I Had a Baby, Now I am a Better Priest.

As we approach Mother’s Day, I find myself thinking of parenthood and married life. I know all of the arguments for and against Catholic Priests being married. They include, allowing priests to marry would end pedophilia. A married clergy would create a larger pool of healthy priestly candidates, solving the current priest shortage. The discipline of celibacy among priests is one of the distinctive marks of the Roman Catholic tradition. Priests understand the sacrificial nature and sanctity of marriage in a way that few others do. Celibacy is historical; the best evidence for the scriptural support of celibacy is that Jesus Himself practiced it. The best image used to describe the role of the priest is one of marriage to the Church. Just as marriage is the total gift of self to another, the priesthood requires the total gift of self to the Church; and so many more.

As a lifelong Catholic, these – at various times in my life – were my belief and understanding, too. That is, until I needed to deal with my issues around my sexuality, inclusion, and of course, when fell in love. I, too, like many Catholics find the crisis of pedophilia and pederasty to be hurtful and disillusioning. How can any mother, especially Mother Church, allow such a terrible crisis to continue as it ribs us of life in a place that is to always affirm life?

In a Catholic world where debates over clerical celibacy have flared from the States to Brazil to the Vatican itself, there does exist the rarest of things: married Catholic priests. German Catholics reacted enthusiastically when bishops from across the Amazon called for the ordination of married men as priests to address the clergy shortage in that region. Such reforms have been pushed for decades by many bishops and lay groups who hope it can lead to the liberalization of centuries of Roman Catholic tradition.  

The Roman Catholic Church has demanded celibacy of its priests since only about the Middle Ages. The Second Lateran Council in 1139 under Pope Gregory VII made the promise to remain celibate a prerequisite to ordination, abolishing the married priesthood, but we should note that it hasn’t always been this way. Pope Hormisdas (514–523) was married. So was Adrian II (867–872) and he had a daughter. Then there was Pope John XVII (1003) who had three sons in his married life, and Clement IV (1265–1268) had two daughters.

The Church likes to now call celibacy a “spiritual gift” that enables men to devote themselves fully to the church, but what if that gift is not given to you? Do you fail to be called at all? Moreover, as a shortage of priests becomes a crisis in parts of the world, liberal wings in the church have been arguing that it’s time to reassess that stance. Worldwide the total number of priests has remained about the same since 1970, even as the Catholic population has nearly doubled. This is a crisis moment in some parts of the world.

So, why not be married and serve the holy Church? After all, although the celibacy is reaffirmed again and again, the Catholic Church already permits for married priests in Eastern (Orthodox Catholics) Rite churches, Old Catholic Communion, and in cases where married Anglican, Lutheran or other Protestant priests have converted to Catholicism. Orthodox priests can be married, but they must not marry after they become a priest, but Anglican Catholic and Old Catholic priests can get married before or during the time they are a priest. And there are presently well over 220 married Catholic Priests in the United States actively serving parishes, large and small.

By way of example, we find Father Josh Whitfield. He is a husband, and a father of four children, and a relentlessly good-natured priest loved by the parishioners of St. Rita Catholic in Dallas. His life is spent juggling two worlds, like many fathers. He does his vocational work like celebrates Mass, hearing confessions, but then he drives his son to karate practice, and encourages his oldest daughter’s love of baseball. Although he is now, as he says himself, “an ecclesiastical zoo exhibit,” one of the tiny community of married priests who slipped through a clerical loophole created some 40 years ago that even most Catholics don’t know exist.

Father Josh became a Catholic priest in 2012 through this Pastoral Provision, a set of rules crafted by Pope John Paul II in 1980 that gives married Episcopal priests who have converted to Catholicism the chance to apply for ordination in the Catholic church. He struggles with the issue and even ironically affirms the Churches’ position; he mostly doesn’t support opening up the priesthood to married men.

But inside St. Rita, he’s just Father Josh. “It’s people like you [reporters] who are interested in married priests. Here at St. Rita we just get on with it. My job is just to do the tasks the bishop has given me as best I can and try and make it work.”

Then there is the view of folks like Deborah Rose-Milavec, of the Catholic advocacy group known as, FutureChurch. She says, “Whatever their politics on marriage, by the way they live their lives they show it’s entirely possible to have a married clergy. They are effective in their ministry. They can say Mass and raise kids. They can administer the sacraments and have a family.” I think, that is where God brought me on a journey that no one – even myself – could have every predicted. I guess this is where God has led me at Saint Miriam.

It has now been almost four weeks since my son, Jameson, was born. He was born into the world after almost 50 hours of labor and five full days of being isolated in a small labor and delivery room due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that – to be honest – became like a prison of sorts for Katelyn and me. It has been a journey of love, joy, fear, and frustration. I have learned a lot about myself and the world and of God. Yes, I had a baby, and now I am a better priest.

I have been thinking long and hard about writing this particular blog. I have started it many times and stopped just as often. It has been a difficult piece to write because it required me to go back to that delivery room and face my greatest fears again. It also caused me to look back at my journey in what was often a hurtful and abusive place: the church. Perhaps it will enlighten others to see the depths to which God has brought me to know of those few minutes a few weeks ago when I almost lost my wife.

We labored for over 42 hours. I say ‘we’, but she did the bulk of the work. I just was her support person, her companion, and sometimes her punching bag! It was amazing for me to witness the strength of a beautiful and amazing woman in labor. I would have given up; she persisted and persevered to deliver into the world another living soul. Perhaps this is why men don’t get pregnant. Our friend, Father Stephen, almost innocently, reminded us of the monumental element of the moment when he said, “Katelyn carries two souls within her.” Wow. She did just that and beautifully and heroically.

