In the Catholic Church today, there are over 15,000 married clergy in the United States alone. According to an official source, they “show how the obligations of family life, work and ministry can be harmonized in the service of the church’s mission.”
These words refer to married permanent deacons, who play an increasingly important role in the contemporary church. For the past six years, I have been privileged to serve as the director of such deacons for the Archdiocese of Washington.
In my new role as Vicar General of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, established on January 1 by Pope Benedict XVI, I’ll continue to serve with married clergy. This time, however, they will be married priests. I happen to be one of them. By the end of 2012, there may be as many as 140 married priests in the U.S.
Hearkening to the example of Jesus, and recalling St. Paul’s words that those who are unmarried can devote more time and energy to ministry, celibacy is the normal discipline for priests in the Roman Catholic Church. In contrast, married clergy have to balance two vocations: Marriage and ordained ministry. Having both is a joy, but juggling both can be a challenge.
That’s not to say that celibacy is easy. But from the Catholic perspective, celibacy has a symbolic value, a practical purpose, and is understood as a special calling- a gift- from God.
In recent decades, popes have waived the discipline of celibacy for a select few who are ordained priests after having been clergy in other Christian communities. Like me, the vast majority were Episcopalians or Anglicans. Unlike other priests, we don’t promise celibacy at our ordinations. With our wives in the congregation, that might prove to be a bit difficult!
From conversations I’ve had, most of my fellow married Catholic priests have a tremendous respect for our celibate brothers, and we’re grateful for the welcoming atmosphere and support they extend to us and our families. We admire the sacrifices they make, and appreciate they can give more of themselves to priestly service than we can.
When we answered God’s call to Catholic ministry, we didn’t set out to break the mold. None of us, to my knowledge, want to be “poster boys” for a new paradigm of priesthood. Instead, we wished to be obedient, and wanted an opportunity to serve. We’re deeply grateful for the opportunity we’ve been given.
In our day, debates about celibacy swirl in Catholic circles. This ancient and biblical discipline has both its defenders and critics. Speaking for myself, I feel uncomfortable when circumstances like mine are used to further an argument or make a point. I’m simply honored to serve the Lord I love while being blessed with a family I love. I can’t imagine life without either--and I’m glad I don’t have to.
After eighteen years in professional ministry, I admire all those who are answering God’s call today in my Archdiocese of Washington. They include the forty-three who will join the ranks of married clergy as permanent deacons this year. And they include the seventy three now testing their vocations to be celibate priests. Our situations and roles may differ, but our ultimate goal is the same: to glorify God and to build up his kingdom- regardless of our state in life.
Reverend R. Scott Hurd is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. He has recently been named as Vicar General for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. Fr. Hurd’s first book, “Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach,” was published in September 2011. He and his wife, Stephanie, live in Virginia with their three children.