Monday, February 18, 2008

Rent a priest

The Rev. Terrance McNicholas left his position as an associate pastor in the Archdiocese of Chicago more than a decade ago.

Yet he continues to say Mass alone every day in his Hyde Park home.

"It's part of my routine. It's who I am," said the clinical social worker with a private practice in Chicago, Arlington Heights and Palos Heights.

He also conducts weddings and officiates at funerals through Rent A Priest, a service of Celibacy is the Issue Ministries.

Though he no longer is involved in parish life, McNicholas is licensed by the state to perform weddings.

"I believe I was called to the priesthood, not by any bishop, priest or pope, but by the spirit of God," he said.

Celibacy is the Issue was founded in 1992 when Louise Haggett was unable to find a local Catholic priest to visit her mother in a nursing home.

The international lay group's mission is to locate, recruit and promote resigned Roman Catholic priests to provide spiritual and sacramental ministry to the faithful who need it.

Two dozen Rent A Priests are on call in Illinois alone.

According to the group, a priest is a person engaged in a vocation of service, and a cleric occupies an organizational position in the institutional church.

During her research, Haggett said she uncovered 21 canon laws validating priesthood is for life, even if the ordained choose to marry.

The Rev. Dennis Condon, former executive director of Respond Now in Chicago Heights, is among the married men on the Rent A Priest roster. His ministry is certified by Celibacy is the Issue, Federation of Christian Ministries and Frankfort-based International Council of Community Churches.

The weddings, funerals, baptisms, home liturgies and marriage-vow renewals Condon conducts are not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, and all must take place outside an actual Catholic Church building.

"I tell people from the get-go that whatever I do for them is not recognized by the Catholic Church. I don't come off on any false pretenses," said Condon, who was a Spanish-speaking padre with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the late 1960s.

"For a wedding to be official in the eyes of the church, it must take place within the confines of a Catholic church."

There are many other requirements for a sanctioned marriage, some of which vary from one diocese to the next.

Those most likely to seek Rent A Priest services are Catholics who no longer attend Mass, a segment representing 73.3 percent of the American Catholic population, according to Celibacy is the Issue.

Loli and Al DiSanto, of Chicago's Lakeview community, wanted their wedding ceremony to be intimate and out-of-the-norm.

"We both grew up Catholic and went to Catholic schools, but we didn't have any one church we wanted to go to. And we don't go to church every Sunday," Loli DiSanto said.

"We thought it would be so romantic to be married on the lake next to the (Adler) Planetarium, but none of the priests we grew up with could marry us outside the church."

At their caterer's suggestion, the couple hired Condon, who offers an ecumenical, non-judgmental ministry throughout Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

"For us, our wedding wasn't a Catholic thing," DiSanto said. "It was about our relationship, the union of me and Al and committing our lives to each other. We wanted to get away from the 100-percent Catholic ceremony."

DiSanto said Condon sent them a packet of premarital information, met with them several times before the ceremony and allayed their pre-wedding jitters.

"We got to pick and choose and put together our entire ceremony ourselves, and we still get compliments on how beautiful, unique and touching our wedding was," she said.

Two years later, the couple hired Condon to baptize their daughter Lorelei.

"We had the baptism outside in the backyard with a fountain and a baptismal candle," DiSanto said.

"We had just moved into a new house we had built, and we had the house blessed and the baby baptized on the same day."

DiSanto refers Condon to relatives and friends and said she most likely will call on him again.

"We spent a lot of time with Rev. Condon, and we're getting to know his wife. He's part of our family now," DiSanto said.

"It's nice to be able to turn to a priest who's also married and who understands the ins and outs of daily living. Sometimes you can't turn to your parents or in-laws because they are no longer living. So it's nice to be able to turn to a person of faith who is married and can give advice."

But can the couple ever re-join the Catholic church?

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," DiSanto said.

"The Catholic church is supposed to be all-forgiving. If someone does not welcome me as a member of their community because my marriage was not sanctified inside the walls of the church, then I'm not sure I want to be a member of that community."

McNicholas' story

A native of Chicago's Southwest Side, McNicholas was born to an Irish Catholic father and a German Missouri Synod Lutheran mother.

