Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., Father Charles celebrates mass in Bziza, a rural village in north Lebanon. On this particular day in January, he tells the congregation of a hundred how angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was pregnant. Then they stand to sing and kneel to pray.
After the Eucharist, Charles Kassas takes off his white cassock to join his wife Brigitte and their three children — Nadim, Celine and Mathieu. In Western countries where priests must take vows of chastity that scene would cause a scandal, but in Lebanon it is very common.
“Of course I know he is married, so what? It would be strange if he weren’t!” says an old woman exiting the church.
In Bziza, the majority of the population is Christian Maronite — members of the Eastern Catholic Church founded in the 5th century. It follows the Vatican but does not require priests to be single. As a result, more than half of the priests in Lebanon have a family.
For Kassas, there is no contradiction between conjugality and the call of God — in fact, it is just the opposite. He thinks that having a family gives him personal balance. “You can’t serve others if you are not at peace. Being a husband to my wife and a parent to my children helps me being a better father to the parish,” he told Al-Monitor.
Charles and Brigitte have been married for over 20 years. In small parishes like this one, the priest’s wife has an important social role. In Arabic, she is called “khouriye,” the feminine for “khoury” — priest.
“She is the strength that holds up our family and she is a real partner for me,” Kassas added.
A priest’s wife is expected to attend church celebrations and all other events such as births, christenings, weddings and funerals. She can sometimes give advice and is the go-to person when her husband is unavailable. Their family home must be open to visitors 24/7.
“It’s not easy at all. When I got married I didn’t know being a priest’s wife would require so much. There is always something to do, someone to visit, someone to accommodate,” she told Al-Monitor.
To prepare women to endorse that role, several priests’ wives have set up workshops and training programs for young brides.
In larger towns and cities, priests tend to work from an office. Their homes are private and their wives have fewer responsibilities toward the churchgoers.
Married priests are a tradition that dates back to the early days of Christianity, before the Latin Church banned it in the 11th century. For a long time in Lebanon, villagers would choose their priests from among married men who had already proven they could be in charge of a family. Those who wished to remain single would join monasteries to become monks.
Today, the question of whether or not to get married usually arises during seminary studies in Lebanon.
Charles took his decision when he was 25, during his fourth year of theological studies. “I came to the conclusion that I wanted to join priesthood, but I also deeply wished to have a family. I felt the need to be loved by a woman and to have children,” he told Al-Monitor.
When asked if he would have been able to give up family life for God, like European priests do — he said he wouldn’t have. “Some people can live like hermits — I can’t. I don’t have the capacity to endure that kind of loneliness,” he said.
Allowing married men to become priests is also a way for the Church to welcome older people who have had another life before.
This is the case of Mansour Zeidan. At the age of 36, he is about to switch careers. For the time being, he is the proud owner of Mr & Mrs Clown, a birthday events company he created 10 years ago. But costumes and party decorations will soon be part of his past. In a few weeks, he will be ordained priest.
“I’m afraid he will spend all his time in church and leave me alone with our son,” Yolla, his wife, said.
“I wanted to have the time to try several things before making my decision,” he said, listing his previous jobs as a supermarket cashier, night watchman, site manager and school supervisor.
Zeidan is studying hard to join priesthood. He takes theology courses at the university and is finishing a practical training in a church near Beirut.
Father Marwan Mouawad, who is also married, teaches him how to draw on his experience as a family man to feed his relationship with the faithful. “When it comes to man and wife issues for instance or the parent-child relationship, it is not just theories for us; we can take examples from our personal lives and for people that is very important,” Mouawad told Al-Monitor.
At night, Zeidan joins a group of seminarians in Burj Hammoud, a deprived neighborhood near Beirut. Between meal distributions and prayer circles, future clerics discuss marriage.
“Being a priest is a vocation but so is having a family. It is dangerous to stifle an inner desire at the expense of the other; you can never be happy that way,” said Charbel Fakhry, a 29-year-old seminarian who chose celibacy.
While married men can become priests, it does not work the other way around. Priests who are ordained while single can’t change their minds later. They can aspire, however, to climb up the hierarchy and become bishops, which is forbidden for married priests.
Johnny Estephan, 22, is still undecided. “A father has a sense of responsibility, he knows what it is to get up at 2 a.m. to feed a baby. It prepares you to be in charge of a parish, but you have to be able to handle both,” he told Al-Monitor.
You must also be able to support your family. In Lebanon, a priest’s salary at roughly $400 a month is not enough. Therefore, priests often have another job.
