Celibacy is not a “divine law” in the Church and priests who are married do not have a “second-class priesthood,” Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a canon lawyer, explained during a Vatican conference on the priesthood Feb. 19, according to Catholic News Service.
Marriage is allowed for priests, not bishops, in the Eastern Church. In the Latin Rite, through a special provision, married men who have served as ordained pastors in other Christian denominations and convert, can request acceptance to the priesthood from the Vatican.
The Diocese of Little Rock has three married priests who were previously ministers in other Christian faiths: Charismatic Episcopal, Anglican and Freewill Baptist. They are Father George Sanders, pastor of St. John Church in Hot Springs and chaplain at CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs, and his wife Brenda; Father Norman McFall, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Charleston and sacramental minister at St. Anthony in Ratcliff, and his wife Laura; and retired priest Father Alan Rosenau and his wife Joanne. Each has children and grandchildren.
Father Jeff Hebert, diocesan vocations director, said celibacy is continually important as both a witness of the joy of the Gospel and the heavenly life to come but also in a practical sense of availability that priests have for their parishes.
He said the diocese’s married priests “are excellent priests.”
“They are witnesses that priesthood is not exclusive to celibacy,” Father Hebert said. “It's not impossible to be a married person and to be a priest.”
Father Sanders said at his ordination, he did make a promise of celibacy in that if his wife should die before him, he cannot remarry.
“A priest is married to Christ, so he cannot be married again. Because I was married before I was ordained, my marriage was retained,” he said. “In the process my wife had to write a letter to the pope to say that she understood that if something happened to her I would not be remarried,” which could be a concern for a priest with young children. Father Sanders’ two sons were adults when he was ordained in 2013. “My wife said she was glad to do that. … She thought that was a good idea,” he laughed.
In his ministry, being a married father and priestly father has allowed him to counsel his flock from a first-hand perspective, knowing what it’s like to navigate many laity experiences.
“Being a good father has informed everything as a priest. It’s a different charism for me than other priests,” he said.
But Father Sanders explained celibacy is “normal for our Church.” Unlike other priests, he does not have the freedom to participate in as many parish activities, as he has “another covenant, I have a wife.”
Because of their reality as ministers of the sacraments of healing, priests are hands-on and always on-call in ways that other religion’s ministers may not be, he explained.
“Something people don’t really think about very much is the sacrifices the wife has to make. … The wife must also have a calling,” Father Sanders said. “You may be trying to celebrate the birthday of your children, but you get a call to the hospital and you must go.”
Once a priest is ordained, the promise to celibacy remains unchanged for that man. However, “the discipline of only choosing men for priesthood from celibate men, that is definitely changeable,” Father Hebert explained as something that the Church could decide to change in the future.
“Looking back that would not have changed my decision to be celibate,” Father Hebert said if the Church had changed it’s teaching before his 2018 ordination. “I was in medical school, and I started seeing like, ‘I kind of want to just give myself entirely to this. And I'm open to living it just like with consecrated chastity, so that I can be more available to my patients.’ And so I experienced (celibacy) as a call from the Lord to live, to give myself more fully to people.”
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