By Nancy Haught
March 23, 2010
PORTLAND — The Rev. Tom Farley looked at packed pews Sunday morning and made a promise.
"There is an elephant in the room," Farley said as Mass began at St. Clare Catholic Church in southwest Portland. "But we'll talk about it later — after Communion. "
He was referring to the letter he'd sent to the congregation last week, which detailed why these Sunday Masses would be his last as a priest.
"I leave because of a private longing in my heart and soul that I have ignored or suppressed to my detriment," he wrote in the letter. "I love priestly ministry but I cannot live this life of celibacy."
Farley, ordained in 1979, is the latest priest to leave the Catholic Church in the United States, which is struggling with a severe clergy shortage and declining numbers. The number of American men joining the priesthood has dropped by 60 percent since the 1960s to about 40,000 in 2009. Celibacy, required since the 12th century by the Catholic Church in the West, is considered a major reason for that decline. Critics say many men reject the priesthood because they aren't willing to live without the intimacy of a life partner or that it leads to sexual frustration and breaking of priestly vows.
The Archdiocese of Portland has about 150 priests, including retired ones, who serve 124 parishes and 24 missions, and about 400,000 Catholics. In the last decade, perhaps half a dozen in the Portland archdiocese have left the priesthood, often quietly, and some have married, also quietly. National numbers of priests who marry aren't reported and tracked.
In a telephone interview Saturday, Farley, who is in his mid- to late-50s, wouldn't discuss leaving, except to say it was a "gut-wrenching" decision.
Parishioners packed Farley's last Masses — one Saturday evening and three on Sunday morning. As part of the services, the congregations knelt with him to confess their sins and listened as he preached a brief sermon. After Communion, Farley carried a sheet of paper to the lectern and read:
"I want to say how honored I have been to be a fellow disciple with you in the Catholic Church. I am leaving without anger or resentment, not wanting to hurt you or the Church. I do not want to be a poster child for married priests."
Farley, who graduated from high school in Corvallis, said he will live in Portland. He drew chuckles when he said he would be looking for a job, "like a real person." He said he will remain a practicing Catholic. He can still receive the sacraments, but if he chooses to marry in the church, he must go through a process to be released from his vows.
Meanwhile, he said, "I look forward to parish shopping — like you have been able to do."
The Rev. James Galluzzo will return as interim pastor at St. Clare. The archdiocese is expected to assign a new priest to St. Clare in July.
After Mass, parishioners said they were stunned by Farley's letter. It sparked speculation about marriage in Farley's future, but most were still focused on what the priest had brought to the parish, and the legacy he would leave.
"He was one of us," said Frank Elliott, who was baptized as an adult by Farley. Farley also married Elliott and his wife, Kathleen, and baptized their two daughters.
"He was part of our family," Kathleen Elliott said through her tears. "Always, in his sermons, he brought the message to life. He took his family stories and translated the Gospel in a meaningful way."
Other church members felt the same. "I can't imagine this parish without him," said Michael Spatz, a member of St. Clare's since 1989. "He's been a good match. This is a liberal parish with clear ideas about social justice. He didn't just put his stamp on us; he allowed us to put our stamp on him."
Linda Fanning, who remembers that her first day at St. Clare coincided with Farley's nine years ago. "Father Tom is man of huge integrity. He does what he says he's going to do." Neither Spatz nor Fanning would talk about the issue of celibacy at the core of Farley's letter or about his plans. "He's doing what's right, following the rules set out for him," Fanning said.
Mary Alice Judy said she drives 15 miles to attend Mass at St. Clare — because of Farley's homilies. "It always seemed like they spoke to me directly," she said. "They were short, obviously well-prepared." She said she'd heard some speculation about whether Farley would marry anytime soon.
"I certainly hope so," she said. "Loneliness is terrible."