By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
From all appearances, Walter Wrobel is the model Catholic priest. He's got a doctorate in divinity, years of experience and he looks the part--clad in a suit jacket and black shirt buttoned to the neck. Scholarly glasses. Sweet disposition. Wife and kids.
Wife and kids?
Wrobel is one of a growing group of married priests offering baptisms, marriages, counseling and other priestly services through a national organization with a catchy--if not entirely accurate--name: Rent A Priest.
For three months, Wrobel and Bill Wettingfeld, a former Roman Catholic deacon forced to relinquish his position when he married, have distributed brochures in the Phoenix area, touting the free service.
Those who believe married priests should be allowed to practice as Catholic clergy rely upon an interpretation of 21 of the church's canons, laws which allow for special practices in times of emergency. The shortage of celibate priests, they say, qualifies as an emergency.
One such law, Canon 290, reads, "After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid."
Thus, says Louise Haggett, a Boston businesswoman who founded Rent A Priest in 1992, "A priest is always a priest. Whether he gets married or whether he becomes a plumber--whatever--he'll always be a priest."
Haggett first became aware of the shortage of Catholic priests in 1991, when she couldn't find a priest to visit her ailing mother in a Maine nursing home. Living in the Catholic-laden Boston Diocese, Haggett hadn't been exposed to parts of the country in which smaller Catholic populations and overworked priests are common.
Once she began asking around, Haggett says she found that as many as 3,500 parishes in the United States were without resident priests. In some parts of the country, the church relies on "circuit rider" priests, who travel to as many as four churches in a weekend. Recently, in Ohio, an exhausted circuit-rider priest fell asleep at the wheel and died in a car wreck, Haggett says.
Shortly after the revelation of priestly shortages, Haggett happened to speak to an old friend who told Haggett she had been involved in a sexual relationship with a priest for many years.
Haggett, a self-described "totally mainstream Catholic," says she had never heard of such a thing. She researched the issue, and says she learned that in the past few decades, about 25,000 priests had left the church to marry.
She was really ticked off when she learned that the Vatican allows the church to ordain married Episcopal clergy into the priesthood.
And so Haggett founded Rent A Priest, a clearinghouse for married priests. Rent A Priest operates as part of a nonprofit organization, Celibacy Is the Issue, also founded by Haggett. She runs it out of her home in Framingham, Massachusetts; donations are solicited via her brochures.
As part of the free referral service, people write to Haggett, who matches them with a married priest in their area. Haggett estimates she has distributed more than 15,000 brochures; she receives requests daily.
The organization is operating throughout the United States, Germany and Austria--and soon in Canada. "Spiritual renewal centers" have opened in Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The Rent A Priest people say they aren't in competition with the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, Wettingfeld says, his church often gives sacraments to "fallen" Catholics who later return to the Catholic Church. Married priests are more willing to accept Catholics who practice birth control, who have divorced or who have otherwise slipped out of favor, Haggett says.
Wrobel and Wettingfeld say their services are in high demand. The Phoenix Diocese refused to disclose figures regarding priest shortages in the area. Haggett says that in 1992, according to numbers released by the church, Phoenix had a total of 85 parishes; of those, 30 had no resident priest.
Wrobel, a Polish immigrant, is a member of the Polish National Church--one of a series of nationalist, nonpapal churches referred to as part of the Old Catholic Church.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has required celibacy of its priests for 800 years, the Old Catholic Church allows its priests to marry.
But Wrobel, trained as a Roman Catholic, would like to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. For now, he serves as priest to a tiny Old Catholic Church in Phoenix named St. Francis of Assisi. Wettingfeld, who has also been ordained as a priest in the Old Catholic Church, is affiliated with St. Francis of Assisi, as well.
St. Francis of Assisi holds services every Sunday, either in a rented hall or at a private home, depending upon the congregation's size--which fluctuates between 15 and 40.
Marge Injasoulian, director of communications for the Phoenix Diocese, refused to talk to New Times. Fred Allison, spokesman for the Tucson Diocese, says married priests are not recognized by his diocese; he says there is no shortage of priests in the Tucson area.
Local celibate priests have heard of the practice of using married priests. Father Michael Deptula of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Scottsdale acknowledges that there is a dramatic shortage of priests "across the board." However, he says, the actions of married priests are not recognized by the church. Not "kosher," he adds with a chuckle.
"But just like in a pinch, [a practicing Jew] can eat a ham sandwich. It wouldn't be kosher, but it would still take care of your nutritional needs," he says.
Father John Vogt of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale acknowledges that married Episcopal, Anglican and Protestant ministers can undergo a long study session and become ordained as Roman Catholic priests. But, he adds, this takes place only on a case-by-case basis; a special dispensation must be granted by Rome, after a bishop has made an official request.
Why can't married Roman Catholic priests ask for the same dispensation?
"We do not understand the rationale behind it at all," Vogt says. ". . . If they're [the Vatican] going to give those exceptions, I think they should make exceptions for the priests that want to be married and still be recognized in the church."
Nationally, the church has remained silent on the issue of practicing married priests, Haggett says, although she sent brochures to all of the bishops in the United States and to the Vatican. Haggett's not disheartened. "I don't believe the day will ever come when the pope is gonna say, 'Okay, you know, you guys can go back to work,'" she says.
But, Haggett adds, "There's a saying in the Catholic Church that goes, 'Practice becomes custom and custom becomes law.'"
She cites the example of altar servers. For decades, both boys and girls have been altar servers, although the church officially allowed only boys. Recently, the Vatican allowed that girls can be altar servers.
Haggett stresses that her main concern is that Catholics are not getting the sacraments. But she also believes mandatory celibacy can lead to sexual abuse of teens and adults in a priest's flock. (However, she says, celibacy is not a root cause of pedophilia.)
"The church has done all that it can to try to separate the two [celibacy and sexual abuse], to keep people from even questioning whether or not there's a connection," she says. "And I believe that it is time that someone started to question."
Haggett would rather not discuss the issue of sex crimes. She prefers to emphasize the positive. And for her, the best part of Rent A Priest is seeing married priests fulfill what they continue to consider their calling to God.
"The church just turned away so many years ago and told them, move away, change your name, we don't want to have anything to do with you anymore, you're no longer a priest," Haggett says. "And these guys are so excited they can consecrate Mass again. It's just such a beautiful thing.