After his ordination, Zeidan plans to resume his old job as a supervisor in a Christian school. He also dreams of having a second child.
Conservatives, particularly in the U.S., greet the prospect with alarm
By Francis X. Rocca
Germany’s Catholic bishops will meet in Frankfurt on Thursday to launch their most ambitious effort yet in their role as the church’s liberal vanguard: a two-year series of talks rethinking church teaching and practice on topics including homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and the ordination of women.
Conservatives in Germany and abroad are greeting the prospect with alarm, and nowhere more so than in the U.S., whose episcopate has emerged as the western world’s foremost resistance to progressive trends under Pope Francis.
The tension between the groups epitomizes significant divisions in the church, which some warn could lead to a permanent split.
Earlier in January, a group of conservative Catholics from various countries, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican envoy to the U.S. who has become one of the pope’s harshest critics, gathered in Munich to warn that the German initiative would result in “the constitution of a church separate from Rome.”
The event starting this week originated as a response to the scandal over sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests. A 2018 report on the crisis in Germany called for a more positive attitude to homosexuality and more attention to the challenge of celibacy. Catholic women’s groups later prevailed on the gathering to also address the question of gender equity in the church’s leadership.
The decline of the Catholic Church in Germany has accelerated amid the scandals and growing secularization. According to the church’s latest statistics, 216,078 people left the church in 2018—a leap of 29% from the previous year. A poll published in January by the Forsa Institute showed that only 14% of Germans trusted the Catholic Church, down from 18% the previous year. Trust in Pope Francis fell to 29% from 34%.
However, the church in Germany is prospering as never before in material terms, receiving a record €6.6 billion ($7.3 billion) through a state-collected tax in 2018. German bishops are among the biggest financial supporters of the Vatican and of Catholic institutions in the developing world.
German bishops have enjoyed rising influence under Pope Francis, reflected in his policies of greater leniency on divorce and more autonomy for local church authorities on matters such as liturgy—moves long advocated by German theologians.
The leaders of the German synod, which will include representatives of Catholic laypeople, say they are offering it as a model for the church at large.
Ludwig Ring-Eifel, head of the German bishops’ news agency, estimates that around two thirds of the bishops—the threshold for passing a resolution—support the ordination of married men and women deacons and half are in favor of blessings for same-sex unions.
American conservatives say that for a branch of the church even to consider such moves poses a threat to unity.
“The German bishops continue move toward #schism from the universal Church,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver said on Twitter in September.
A minority of German bishops share such fears—and look to the U.S. for support. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, leader of the German conservatives, traveled last summer to the U.S., where he visited various church institutions and met with some of his most prominent American counterparts.
“Everywhere, I encountered concern about the current developments in Germany,” the cardinal later told his diocesan newspaper. “In many meetings, the worry was tangible that the ’synodal path’ is leading us on a German special path, that in the worst case we could even put communion with the universal church at risk and become a German national church.”
“Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome,” the pope said in an open letter to German Catholics in June.
But after meeting with the pope and Vatican officials in September, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, chairman of the German bishops conference, said: “There are no stop signs from Rome.”
In fact, when Pope Francis has publicly entertained the possibility of a split in the church, it has been in regards to the U.S., not Germany.
“There is always the option for schism,” the pope said in September, in response to a reporter’s question about conservative American opposition to his agenda. “I pray that schisms do not happen, but I am not afraid of them.”
That lack of fear could be because only the pope can decide whether or not a state of schism even exists, said Adam DeVille, a professor of theology at Indiana’s University of Saint Francis.
“If things get too far out of hand one way or another, I can see him acting in extreme but selective cases,” to stop any separatist moves, Mr. DeVille said.
“All it would take would be the sudden forced ‘retirement’ of a couple especially outspoken or perceived troublemakers, in Germany or anywhere else, for the others to shut up, and fall docilely in line,” he added.
Len Schreiner couldn’t help falling in love. So he wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II and waited.
by Danya Issawi
I grew up in a very Roman Catholic atmosphere in western Kansas and had always been drawn to the priesthood.
I joined the Capuchin religious order in 1976, and I was ordained in 1978 at age 28. Almost immediately, the underlying tension I had felt about intimate relationships really came to the fore. I struggled greatly.
I was in various flirtations with women, or little romantic relationships, but that’s a normal part of life. The Roman Catholic priesthood, though, with its mandatory celibacy, discourages any close contact with women.
