This pastoral provision priesthood candidate in Sacramento shows how a Catholic boy can become a married Catholic priest...
By Anita Creamer
Jeff Henry's long journey of faith has brought him full circle, not only back to the church in which he was baptized as an infant but also back to serving God. When he's ordained at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on June 4, he will become the Sacramento Catholic Diocese's first converted, married priest.
"This will be new for us," said Bishop Jaime Soto. "I announced it to our priests on Monday, and they're very excited. They were curious but very welcoming of the idea. I think it will be an adventure not just for Jeff and his wife but for us."
With Peg, his wife of 26 years, at his side, Henry called their grown daughter when he learned two weeks ago that the Vatican has approved his application to become a Roman Catholic priest.
"I said, 'Guess what? I'm going to be a father again,' " said Henry, 51, a former Lutheran minister who lives in Vacaville.
Under pastoral provision, Catholic canon law since 1980 has allowed former clergy from other faiths – primarily Episcopal – to be ordained into the priesthood. About 100 currently serve in this country, including a handful of former Lutherans and one converted Baptist. Few of them, according to Mary Gautier of Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, are assigned as parish priests.
Should their wives die before they do, the church doesn't allow these converted priests to remarry.
"Knowing Jeff, even if he could remarry, he probably wouldn't," said Peg Henry, 50, a teacher.
"I'd end up in a monastery," said her husband.
Despite its 30-year history, pastoral provision remains a source of controversy in a church whose laity increasingly sees its traditional celibacy requirement as the main cause for a rapidly dwindling number of priests.
Why, some church observers ask, should married former clergy from other denominations be allowed to enter the Catholic priesthood when an estimated 25,000 American priests have had to leave the priesthood to marry?
"I think it's a deep wound, a very deep hurt," said Christine Schenk, a nun who serves as executive director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that advocates opening the priesthood beyond celibacy.
205 priests serve 900,000
In a sense, the numbers are stacked against the church. While the nation's population of Catholics has grown by 20 million since 1965, says CARA, the number of priests has dropped by one-third, to fewer than 40,000. The personnel shortage has forced the closure of more than 3,000 parishes in the past four years.
There simply aren't enough priests to go around. In the Sacramento diocese, for example, 205 priests serve a 20-county region of 900,000 Catholics.
And a large percentage of U.S. priests are in their 60s, edging into retirement.
"I'm always happy to see another addition to our clergy," said Ed Donaghy, 74, a retired Lincoln insurance professional who left the priesthood to marry in 1970. "We need them badly, so I applaud (Jeff Henry) for doing this. It's a big step.
"But the church has locked itself in a death grip to the concept that Roman Catholic priests must live a celibate spiritual life. It's a tragedy. I think of it as a management problem, a disastrous management problem."
Celibacy has been a church tenet for 900 years, but more than 70 percent of priests think mandatory celibacy should be re-examined, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Catholic advocacy group Call to Action earlier this decade.
Occasional announcements from the Vatican, such as the 2009 decision welcoming Anglicans and married Anglican priests into the Catholic Church, bring glimmers of hope to those who would like the church to allow its former priests to return after marriage.
"Every time the church allows a person from outside our tradition to serve, it's a harsh and sad reminder to those born Catholic that they're still second-class citizens," said Nicole Sotelo, a Call to Action spokeswoman based in Chicago.
"I know many men and women feel very hurt. They feel called by their fellow Catholics and God to serve, yet the church hierarchy rejects their call."
The church itself shows little inclination to bring these priests back into the clerical fold.
"They knew the rules," said Sacramento diocese spokesman Kevin Eckery. "They went through the traditional path to the priesthood. They knew the rules going in, and they had the option to make the decision then."
Study led to Catholic faith
Jeff Henry, the soon-to-be priest, lives a quiet life with his wife in a small condominium on the south side of Vacaville. He commutes every day to Vallejo, where students of St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School plan to call him Father Dean. They know him as their dean of students, after all.
"I'll introduce him to people as 'Father Dean Dad,' " said daughter Teresa Henry, a 21-year-old biology major at CSU Monterey Bay.
For Jeff Henry, baptized Catholic but raised in a military family that didn't attend church, the spiritual path he embarked on in evangelical groups at Oregon State University in Corvallis led him to leave his early career as a science teacher to become a Lutheran pastor.
By 2002, he was minister at Fairfield's Trinity Lutheran Church, leading a study group on early church leaders. The more he and his wife studied, the more they decided they belonged in the Catholic Church.
"I had Catholic friends who called us 'Catholic lite,' " said Peg Henry.
Her husband is a modest person, hesitant to talk much about himself or his faith, more comfortable in the realm of the analytical than the emotional.
"It's not my nature to share," Henry said. "I was teaching this study group, and before I knew it, I was thinking there was a depth and richness in the Catholic Church.
"There's a resonance in the church and the expression of life, and that's something that resonates in my soul. This is what it's about."
By 2005, Henry had returned to teaching high school and, with his family, he had converted. A friend, a Catholic priest, introduced him to then-Sacramento Bishop William Weigand.
"He said I should become a priest," said Henry. "I thought, 'How? I'm married.' But I started praying about it and thinking about it."
He also began a course of study at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, and with the guidance of Weigand and, in turn, Soto, he began the long application process for pastoral provision.
"Jeff chose this response to God's grace," said Soto. "We're very honored he'd choose to join us."
Others in the Sacramento diocese have tried, said Eckery, but the Vatican has rejected previous local applicants.
In January, Henry will be ordained as a transitional deacon, the last step before his June ordination as a priest. He will continue in his role as a high school dean.
There is no specific path for the wife of a Catholic priest, however.
"This whole situation is very unusual," said Peg Henry. "I'll take it step by step. Some of the experiences I had as a Lutheran minister's wife will transfer over."
Relatives seem more rattled by their conversion to Catholicism than by Henry's acceptance into the priesthood, he said.
"Eventually we want to be in a parish," he said.
The journey has already taken him in unexpected directions, into a world of possibilities denied to many others.
"Who knows where we'll be?" said his wife.
"God knows," he replied.