in eastern Jefferson County.

Harris said when his second son was born, he "really had to think about spending more time with the family." He returned to engineering in 1992, going to work for the Louisville Regional Airport Authority.

That was when a friend gave him a thrift-store copy of a spiritual classic by the Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, "Dark Night of the Soul."

Harris said he was captivated by its vision of a deep contemplative prayer life and began reading more of Catholic spirituality, including works by 20th-century Kentucky author-monk Thomas Merton.

He went on retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, where Merton had lived.

Harris then began attending the Church of the Epiphany in eastern Jefferson County and was confirmed as a Catholic in 2002.

"I love the Baptist faith," he said. "I was not moving away from it or toward something. It's just all part of my journey."

Crossing great divides

He acknowledged he had to overcome a historic divide between Baptists and Catholics.

Baptists claim final authority rests solely in the Bible, while Catholics cite a combination of Scripture, traditions and church leadership. Baptists believe the Lord's Supper is strictly a symbol, while Catholics see it as in essence the body and blood of Jesus.

"I've come to understand enough of it that I began to believe and trust in the … teaching arm of the church," Harris said.

His wife and sons remain Baptist, but support him, as do other relatives.

"I'm real happy for him," said his brother, Mike, of Louisa. "My brother has always had a fantastic heart for people."

David Harris said his mother had the most difficulty with his conversion.

"We talk about it, we pray about it," he said. "At this point she's real supportive."

After he converted, Harris volunteered in such roles as a reader and altar server.

And when a spiritual adviser told him of the possibility of the priesthood, he prayed about it, talked with priests and met with then-Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, who submitted his application to the Vatican.

Harris earned a master's in theological studies from St. Meinrad School of Theology in Southern Indiana.

He began working as an administrator at St. Barnabas Church on Hikes Lane. And Vatican approval came last winter.

"He'll make a great priest," said Joe Kleine-Kracht, a former parish council president at St. Barnabas, who said Harris' preaching style is "almost revival like."

"He was really big on spreading the word and telling us as Catholics we need to make sure we're spreading the word," he said.

Harris recognizes that some advocates point to the use of former Protestant clerics to bolster their call for more married priests.

But Harris is staying out of that debate.

"That's something you'll have to take up with the church," he said. "It's just like my situation: Ultimately the church makes that discernment."

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