Monday, March 29, 2010

Former St. James priest calls it quits

The Rev. Thomas B. "Father Tom" Farley, known for his ecumenical work during his 10 years as pastor at St. James Catholic Church in McMinnville, has announced he is leaving the priesthood.

Farley has been heading St. Clare Catholic Church in southwest Portland since the archdiocese reassigned him in 2001.

But on Sunday, he celebrated his final Mass there.

"I leave because of a private longing in my heart and soul that I have ignored or suppressed to my detriment," he said in a letter to his congregation.

"I love priestly ministry, but I cannot live this life of celibacy."

Farley, ordained in 1979, leaves the priesthood at a time when the Catholic Church is struggling with a severe shortage of priests, particularly in the United States.

The number of American men joining the priesthood has dropped 60 percent since the 1960s, and celibacy, which the church began requiring in the 12th century, is considered a major reason.

Critics of the church's celibacy policy say many men reject the priesthood because they aren't willing to live without the intimacy of a life partner or face sexual frustration triggering the breaking of priestly vows. And they are all men, as the church does not admit women to the priesthood.

The Archdiocese of Portland is down to about 150 priests, some of whom are on retirement status, to serve 400,000 members at 124 parishes and 24 missions.

The main problem is lagging recruitment, but the archdiocese has also lost a number of priests to decisions like Farley's.

No official records are kept, but former priests have often gone on to marry, according to anecdotal reports.

In a telephone interview with The Oregonian last week, Farley, who is in his mid- to late-50s, termed it a gut-wrenching decision.

He was popular with the congregation he served in Portland, and that mirrored his reception in McMinnville.

When he left St. James, farewell events were filled not only with members of his own church, but also with parishioners of Protestant churches with which he had shared ecumenical services.

When he celebrated his last Masses at St. Clare's, parishioners packed those services as well. Members of the congregation knelt with him to confess their sins and listened intently as he preached a brief sermon.

After Communion, Farley carried a sheet of paper to the lectern and read:

"I want to say how honored I have been to be a fellow disciple with you in the Catholic Church. I am leaving without anger or resentment, not wanting to hurt you or the church. I do not want to be a poster child for married priests."

Farley graduated from high school in Corvallis. He served as a parish associate in Hillsboro during his early years in the priesthood.

In 1991, he was appointed to St. James, becoming one of five full-time priests serving Yamhill County.

Over the next decade, as the number of priests serving the county dwindled to 3 1/2, his responsibilities grew.

As a result, he and the parish developed additional ways to serve the congregation, with parishioners assuming more of the leadership role.

Bilingual himself, he began offering Masses in Spanish as well as English, and attendance rose steadily at services in both languages. By 2001, weekend attendance was averaging about 1,500.

Farley also led his congregation in developing relationships with Trinity Lutheran and other churches in the area. St. James and First Baptist became especially close.

Baptists regularly came to Ash Wednesday services at the Catholic Church. On Pentecost, Catholics regularly worshipped at the Baptist Church.

Farley also took time to be involved in a range of community activities.

One year, he not only led a prayer prior to Dustin's Run, an American Heart Association fundraiser, but went on to participate himself. And he ran well enough to place seventh in a large, competitive field.

Farley told the St. Clare congregation that he plans to live in Portland. He drew chuckles when he said he would be looking for a job, "like a real person."

He said he would remain a practicing Catholic. However, to marry in the church, he would have to first secure a release from his vows.

Meanwhile, he said, "I look forward to parish-shopping - like you have been able to do."

Parishioners said they are sorry to lose the popular priest.

"I can't imagine this parish without him," said Michael Spatz, a member since 1989. "He's been a good match.

"This is a liberal parish with clear ideas about social justice. He didn't just put his stamp on us; he allowed us to put our stamp on him."

Linda Fanning, whose first day at St. Clare coincided with Farley's nine years ago, said, "Father Tom is man of huge integrity. He does what he says he's going to do."

Mary Alice Judy said she drove 15 miles to attend Mass at St. Clare because she was so taken with Farley's homilies.

"It always seemed like they spoke to me directly," she said. "They were short, obviously well-prepared."

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