The priests came from three states, converging on a suburban park one Sunday to conduct an outdoor Mass. Wearing white vestments with rainbow-hued stoles, they led the worshippers in prayer and song. They stuck closely to traditional Roman Catholic liturgy.
But as they raised their arms in blessing, the five men revealed unmistakable proof of defiance: All wore wedding bands.
These men, who still consider themselves Roman Catholic priests, have wives, children -- and unflinching commitments to their 2,000-year-old faith. As married priests, they say, they are not heretical anomalies but, instead, are following a model set by priests and popes in the earliest days of their church. They are part of a growing national network of thousands of deeply religious men who believe marriage does not compromise their ability to serve as spiritual ministers.
These married priests honor ordination as an irreversible sacrament, though the church no longer recognizes them as priests. They are solemnizing marriages -- including second marriages and same-sex unions. They baptize babies. They officiate at funerals. They say Masses at healthcare facilities and private homes.
More and more rank-and-file Catholics, whose respect for church hierarchy was shattered by the clerical sex-abuse scandal, are accepting married priests and seeking their services.
Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope said the abuse crisis made Catholics question not only the teachings of the church, but also “the credibility of the teachers.” The disaffection is so strong, Pope said, that “a lot of average Catholics today would be open to married priests because they think the priests would understand their plights more readily than a celibate priest.”
About 2,500 married priests have joined an organization called Rent A Priest, which maintains a website www.rentapriest.com that lists the priests’ services in a directory called God’s Yellow Pages. Rent A Priest is run by a Massachusetts ministry known as CITI: Celibacy Is The Issue.
Weddings performed by married priests are legal. But the Vatican does not sanction the ceremonies they conduct. Boston archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon said the married priests had no standing within the church.
“We are the elephant in the living room,” said Father Terence McDonough, a celibate priest for close to three decades before marrying 20 years ago.
“They don’t talk about us. But we are here.”
Married priests head renegade congregations around the country. In Framingham, Mass., a CITI-sponsored service each Sunday is sometimes led by as many as six married priests and includes communion loaves baked by one of them, Father Ron Ingalls. CITI founder Louise Haggett defends such gatherings -- and the priests who conduct them -- as “licit and valid” under canon law.
Haggett, 64, started CITI 13 years ago after church officials said no priest was available to visit her dying mother at a nursing home. Haggett, a former Catholic doctrine teacher, was perplexed. Until then, she had never heard about a priest shortage.
Vowing to learn more about priests, Haggett discovered that Pope John Paul II had approved a provision in 1980 allowing the Catholic Church in America to ordain married Protestant priests. Haggett found that about 100 married Catholic priests in the United States had converted from other denominations. Most had been Episcopalians.
Father Thomas Rausch, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said Rome made an exception for these married Protestants because “it was seen as a way of acknowledging the ministry of those who had lived as pastors and priests and now wanted to become Roman Catholic priests, and already had families.”
Haggett learned that priests were allowed to marry in some Eastern rite branches of Catholicism, all of which reported to the Vatican but had their own codes of canon law that did not require celibacy.
Haggett said she found the inconsistencies absurd: Catholic priests were required to be celibate, yet some exceptions were allowed. And if the church had a shortage of priests, why not retain those who left to marry?
Haggett quit her job and poured her life savings into the organization that became her mission: recruiting married Roman Catholic priests, enabling them to follow their spiritual callings and providing practicing Catholics with priests who could temper their counsel with real-world experience.
“Celibacy has not worked, has it?” Haggett asked. “It is really nothing but a farce. It is all about church politics.”
Mandatory celibacy was imposed on the Roman Catholic priesthood in the 12th century. St. Peter, the first pope, was married. Theologians say as many as three dozen popes may have had wives.
Some historians say the edict in the year 1139 that required priests to remain celibate was designed to elevate priests to Christ-like status. Others say the decree stemmed from concerns that priests were leaving their property to their wives and children, not the Vatican.
The marriage ban has not always been enforced.
“Everybody is afraid to say this,” said A.W. Richard Sipe, a San Diego psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk. “There have always been married priests.”
Some priests in the United States are secretly married, said Sipe, who has written books on sexuality and the church. Outside the U.S., he said, some Catholic priests are married with full knowledge of their superiors.
For many U.S. Catholics, the child sex-abuse scandal -- now in its third year -- destroyed the notion that priests were too holy to give in to sexual pleasures. The fallout was particularly dramatic in Boston, where the scandal first unfolded.
Catholics in Boston were outraged when archdiocese leaders closed parishes and parochial schools to save money to pay off about $100 million in abuse settlements.
Boston Catholics publicly berated church officials who penalized priests for speaking out about the crisis. During the Easter season, members of a Boston-area parish that had been closed taunted archdiocese leaders by announcing plans to hire a married priest for a holiday service. Church officials hastily located an active-duty priest.
The discontent has prompted many Catholics to seek alternatives within their religion.
“As a girl, I would not have known what to make of the term ‘married priests,’ ” said Diane Sulser, who attended the outdoor Mass here with her husband and four of her five children. “I would have found it heretical.”
Because of the abuse scandal, Sulser began attending services led by married priests -- and found them “more human” than the priests she had known until then.
“These men, you really have to admire them,” Sulser said. “They are holy, and they are spiritual. They have studied theology, and they have dedicated their lives to God. And yet they have feelings for women. I have no problem with that.”