I would look at my brothers and sister and the families they raised, and I couldn’t accept the notion that I was making a greater sacrifice than they were in their jobs and raising children.
I went on a leave of absence from the priesthood in 1989 and started dispensation two years later, which means I had to write up a paper to John Paul II in Rome to explain why I wasn’t able to continue. I wrote that there were two things that prompted my leaving: that I wanted to be more involved in social justice and peace work, and that I felt I could not successfully live a celibate life.
I sought dispensation both for my own peace of my mind and for my family. I knew it would soften the blow for my parents — it was a heartbreak for them.
A lot of priests did not get dispensations. Their applications would be in a pile someplace for years. One priest said to me, “They haven’t gotten back to me in 11 years.”
In my case, by the grace of God, I received a letter and document in January of 1992 granting me “a dispensation from the obligations of priestly ordination, including celibacy, and from religious vows.”
Then I was considered, in the eyes of the church, a lay person. I was free, and in June of that same year, I got married in a Catholic church in Seattle.
I knew my wife for seven years before we got married. I had met her when I was still a pastor of a church in Denver. She had been in a religious order of nuns, but had left three years prior to our meeting.
We became friends, and by the time I left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1989 we were in a relationship. We weren’t married until 1992, and part of that was just my slowness to mature. I had to work through a lot.
The transition was huge. I had gone to a high school seminary and a college seminary, where it’s a celibate atmosphere and an all-male atmosphere, and both psychologically and on a sexual level, I was quite immature. The first 10 years of my relationship with my wife, Nancy, were about learning how to be in a romantic relationship, and it was a long learning curve.
By the grace of God we have been married now for 26 years. You have to learn how to be a “we” rather than a “me” — the celibate priesthood is kind of honing you to be individualistic, yet also an overly generous servant of the church.
When you leave, you have very little financially. I worked in lots of labor jobs. I was a furniture laborer. I worked day jobs for $5 an hour. I dug ditches. I unloaded trucks. During what I call the 14-year hiatus, I wanted to get back to ministry as a priest, but there wasn’t an avenue to do that in the Roman Catholic church.
It wasn’t until 2004 when I found the Ecumenical Catholic Communion that I could be a priest again.
We are one of the expressions of independent Catholicism, which are churches that follow the practices, the beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic church but are not under Rome, not under the pope. The pope is not our superior. I’m still functioning as a priest because I was accepted by the founding bishop of this Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
There’s another way of being Catholic. There’s another way of being to be complete. That’s what all transitions are about. I’ve taken everything that I learned in my life as a Capuchin and as a Roman Catholic priest.
It’s with me all the time, but I have gone beyond the limitations of that to a much more extensive consciousness.
A new short film is seeking to shine a spotlight on HIV among Catholic priests.
Holy Water, which is currently raising funds for production through Kickstarter, centers on a closeted priest who is newly diagnosed as positive. The production tackles the stigma that occurs at the intersection of faith, health, and sexuality.
Filmmaker Sebastian LaCause, who also stars in Holy Water, was inspired to create the film after reading research showing that Catholic priests were disproportionately impacted by HIV. During the height of the crisis, Catholic priests died of AIDS-related illnesses at up to six times the rate of the general population from the mid-1980s onward, according to a confidential survey conducted by The Kansas City Star.
In the groundbreaking survey, hundreds also indicated they were living with the virus. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has gone to great lengths to hide this epidemic from the public.
The issue of grappling with an HIV diagnosis hits close to home for LaCause. As he explained in a statement forwarded to The Advocate, the story of a struggling priest led him to “a deeper understanding of my own demons.” In his Kickstarter video, the filmmaker comes out as HIV-positive for the first time publicly. His hope is to tackle the stigma surrounding the virus.
“It was a big moment for me to speak publicly about it but I have been inspired to create work that inspires the LGBTQ community to love themselves. To look within to make changes to live fuller, happier lives,” LaCause said.
“Sharing my experience was the first step toward that work. I truly believe [in] knowing our value and believing that we are worthy of love, and our dreams are one of our strongest defenses against HIV. Because when you truly love yourself, you have access to thinking differently and to making different choices.”
This is not the first time LaCause has tackled difficult subject matter related to the LGBTQ community. He is also known as the creator of Hustling, a web series that centers on an aging sex worker as he contemplates his life’s next chapter.
Holy Water is bring produced by LaCause, Roxanne Morrison, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy‘s Jai Rodriguez. Support itat Kickstarter.com. As of the time of this article’s publication, it has raised over $9,000 of an $18,111 goal.
