Thursday, October 07, 2010

Married Men of the Cloth

Incidentally, while posting this article, I discovered a great new (to me) resource: Alternative Catholic Experience lists inclusive non-canonical Catholic communities nationwide.

By Rhys Alvarado
The Santa Barbara Independent

They met in jail in the early 1960s.

Keith Forster was a young Catholic priest who spoke to women inmates at a Stockton jail. Nancy Wagner was his assistant. After he lost his sight to meningitis, she found him Bible readings in Braille. When he left Stockton to preach elsewhere, Keith and Nancy would correspond by sending each other love cassette tapes. “He changed, I changed, but the church hadn’t,” Nancy said.

Under the pressure of canon law, which forbids the marriage of priests, Forster had to choose between tradition and his feelings for Nancy. He chose his feelings, even if that meant excommunication. On a September afternoon in 1971, the two married in Nancy’s parent’s backyard.

And last Sunday, September 26, Keith Forster and John Hydar — who also left the church at one point to get married — were given the leadership of St. Anthony’s Community, formerly St. Anthony’s Franciscan Church, in a ceremony called “The Laying on of Hands.” “This ceremony is about the community affirming us and we are affirming our commitment to the community,” Hydar said. Dudley Conneely is also married and serves as a priest part-time within the church when he’s not abroad.

The idea of marriage wasn’t a new one among Catholic priests back in the ’60s, and Forster was part of a growing movement of priests attempting to break away from the unflinching traditions of Catholicism. The Vatican II reforms (1962-1965) were meant to address, in addition to other things, marriage among priests, but the discussion never went anywhere. “I had high hopes for the reforms,” Forster said, “even though they never really took hold.”

Hydar first met his wife, Roberta, at the Ventura Mission in 1966. He was an assistant priest and Roberta Egerer was a nun teaching at the parish school. In 1971, the two married. “It’s a church law; that’s it,” said Hydar. “I have never for a moment regretted marrying this wonderful lady.”

For years after he left the church, those who knew Hydar as a priest would ask him to perform baptisms, marriages, and funeral ceremonies. And for years, he denied their requests. Then in 1992, he finally said yes. “I’m a priest, always have been,” he said.

Father Leo Sprietsma, who left the St. Anthony’s community for health reasons after 12 years of service, believes that the Catholic Church needs to rethink its structure but had mixed feelings about leaving the church in the hands of the married priests. “But since I left, they seem to be doing a good job,” Sprietsma said.

Under Canon Law No. 290, once a Roman Catholic priest, always a priest. According to Canon Law No. 843, priests are obligated to serve if called by a community or by anyone in need. “That wasn’t in their agenda,” said Forster. “They wanted a canonical priest.” But Forster and Hydar were all the St. Anthony’s Community had.

Although the Vatican does not recognize St. Anthony’s Community, Forster and Hydar are sticking to their commitment the same way they stuck to the gut feeling that led them to marriage. They are members of Corpus, a reform group in the Catholic Church that works for a renewed priesthood of married and single men and women. “There’s no shortage of priests,” Nancy said, quoting one of her favorite writers, Joan Chittister. “There’s just a shortage of celibate priests.” According to CITI (Celibacy Is The Issue) Ministries, more than 25,000 Roman Catholic priests have been married in the United States since the 1970s and more than 110,000 worldwide.

The transition in leadership hasn’t come easily. In the process, the 40-or-so people who make up the St. Anthony’s Community lost about a dozen members who rejected the idea of worshipping under married priests. “We’re still friends, we just have a different way of seeing things,” Forster said.

Others wouldn’t have it any other way. “What’s better than having a priest that’s married?” asked St. Anthony’s Community member Jude Blau. “This is what society now likes … We want to be in the 21st century, not the 19th.”

Photo (Paul Wellman) from left: Fathers Keith Forster, John Hydar, and Dudley Conneely.