James Quinn, 63, also a lifelong Catholic, said the scandal made him question church authority: “Especially the part about Episcopal priests being allowed to say Mass in a Catholic church even though they were married. As my children used to say to me: ‘Daddy, that doesn’t compute.’ ”
Rausch, the Loyola Marymount theology professor, who is also a Jesuit priest, said the married Protestants who became Catholic priests were different from “a Roman Catholic priest who suddenly decides he is going to get married, even though the church says he cannot do so.
“In that case, you have someone who breaks his communion to the church by getting married, against the commitment to celibacy he made when he was ordained,” he said. “In the other case, you have someone who has been married and then establishes his communion with the Catholic Church.”
There are about 43,000 Roman Catholic priests in the United States and about 405,000 worldwide. The number of new priests is declining each year.
“The fact is that people are desperate for priests,” said Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit scholar at the University of Santa Clara. “And everything we see in the demographics indicates it is going to continue to get worse. Either the hierarchy has got to find a way to recruit young, celibate males to become priests, or they are going to have to change the rules.”
That may be less difficult than it sounds, Reese said, because celibacy is a matter of church law, not theology.
“Laws can be changed,” he said. “These married priests -- these are people who really want to be priests.”
Growing up in South Boston, Terry McDonough wanted nothing in life other than to become a priest. He was 19 when he took the vows leading to his ordination: “Poverty, obedience and chastity. I accepted the whole package.”
He worked as a missionary, taught school and signed on as an Air Force chaplain during the Vietnam War. For the first time in his adult life, he did not wear a Roman collar, merely a cross with his military uniform. He lived in the barracks.
McDonough, 69, called this period the first step in his transformation “from priest to human being.” As he traveled, people invited him into their homes, exposing him to world views he had never encountered. He also developed friendships with women.
Though he never doubted the theology that drew him to the priesthood, McDonough began questioning the rules he had lived by. One of his most alarming realizations, he said, was that “everyone called me Father, but I was never going to be one.”
McDonough was back in Boston with the Air Force in 1980 when he met Susan Connolly at an Irish pub. They became such comfortable pals that when Susan’s fiance had to work at night, she said he would suggest, “Why don’t you go out with Father McDonough?”
A year or so after meeting McDonough, Susan broke off her engagement. When the Air Force wanted to transfer McDonough, she asked him: “What about us?”
Until then, McDonough had not considered the possibility of an “us.” But Susan’s question forced the issue. He left active ministry in 1983, not because of some great schism or epiphany, but because he wanted a different life.
A year and a half later, he and Susan married in an Episcopal church. One of their two children once scandalized her Catholic Sunday school teacher by describing her father’s occupation as “priest.”
McDonough, a counselor at a Veterans Administration hospital, began working with Rent A Priest about 10 years ago. “Basically this is what I was called to do,” he said. “And the celibacy thing sort of intruded.”
The notion that celibacy is at once ridiculous and unnecessary is a steady theme among married priests. But Ron Ingalls, 70, said it would be simplistic to say “that the only reason we left is because of sex.”
Growing up, Ingalls played priest, making vestments out of crepe paper and blessing the neighborhood children. After he was ordained, the real job exceeded his expectations.
Ingalls worked as a college chaplain during the civil rights and Vietnam War eras -- heady days of progressive Catholic theology. He dressed casually and spoke out loudly. When his superiors reprimanded him, he retaliated by urging his students to question their Catholic faith.
Then he developed bone cancer. The illness and the loss of a leg made him crave independence, something he could not find in the regimentation of the church.
In 1970, he took a leave of absence. He was 35 and had $50 in his pocket.
Ingalls found his way to Boston and a job teaching high school English.
His autonomy gave way to reflection. He was troubled that reforms, including an end to mandatory celibacy discussed by the Vatican a decade earlier, had not been put in place. He grew more alienated from the church.
His leave of absence continued indefinitely, and he made no effort to formally leave the priesthood or to return to active ministry.
Eight years after his leave began, he married a woman he had met in Boston. He and Sheila have two daughters.
In the early 1990s, he heard that Haggett was gathering data on married priests. Through Haggett, Ingalls began celebrating Masses in the homes of other disaffected Catholics.
“I regained my spirituality,” said Ingalls, who recently retired from teaching. “But it was a whole new spirituality. I started to catch on fire inside my soul, and when I went back to ministry, I went back with that kind of fire.”
Andrew Preas said Ingalls’ passion poured out in the homily he delivered at Preas’ marriage to Miriam Silva last fall.
“I was paying careful attention to the people I knew who were serious Catholics as he delivered his homily. They were nodding and smiling, and I thought, ‘OK, that’s good,’ ” said Preas, 34.
“Then he said, ‘You don’t find God in church.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, dear.’ But he went on to say, ‘You find God in your heart, the trees, the ocean.’ And everyone kept nodding and smiling.”
Preas said he and Silva found Ingalls through the Rent A Priest website. Preas is not Catholic, but Silva and her Venezuelan family are, and they wanted a Catholic wedding.
“At some point the cat got out of the bag, and the serious Catholics found out he was married,” Preas said. “They just shrugged. They thought he was a great guy.”
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said such ceremonies can cause problems, “even pain,” especially if Catholics wanted these baptisms or marriage ceremonies acknowledged by the church in years to come.
“People can be confused by these less-than-legitimate ceremonies,” Tamberg said.
Ingalls said he had had twice as many requests to preside at weddings this year as he did last year. He charges $500 per ceremony.
In his homily at the recent outdoor Mass, Ingalls described Jesus as a man with complex emotions and talked about how spirituality was a process of growth and awakening.
Almost as if he were discussing what had happened in his own life, he urged the worshippers to pull themselves out of spiritual stagnation.
As he spoke, Ingalls idly fingered his wedding ring. He smiled at Sheila, and his wife smiled back.