The text from Stephen Parisi’s fellow seminarian was ominous: Watch your back.
Parisi, dean of his class of seminarians in the Buffalo Diocese, and another classmate had gone to seminary officials about a recent party in a parish rectory. At the party in April, the men said, priests were directing obscene comments to the seminarians, discussing graphic photos and joking about professors allegedly swapping A’s for sex.
“I just wanted to be sure that you guys are protected and are watching your backs,” the seminarian’s text said. Authorities are “fishing to figure out who the nark [sic] is.”
Parisi and Matthew Bojanowski, who was academic chairman of the class, have made explosive news nationally recently after alleging that they were bullied by superiors, grilled by their academic dean under police-like interrogation and then shunned by many of their fellow seminarians after going public with sexual harassment complaints about those up the chain of command. The Vatican on Thursday announced it is investigating broad allegations church leaders have mishandled clergy abuse cases.
As striking as the charges is the fact that the men are speaking out at all. Parisi and Bojanowski — who both left seminary in August — are among a small but growing number of Catholic priests and seminarians who in the past year have gone to investigators, journalists and lawyers with complaints about their superiors. While still rare, such dissent has until now been nearly unheard of in a profession that requires vows of obedience to one’s bishop and offers no right to recourse, no independent human resources department.
Prompting the pushback, the men and experts on the U.S. church say, is what many Catholics view as the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to respond frankly and transparently to recently revealed cases of sexual mistreatment of seminarians and priests. That, and the #MeToo moment, in which Americans have shown new willingness to speak out against adult sexual abuse and harassment.
“My conscience bothered me. If it meant being thrown out, so be it,” said Parisi, now 45, who joined the seminary in 2018 after 25 years as a member of a Catholic religious order, caring for the sick and dying. He thought he knew the church well when he entered seminary. Now living with his parents and unemployed, he has received hate mail, and says priests in his hometown won’t acknowledge him. His faith in the institution has been “shattered,” he said. “That’s what you get for exposing the truth.”
In addition to Buffalo, young men wrestling with scandals in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, among other places, have also weighed expectations of obedience against their desire for more accountability — and chosen the latter.
More than half a dozen priests and former seminarians were the key whistleblowers in the recent fall of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, a well-connected fundraiser and donator in the U.S. church. Two recently exited West Virginia seminarians have gone public with allegations that Bransfield sexually mistreated them and have sued. One, who has not been named, said he was assaulted. The other, Vincent DeGeorge, 30, said Bransfield kissed and groped him, and pressured him to sleep over and watch porn.
“Because of the sex abuse crisis, I told myself going in [that] I wanted to be a priest, but I wasn’t going to let myself be complicit in a corrupt institution,” said DeGeorge, who left seminary last year after he says he was sexually harassed by his then-bishop, wrote an op-ed criticizing regional church leaders and quickly became a pariah.
“To scrutinize a bishop is to attack the church, is to be a bad Catholic,” DeGeorge said.
Several current and former clergy members spoke out beginning last summer about their treatment by defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick, some by name and others anonymously. The Washington Post has received more calls from Catholic seminarians and clergy members with tips and concerns in the past year than in the previous decade.
“I’ve never had conversations in all the previous years like the ones I’ve had in the past year. People feel they can finally talk about things” among themselves, said a seminarian in the D.C. region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears dismissal.
Some said the expanding of a more aggressive Catholic media in the past couple of years has emboldened Catholics, including seminarians, to challenge the hierarchy.
A power imbalance
But even as the scandals have spurred some to speak out, church culture and theology dissuade more from raising their voices.
In the Catholic Church, bishops are kings of their dioceses, and priests swear an oath of loyalty to them. Seminarians’ pursuit of the priesthood rests completely with their superiors — the bishop in particular. There is no appeal or required explanation if one is deemed not to be priest material.
Some seminarians described having their spiritual fitness scrutinized if they raised too many questions. They fear that criticizing a bishop or higher-up could get them removed from seminary.
An internal church report investigating allegations against Bransfield quotes one priest-secretary who was allegedly harassed as saying he was in seminary when the bishop first asked him to remove his shirt.
“He stated that he did so out of fear. ‘Your life is at the will and pleasure of the bishop when you’re in seminary,’ ” the man told the lay investigators last year, according to the report, which The Post obtained.
In an email on May 7, 2018, a diocesan official in West Virginia told DeGeorge that he must stay over with Bransfield for a week — even though the then-seminarian did not want to.
