by Aloma Jardine
Times & Transcript
A cruise ship seems an unlikely place for a spiritual epiphany, but as Jeff Doucette set sail from England for Europe and Russia he experienced a moment of truth.
"(The ship) pushed away from the white cliffs of Dover and that in itself was spectacular, but it was also the turning point for me. When we pushed away from shore, it was a moment I realized there was no going back," he says.
It was the beginning of the end of his life as a priest.
Jeff, whose last congregation was Immaculate Heart of Mary in Riverview, has just finished the first draft of a book about his experience called Ring Around the Collar: My Journey from Priesthood to Married Life.
"It's not a book about revenge or a tell-all tale," he says. "It is what makes someone choose this lifestyle and what happens along the way that makes them want to leave that."
Jeff decided to become a priest when he was about 25.
"People are always asking for this major call story, 'Did you hear voices in the night? Was there some kind of major revelation?'... But it was part of who I was, it was the next progression for me," he says.
"I went to church when I was young and I was probably one of the few that enjoyed it. I was a church rat. I was an altar server, I was in the youth group, I directed our church choir. I was always involved."
When he asked himself what he really wanted to do, the priesthood seemed a logical choice.
Entering the priesthood is not something one does lightly.
Besides the vows, it is a major commitment of time. It takes five or six years of study including a year-long internship before you become ordained.
Jeff was ordained in 1994 and began his career in the Diocese of Edmundston. He moved on to the Moncton Archdiocese in 1998, serving a number of parishes.
He loved the work, but he struggled with it too.
"I think the biggest thing was I hated at the end of the day coming home to a dark, empty rectory," he says.
"I know my buddy (Father) Phil (Mulligan) used to say there is nothing as lonely as eating in a restaurant by yourself. I would say, 'For me, it is coming home at night to an empty rectory, coming from a meeting that has not gone too well and you have nobody to talk to about it.' That feeling of loneliness is a killer.
"There are always ups and downs in ministry, in any type of work that you do, but ministry should be different. It is a people ministry... You could go and visit with families, but at the end of it you kind of left and ended up going back to that rectory and it was dark and quiet. It was something I struggled with and wrote articles about and tried to get people in the diocese in dialogue about. There is something not right about this ...
"At the very end of it I found myself saying, 'There has got to be more than this.'"
It was 2006 when Jeff found himself on the deck of the cruise ship, staring at the cliffs of Dover as the ship slipped from shore.
"I could see my entire priesthood. I was moving away from the shore and was seeing the cliffs and the mountains and it was such a metaphor for what I was living. There was beauty there but also great struggle," he recalls. "I just knew I was at a crossroads and I was almost sure at that point that I didn't want to continue."'
When Jeff returned to Canada he had a heart-to-heart with Moncton Archbishop André Richard and told him he needed a sabbatical.
"André was shell-shocked, he didn't see this coming," he says. "He said, 'Maybe we can get you counselling.' I said, 'What do you mean, counselling? I don't need counselling, I need a year away.
"I need to go somewhere where I can sit down, listen to my heart and know if I am willing to continue.'"
The archbishop agreed to his request and Jeff headed to Ontario to the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill.
L'Arche was founded in 1964 by Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier as a place where people with developmental disabilities could live together in a family-like setting with the help of assistants who live with them in the home.
"I think that was such a pivotal and incredible time for me," Jeff says. "It was scary though because you are leaving everything behind.
"You are leaving security. I had no expenses. My house was paid for, my food, my lights, my cable, everything.
"I wasn't in any type of relationship with anybody. I was faithful to my vows of celibacy even though I thought it was stupid, I couldn't live with myself if I had broken them, but I just knew that I couldn't live alone."
At L'Arche Jeff found a group of people who accepted and loved him unconditionally for who he was.
"It was a place where I was able to say, 'I don't want to be a priest anymore,' and when I was able to say that and work through that, it was the most incredible feeling of liberation," he says.
"I was able to become more Jeff, more true to who I was called to be."
But while Jeff was ready to let go of the church, the church wasn't quite ready to let go of him.
"It was one of the most horrible experiences. It's not like you go to your boss and give your two weeks' notice," he says. "In the Catholic Church there is a process and only the Pope can sign off at the very end."
Jeff had to speak with a psychologist and have them submit a report.
He had to get people to write on his behalf explaining why they felt he should be allowed to leave.
He had to answer a huge list of questions explaining why he wanted to go.
"Some of the questions I laughed at. Some were just insulting," he says.
One by one the letters of support were returned as inadequate.
"There has to be something wrong with the priest in order for Rome to let you go," he says. "Rome finally wrote back and said, 'We don't see why you want to leave so we are going to wait five years and check back in with you.'
"The church could not find any grave fault to let me go. Nothing had happened."
Except by the time the lengthy process finally got to this point something had happened - Jeff had fallen in love.
