Saturday, March 17, 2007

'People are ready for this'

CAMARILLO -- When Bill Lowe preaches his first sermon as a Catholic priest in May, he will be the only clergyman in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with his wife, children and grandchildren listening from the pews.

Lowe, 68, is about to become the first married priest in the history of the country's largest Roman Catholic diocese.

"People are ready for this. They are ready for some married clergy," said Lowe, who retired in 2001 after 29 years as an Episcopal priest and unexpectedly converted to Catholicism soon after.

Lowe does not represent a sea change for the centuries-old requirement that priests remain celibate. Instead, he is the benefactor of an obscure order that Pope John Paul II issued in 1980.

That Pastoral Provision has allowed about 80 married men, all former Episcopal priests, to continue utilizing their gift for pastoral ministry after Catholic conversion. (Married former Lutheran pastors also have been permitted through a different provision.)

"We see it as a gift, his coming to the Catholic Church," said Bishop Thomas J. Curry, who leads the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region, which includes Ventura County. "He has a lot of experience. He's ministered to a lot of people for a long time, and he's bringing all of that to the Catholic Church."

Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist home in Pasadena, Lowe decided at 15 he would become a priest.

"No matter how miserable the day at the parish, I always felt like I was doing what I should be doing," said Lowe, who was known in Massachusetts as the "burying parson" because of his gift for consoling the bereaved.

Rethinking celibacy

As an assistant pastor at Blessed Junipero Serra Catholic Church in Camarillo, Lowe will again be able to use his gifts for comforting and preaching.

Some priests and parishioners, however, hope Lowe brings more than experience -- that his ordination will help fuel the discussion about whether celibacy should be optional, as it was for the church's first 1,000 years.

"This move is not only historic but prophetic," Monsignor Padraic Loftus, pastor of St. Mel Catholic Church in Woodland Hills, wrote in his parish's Feb.18 bulletin. "Having a married priest in our midst must surely make us pause and reconsider, at this time of rapidly diminishing priests, why this privilege given to this couple could not be more widely granted."

Since 1985 -- for various reasons not limited to celibacy -- the number of active U.S. priests has plummeted from 57,317 to 41,794, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

One proposed solution, rejected by the Vatican, is to drop the celibacy mandate. After John Paul died two years ago, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found 63 percent of U.S. Catholics thought priests should be able to marry.

Rule to protect land

The biblical basis for celibacy comes from the Gospel of Matthew: "Others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."

But in the 12th century, when the Catholic Church adopted a celibacy requirement, it was as much about protecting property as it was committing priestly intimacy to God, said the Rev. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University.

"The church was worried about church property going to the descendents of priests," he said.

The internal drive against the celibacy requirement dates to at least the Reformation.

Celibacy has caused thousands of priests to leave ministry since the end of the Second Vatican Council 42 years ago, according to Corpus, an organization that pushes for priesthood reform.

"I am a married priest," said Russ Ditzel, the organization's president.

But to marry, Ditzel had to leave ministry in 1978, though he technically remains an ordained priest. Others, he said, have surreptitiously married and remained behind the altar -- "leading a double life."

Though Lowe agrees change is needed, he said he doesn't want to be a cause celebre. He just wants to get back to his calling.

'Where God wants us'

Lowe's journey began in early 2001, after retiring from the 100-family Parish of the Messiah in Newton, Mass.

Lowe and his wife, Linda, began celebrating Mass with friends at various Catholic churches. The liturgical experience was familiar, but he noticed the parish pews overflowing with Catholics, something he had not experienced in the shrinking Episcopal Church.

"I said to Linda, 'This is where it is happening,'" Lowe recalled.

And then, around Easter of that year, Linda told her husband they needed to make the switch official.

"We don't think of it as a conversion because we weren't changing. We were growing into something," said Linda, 66, who grew up in Glendale and was raised Presbyterian. "We feel very much now that this is where God wants us to be."

About that time, Lowe was finding retirement a bore. So, in 2002, he scheduled a meeting with Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston, whose nomination he sought for the Pastoral Provision.

But three days before the meeting, the Boston Globe broke the clergy sex-abuse scandal. That slowed the process for Lowe, as did his family's decision to return to California to care for Linda's ailing parents.

Pursuit of priesthood

They moved to Camarillo and joined Junipero Serra Church, which is known as Padre Serra Parish. Lowe continued his pursuit of the priesthood, which included reading 50 books in seven theological areas -- including ethics, church history and dogmatic theology -- a daylong psychological exam and an all-day oral exam.

"It was like getting a doctorate," he said.

On Dec. 1, he joined the church staff as a lay employee handling bereavement and counseling. Last month, amid much celebration, Curry ordained him a deacon.

"Everybody was grinning from ear to ear," said Anne Hansen, a two-decade parishioner of Padre Serra.

On May 6, Lowe's five-year pilgrimage from retirement to the priesthood will conclude when he is ordained by Cardinal Roger Mahony.

"It's finally happening," Lowe said, standing in his cramped office at Padre Serra, a Southwestern-style parish adjacent St. John's Seminary. "It is getting back to work and doing what I love to do.

"Yesterday, for example -- going to a funeral, to a hospital, visiting a baby, writing a sermon. It's getting back to what I love to do."