"Ours was an ecumenical family, and we'd switch off between masses and services," he said.

McNicholas entered high school seminary after public grade school at the suggestion of his eighth-grade religion teacher, a Catholic sister whose twin was a religious, too.

"She thought it would be the coolest thing for my identical twin brother and I to be priests," he said.

"I bought it. My brother didn't."

McNicholas shared nothing but fond memories about his education with "the finest professors" at the former Archbishop Quigley Preparatory and St. Joseph College seminaries in Chicago, where he was active in political issues.

Ordained in 1979, he entered parish ministry with a double major in psychology and theology.

"I had the privilege of hearing people's confessions for 11 years," McNicholas said.

"It's a most humbling, awesome experience when people come to tell you their sins. They come for comfort, peace, healing and forgiveness from the church."

But for McNicholas, the experience led to personal unrest.

"What I was obliged to tell people, in my opinion, often times caused more pain, more shame and more guilt. That troubled me because I didn't want to be part of causing people distress," he said.

He also was unhappy with the movement to slow down the progressive church.

"John Paul II was a marvelous human being, truly a saint. But many in the curia were real extreme conservatives, in my opinion," McNicholas said.

"They were trying to undo much of the spirit and very law of Vatican II. The call of the laity to places of leadership and authority was being given lip service. Women religious and women laity were marginalized in matters of authority, when in actuality, they embodied what a good priest is."

McNicholas said he was troubled by the church's positions on gay rights, abortion, birth control, divorce and other moral and social issues.

"When I disagree with the issues, to be a mouthpiece for the church creates much conflict," McNicholas said.

"It was unhealthy for me emotionally, psychologically and physically."

McNicholas said he moved out of the rectory, rented an apartment and discussed his inner conflict with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin at great length before resigning from parish life.

McNicholas said he did not request laicization from the Holy See.

Archdiocese spokesman James Accurso laicization is the process by which a priest loses the sacramental faculties of his priesthood and can no longer present himself as a priest publicly. But the ordained can never be unordained, Accurso said.

With assistance from Bernardin, McNicholas found work in social services with the Circuit Court of Cook County and continued his education. He has been involved in private practice at Well-Path Center Inc. for 12 years. He also counsels students at Hopewell Career Academy, an alternative high school in New Lenox.

Two years ago, McNicholas became affiliated with Rent A Priest, even though he finds the term offensive.

"I love the Catholic liturgy and sacramental theology. I am to the bone a Catholic. I truly miss being a priest," he said.

Condon's story

Condon is a Chicago native whose interest in the priesthood began during childhood with a makeshift altar, an egg cup and a Ritz cracker.

He entered the seminary after grade school, was ordained in 1967, and spent the bulk of his ministry in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Frustrated with missionary work, Condon left the Oblates of Mary Immaculate four years later and returned to the Chicago suburbs.

"I applied to Rome for a laicization to free me of my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but it doesn't deny I'm still a priest," Condon said.

Condon worked for a year as an education coordinator for the Illinois Migrant Council in Chicago Heights and spent the next 33 years at Respond Now, a nonprofit providing food, clothing and rental assistance for the poor.

Condon joined Rent A Priest in 1996 when a friend's son needed a minister to officiate at his wedding.

"I didn't realize there were opportunities to get back into ministry," Condon said.

"There are more than 100 married priests in the Chicago area, and some like the opportunity to still be of service. I'm still exercising my priesthood to the degree I'm able."

Condon, who retired from Respond Now in 2006, conducts up to 30 weddings a year. Some of the couples are of different faiths.

"They come to me, as well as many other married priests, because they have a relationship with the Catholic faith, through their own person or through their family, and want to get married in a park or banquet hall. A local priest wouldn't be able to do it, so they search me out," Condon said.

"A family with no connection to a parish may want to placate mom or grandma. We're there to maintain that Catholic connection the family has had for years and years."

Condon's wife, Magdalena, whom he married in 1992, designed and sewed his liturgical stoles.

She attends most Rent A Priest weddings, but does not help with the ceremony.

The Condons are members of St. Irenaeus Roman Catholic Church in Park Forest, and are affiliated with a home church group that conducts monthly communal liturgies.
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