Advertisement

He’s the first married man to be ordained as a Catholic priest in Orange County

Greg Walgenbach will be the first Catholic priest ordained in Orange County.
Greg Walgenbach will be the first Catholic priest ordained in Orange County under the church’s pastoral provision.
(Courtesy of Everett Johnson, Diocese of Orange)
Share

Happily married for 25 years, Greg Walgenbach is also the proud father of four children.

After his ordination as a priest on Saturday at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, he will be known as Father Greg Walgenbach to more than a million and a half Catholics in Orange County.

If his priesthood seems out of the ordinary in a church where clerical celibacy is the norm, it’s because it is.

Never before in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange’s 48-year history has a married man with children become a priest.

Advertisement

The pastoral provision, a framework issued by the late Pope John Paul II in 1980 that provides exemptions from celibacy as a pathway for ordained former Episcopalian clergy to become Catholic priests, makes it all possible.

“I’m so grateful for the provision and for the opportunity to serve,” Walgenbach said. “It’s remarkable how the Catholic Church creates space for so many different realities and possibilities.”

Walgenbach, 48, grew up in a nondenominational and Baptist household in Los Angeles before following in his grandfather’s footsteps as a Baptist pastor.

Drawn to questions of faith, he earned a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Walgenbach later served as an Anglican priest for a couple of years before turning to Catholicism.

“There were many things that ultimately drew me to the Catholic Church, but one of them was the church’s work over the years with the poor at the margins,” he said. “I was drawn to the faith and tradition in a way that I knew that I needed to become Catholic, regardless of the question of continuing in priestly ministry.”

Walgenbach has attended St. Philip Benizi in Fullerton as a parishioner with his wife for over 10 years. Inspired by Catholicism’s preferential option for the poor, he also serves as the director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace at the Diocese of Orange, a role he’ll continue in addition to his new priestly duties.

“He’s someone who is going to use his priesthood well for the benefit of the weak and vulnerable in society,” said Father Dennis Kriz, a priest at St. Philip Benizi. “His ordination is a great gift for the church and for all of the various faith groups in Orange County.”

Walgenbach recalled hearing about the pastoral provision once during his time in the Episcopalian Church. Later on, the late Pope Benedict XVI released the Anglicanorum coetibus, a document in 2009 that forged Anglican “ordinariates” in full communion with the Catholic Church a few weeks after Walgenbach was ordained as an Anglican priest.

After that document was issued, Walgenbach mulled continuing in ministry through an Anglican ordinariate but after conversations with Bishop Kevin Vann from the Diocese of Orange, he decided to seek out Catholic priesthood through the pastoral provision in 2018.

Walgenbach and Cole Buzon, right, are a pair of historic "firsts" as Catholic priests in O.C.
Walgenbach and Cole Buzon are a pair of historic “firsts” for the Catholic Church in O.C. Buzon, right, is the county’s first Filipino American Catholic priest.
(Courtesy of Everett Johnson, Diocese of Orange)

Even though the provision is on the books, it is still seldom used.

According to Father Al Baca, the episcopal vicar of ecumenical and interreligious affairs at the Diocese of Orange, the provision has only been invoked some 300 times across the United States to ordain clergy from past Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist faiths as Catholic priests.

The Diocese of Orange had never before utilized it until now.

“It is a very different pathway,” Walgenbach said. “It was new for all of us here at the diocese.”

Bishop Vann, as the ecclesiastical delegate for the pastoral provision for former Anglicans, was well-positioned to see the process through.

Walgenbach’s academic degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary carried over, but he still had to undergo a rigorous assessment from seven different professors. After that, mentors guided his work through a program of spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral formation.

The pathway to priesthood takes years in any case, but Walgenbach faced delays in the form of the pandemic, a cancer diagnosis and treatment to put it into remission.

After a longer journey than most, Bishop Vann will ordain Walgenbach as well as Cole Buzon as priests at Christ Cathedral on Saturday. Buzon will be the Diocese of Orange’s first Filipino American priest, a key ordination for an important ethnic group of believers in the local church.

Once ordained Walgenbach will assume his priestly duties at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Huntington Beach.

But before that, he will hold Sunday mass after ordination at St. Philip Benizi, his home parish in Fullerton, where he has counted Father Kriz and the late activist parishioner Mike Clements as mentors for their advocacy on issues like homelessness.

The social gospel will continue to play a central role for Walgenbach as a priest.

“We are invited to be peace-builders,” he said. “I can’t think of anything that’s more needed in our world today.”

Advertisement