Her labor eased for a moment as the active portion of labor finally came and within a mere and exhausting eleven minutes Jameson was out on Katelyn’s belly. It was then that I knew inside myself that something was drastically wrong.

Working in trauma for over 12 years, I know that look; the one that appears in a doctor’s eyes when something is wrong. Our obstetrician had it. Her eyes gave it away, but so did the fact that Jameson’s umbilical cord was too short and needed to be cut immediately, rather than wait to drain. And then there was the immense amount of blood. Dr. Gallella shouted to me, “Dad, if you’re going to cut the cord, let’s do it now. Just cut between the clamps and there’s going to be a lot of blood, because I don’t have time to let it drain.” I cut, it shot blood everywhere, soaking even the doctor. Dr. Gallella went right back to work. She called for a resident STAT (never good) then within moments yelled out, “Never mind, get me another attending.” Within minutes we had two attending and seasoned doctors and several nurses all trying to stop Katelyn from hemorrhaging. Blood was everywhere and I was doing my best to keep her calm, as she gazed in joy at Jameson’s face. I was trying not to panic, but my world was ending. I thought to myself, ‘How will I raise this child alone?’ ‘How will I live without Katelyn now?’

Katelyn knew something wasn’t right, but we all kept assuring her she would be ok. Dr. Gallela replied to my inquiry as to why this was happening and if it was normal. She said, “Do you want an answer or the truth?” I said emphatically, “Tell me the truth.” She said simply “No, it it’s not normal. I can’t get her bleeding to stop. I am trying.” Over 25 blood-soaked sponges and 19 clamps later, the bleeding finally stopped. It took almost 96 minutes and she lost enough blood volume that they called for emergency transfusions. I can tell you how long it took, but I still cannot accurately tell you how it felt, except that I never cried and prayed and pleaded more in my life, save once. It was akin to those last few minutes as I was driving to be with my dad as he was dying. “Please God. Please.” My pleas were heard, my son and my wife were alive, but it took a toll, and yet somehow, gave me a gift, too.

It has been weeks now and Katelyn is already coming down on her blood pressure medications and her health is returning to normal. The gestational hypertension is passing every day as Jameson becomes stronger all because she endured it to bear him into this world, almost at the cost of herself. Now, too, my priorities are different.

I love my God, the church, my parish and my parishioners all the more. I love being a priest and a pastor. I care for my family with just as much intensity as I care for the weight and duties of my vocation. I am better for knowing and experiencing emotions and events that changed me. I know pronounced loss, and I know incalculable joy. I now understand better when a mother is in labor or anxious about her pregnancy. I can sit with couples in marriage trouble and actually empathize, not just guess. I know what it is like to be a few miles from a hospital and running red traffic lights for fear that a few added seconds will mean the loss of your infant or his mother, your wife; your life. I know what it like to fall immediately in love with a small child, as he or she exits the safety of a womb. I know the feel of joy that comes when you embrace your child for the first time, and that enormous frustration that comes as you hold that very same child as they scream in the middle of the night and you don’t know what else to do! I know the sadness that fills my heart watching my wife cry as your newborn baby fusses and she thinks she is doing something wrong. “Am I a bad mother?”, she cries out and those words bring such sadness – and helplessness – to my soul. I understand the distance a new father feels from his wife as they cannot be intimate as she heals, and I know the utter exhaustion that plagues a new set of parents as they negotiate a world unknown before to them. I get why the hospital lactation nurses warned of pain that would pass and admonished both of us that when those days or nights came where our frustration was high to just set the baby down in his crib and walk away then come back. I know the anxiety now, too, of having a baby born in the midst of worldwide pandemic and feel even more isolated and alone. I know what it is like to almost lose the love of your life in childbirth. Something that you think is lost to ages past, and yet, it is not and still robs life and steals joy. I know. And because I know, I am a better priest.

I know, at least in theory, that one doesn’t need to be an adulterer to counsel other adulterers, but who better to counsel a person in the ways of keeping the marital vow of fidelity than one who keeps the vow in his own marriage? We, as priests, are to be representative of Christ, an alter Christus. In this respect, the priest understands his identity by following the example of Jesus, a man who lived His life in perfect dedication to God. As Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe of Grado explains, “The sacramental priesthood is holy, something set apart from the rest of the world. Just as Christ sacrificed His life for His bride, the Church, so too must a priest offer up his life for the good of Christ’s people.” Celibacy is a fruit that to those who are called to it allows the them to have as their first priority the Church, but I have found that to those who are not called God still makes another way.

 A priest’s first duty is to his flock. My wife and I both understand that. I grew up in a family where my dad placed his vocation as a funeral director first. People in grief couldn’t wait, and yet, he was still a good dad, too. Obviously, these two roles will often conflict, as St. Paul noted and as many married priests will tell you. A celibate priest may be able to give his undivided attention to his parishioners without the added responsibility of caring for his own family, but if not called to that life as a celibate, they are also often plagued my ailments and depression and loneliness. I, for one, didn’t want to fall into a bottle. Depression is hard enough.

Perhaps the image of the Pope in his papal shoes, those red shoes used to signify God’s burning love for humanity, may also be transposed to those who are married and still serve. The burning love of God and service are found in many ways, because God calls, and we listen, and a life of service comes, and in doing so yes, I had a baby, and still somehow, God made me a better priest.

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