“The request … was not actually a request. It was basically an expectation. You need to be there with the bishop during those dates,” the email reads.
“Seminaries should articulate that priestly obedience begins with humble and willing cooperation in seminary life, docility to direction and wholehearted compliance with the seminary’s policies,” it says.
Priests, seminarians and former seminarians described in interviews a climate of self-censure, with men often tattling on one another and gossiping rather than speaking openly. And when they do speak up, they said church authorities often do nothing.
They “say the right things, how we encourage honesty and openness, but deep down it’s clear they want to move on from [issues] as fast as possible,” said Mike Kelsey, who was a seminarian in the D.C. Archdiocese from last summer until January when students were openly upset that more hadn’t been done to learn what the past two archbishops — McCarrick and Donald Wuerl — did and knew regarding sexual misconduct.
Kelsey and other seminarians and priests interviewed for this article agreed that the problem lies in how the vows are interpreted and lived out within the church.
“I don’t think obedience is bad,” Kelsey said, noting that corporations also suffer from similar transparency problems. “But it’s also not something I’m signing up for if the hierarchy behaves in this way. If leadership and so many are not willing to get to basic levels of truth and justice, I’m not willing to sit there and obey them. I think the church is deeply corrupt and broken.”
Questions about how sexual misconduct in seminary is handled are considered so pressing that the University of Notre Dame last month released a first-of-its-kind study of 1500 seminarians on the topic. About 3,500 U.S. post-college men — who make up the vast majority of seminarians — were enrolled in programs in 2018-2019, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Seventeen percent said sexual abuse or misconduct is a problem at their schools, the survey found. Asked whether their administrators take the issue seriously, 84 percent said “very,” while 11 percent said somewhat or not at all. Of the 10 percent who said they have experienced, or may have experienced, sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, 51 percent said they had not reported it. Of those who did, 42 percent said their reports were either “completely” taken seriously and acted upon or acted upon “for the most part.”
To get the seminarians to talk, researchers offered anonymity.
“They are afraid they’ll be judged as temporarily unfit, too assertive,” John Cavadini, director of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, which crafted the new research, said about seminarians. “That’s one aspect of seminary education you wouldn’t have a close parallel of outside seminary. The bishop is a peculiar concentration of power in one person.”
The Rev. Carter Griffin, rector of the St. John Paul II Seminary in the D.C. Archdiocese, said that, if taught correctly, obedience to church authority can be a beautiful act, “to follow the Lord through the word of another.”
But younger men who grew up in the shadow of earlier abuse scandals know that automatically going “into protection mode” isn’t wise for the church, Griffin said. Regardless of what higher-ups do, he said, seminarians must do what’s right.
“ It might mean that people will misunderstand you, there may be consequences for your actions and you have to shoulder those,” he said.
Shunning as punishment
Speaking out, especially for those who do not leave seminary or the priesthood, can be risky. Some seminarians report a lack of support from their classmates — even social shunning.
An unnamed seminarian who filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia diocese earlier this year alleging that Bransfield sexually assaulted him declined to comment for this article. But his mother told The Post that many priests “whom he called friends and brothers” and many of his former fellow seminarians for the most part have kept their distance from him.
“They feel they have to choose the church,” she said. The Post isn’t naming her to protect the anonymity of her son. The Post doesn’t identify sexual assault victims without their permission.
The man and the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese reached an unspecified settlement over the summer.
DeGeorge’s allegation of sexual mistreatment by Bransfield became widely known recently when The Post reported it in a profile of William Lori, the Baltimore archbishop who led the investigation of Bransfield. He had already made waves for a seminarian — he was on leave — in December when he wrote a Baltimore Sun essay critical of Lori. Many priests and his former classmates still avoid him — or speak of him as a troublemaker, he said.
In a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in Ohio County, DeGeorge alleges that Bransfield, the diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not rein in someone known as a harasser, leaving seminarians vulnerable.
In Buffalo, the priests whom Parisi and Bojanowski blew the whistle on were suspended for a few weeks and returned to ministry in June. Bishop Richard Malone issued a statement that seminarians who spoke out “are to be lauded for coming forward.” Malone is accused of mishandling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases.
After more than 20 years serving Catholic organizations, Parisi says he’s looking for work outside the church.
“There needs to be major reform … But in my view, that won’t happen. The system is a very well-oiled machine,” he said. The church hierarchy believes “it doesn’t need fixing in their view because it’s running exactly the way they want it to.”