Jeff and Sandy Lovisck met at L'Arche.
"At the time when Rome said no, she said, 'Why would that matter to you, Jeff? I love you, what does it matter what the church says, if they decide to let you go or not let you go? What is most important is that I love you.'" Jeff says.
The couple decided to go ahead and get married, dispensation or no dispensation, and were wed in a July 2008 ceremony surrounded by members of the L'Arche community.
"That wedding day was a piece of heaven," Jeff says. "The music was done by people from L'Arche, four of the guys with disabilities were my groomsmen.
"It was not a grand style wedding, but people went away saying, 'I've never been to a wedding like that.' It was so full of joy and so full of life."
Jeff forwarded his marriage licence to Rome, again seeking a dispensation.
"Right away, there you go, Rome had its reason. All of a sudden I was a horrible person," he says.
The dispensation came, but with it came conditions.
Jeff could no longer preach, he couldn't teach in any capacity, he couldn't serve communion or work as a parish administrator or even read in church.
Essentially, he was reduced to a lower status than any ordinary parishioner.
"It's like that Dixie Chicks (documentary) Shut Up and Sing. All I could do was sing, but that is just not me," Jeff says.
If he was going to attend church, he needed to be able to contribute to it in some way.
Jeff's hunt for a new congregation brought him to Westminster United in Whitby, Ont., which has welcomed him with open arms. The church is thrilled to have someone with his experience and Jeff has been able to preach when the minister is away and lead Sunday worship.
He officially became a member of the church in October.
As much as the Roman Catholic Church doesn't want to deal with it, Jeff says it is going to have to take a look at the requirement that priests remain celibate.
"When I left (Moncton), I had four parishes and was helping out in two other parishes because Father Peter (McKee) was dying of cancer," he says. "I thought there is this small community in Riverside-Albert that will have to close because they don't have enough priests.
"Why is that? Let's seriously ask that question. The white elephant is killing us all, running us down in the living room."
Jeff says the Canadian bishops brought up the matter with Pope John Paul II and some of the Latin American bishops spoke openly about the issue at a recent summit of bishops, but such discussion has usually been quickly shut down.
Jeff says living out the life described in the gospel - forgiving your enemies, giving away your possessions to those in need - is already so difficult in a world focused on riches, success, and fame, that "to expect people to go in without all of the resources available, I don't think is fair," he says. "And I think one of those resources is the option to be able to marry.
"I'm not saying that everybody should be able to get married, but people need to have that option.
"Some will choose not to get married, some will choose, yes, that is something very vital to who I am as a person, I think that would help me in ministry."
Sandy and Jeff recently celebrated their second wedding anniversary. Jeff says his marriage has given him the companionship he missed coming home to that dark rectory night after night.
"You have that support, that other person to bounce things off," he says.
It was a friend back in Moncton who suggested he turn his story into a book.
"I'm 46 years old; you don't usually write biographies that early, and I was a priest, I'm not Tiger Woods," he says. "But when I sat down, it just poured out of me."
The first draft done, Jeff is in the process of looking for a publisher.
"I'm excited about it," he says. "It is a story to be heard - not because it is me - I think in today's society we need books like this to help us dialogue.
"It is something the church doesn't do well. It is scared of dialogue. They are so used to saying, 'This is what you believe, now go believe it,' that when someone says, 'Why?', they panic...
"It is kind of my hope that this book will be a journey of all of us being open to where God is calling all of us."
Jeff has no illusions that the book will change anything in the church.
"It would be naive of me to think I am on a crusade to change Rome's mind," he says. "This is my story and Rome is part of it. I am not angry at Rome, I don't have a vendetta against them, but they are part of my story and I think people should know what it takes for priests to leave."
Jeff now works at a youth homeless shelter for 16-to-24-year-olds in Ajax, Ont.
In a way, it is a continuation of his work.
"We say, 'Are you hungry? Come on in, we'll give you something to eat. If you need a bed, don't worry, we have one for you,'" he says. "It is a continuation of the training I did, it is gospel stuff.
"That will always, always be a part of me. I work also still a bit with the developmentally disabled and there is that sense that I am just ministering in a different way...
"It is part of the fibre of who you are, you don't just turn it off. I know some (priests) who, when they left, left church, but it is part of who I am. I need that connectedness, I need to stay rooted to this God I can't see."
Jeff doesn't rule out one day entering the ministry again in a different denomination.
"Never say never to anything," he says. "I'm not God. I try to live my life open to the Spirit. I think when you do that, anything can happen.
"When I get up there and preach, I love that with a passion. Sandy says I just love the attention," he adds, laughing.
"Who knows what's going to happen? But I am open to all the potential possibilities... I'm not a priest anymore, but I still continue to function as I did before. I'm still Jeff, I just live differently now. I don't live with a collar around my neck."