- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas — a time of extra church services and Masses — is one of the most challenging holidays of the year for clergy, especially personnel-strapped Catholic parishes dealing with a shortage of priests.

That’s why Louise Haggett, a sales and marketing specialist from Maine, founded rentapriest.com, ensuring that Catholics across the country have a live celebrant at a Christmas Eucharist.

“There are more than 5,000 parishes without a resident priest,” she says, “so parishes get a Communion service with pre-consecrated wafers.”

She has 2,500 names in her database, including 300 married priests who are listed on her rentapriest.com Web site. One, John O’Brien, 74, who lives north of Baltimore, left the priesthood in 1974 to get married.

The rentapriest site has netted him requests for about a dozen weddings or baptisms a year. Clients know he no longer functions within the Catholic Church, he said.

Although he’s licensed with the state of Maryland as a clergyman under the aegis of the International Council of Community Churches, the wedding ceremony he uses is the official Catholic rite.

“According to the disciplines of the church, my active ministry ceased when I married,” he said, “but in an emergency, I can still minister.”

Whereas the number of worshippers per parish nationwide has grown by nearly 35 percent in almost three decades to 67 million, the number of priests dropped 26 percent to 44,212 men, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

“We’ve had many bishops applaud our work privately,” Mrs. Haggett says. “Unfortunately, the way things are at the Vatican right now, they cannot publicly applaud us.”

Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said officials there are aware of this subgroup of married Catholic clergy.

“Since they’re not performing church-sanctioned or recognized sacraments, we don’t track them or have any ability to regulate them,” he said.

Mr. O’Brien says there are four married clergy at his church, Corpus Christi parish in Baltimore.

“As long as we don’t create a real scene or aren’t obstructive or hostile to the church, they’re diplomatic and leave us alone,” he says.

Fredrick Ruof, 71, also a Baltimore resident and married priest, worked in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., before he got married in 1966. He now does counseling and occasionally celebrates Mass.

“Canon law obligates priests, such as I, to respond to the call of the faithful when asked,” he said.

Anthony Gigliello, 49, who lives in Prince George’s County, left the priesthood 17 years ago to marry and officiates at a handful of weddings each year.

“I think there’s a need out there among fallen-away Catholics,” he said. “For whatever reasons, people don’t choose to try to work with their local Catholic parish, they can certainly contact our service and at least there would be a dimension of faith added.”

The Rev. George Stuart, a canon lawyer with the Archdiocese of Washington, said the only reason for a married priest to perform a sacrament is if a Catholic is dying.

“Any priest can then hear confession and give absolution,” he said. “The interest there is to provide the sacrament, which should not hinge on whether the priest is in good standing or not.

“A Mass celebrated by a priest not in good standing with the church is still a valid Mass,” he said, “but if not done in communion with the church, it’d be illicit and possibly sinful. It’s kind of like an ex-policeman showing up at a crime scene and trying to exercise authority.”

However the matter shakes down theologically, many people desire the services of a Catholic-trained cleric, says Stephen Stahley, 54. Formerly a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, a religious order based in Rosslyn, he performed 14 weddings this year.

“And if the priest shortage continues … many of us will become very busy this time of year and at Easter.”

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