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Former priests available for services through rentapriest.com
Seattle Times staff reporter
One is a psychotherapist. Another is a retired travel agent. A third sells medical equipment.
But Sean Patrick O'Reilly, Ralph Bastian and John Shuster share an additional identity: Each is an ordained Catholic priest.
Each has left the church as an organization, but still — without official church approval — maintains a type of ministry.
"I checked out of the institution. I left the system. But I never left the church," said Shuster, 54, who lives in Port Orchard. To him, the "church" is the faithful, not the authority in Rome.
Shuster, who is married, spends most of his time on his current occupation, traveling from Alaska to California selling and servicing emergency-room equipment. But he still performs occasional weddings and other services, including hosting an annual Christmas Mass at his home for about 30 people.
"People come in. We sing carols. I get some pita bread and wine and have my chalice. I dress in my vestments. It's like the old midnight Mass Catholics used to go to."
Shuster is vice president of CITI (Celibacy Is The Issue) Ministries, a national organization of men who left positions with the church, most because the church doesn't allow priests to marry.
CITI claims some 2,500 members, several hundred of whom make themselves available for weddings and other services through the group's Web site, rentapriest.com.
Last weekend, when a gathering of bishops at the Vatican supported continuing the church's rule of celibacy for priests, Shuster was not surprised. He expects the church under Pope Benedict XVI to be at least as conservative as it was under his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II.
"The institutional church has it wired, totally wired. They're not going to change," said Shuster. "But a lot of Catholics today are just not into the pay, pray and obey mentality."
Shuster argues that forcing priests to give up their ministry to marry is counterproductive. "We worked for all those years to gain the competency of being priests," he said. "It would be like going to medical school and learning how to be a surgeon, then getting married and having the whole medical community say you're not a surgeon anymore."
Shuster said the church is losing good priests because of the celibacy requirement while retaining others who violate the rule. In four years as a recruiter for a seminary in California, "I had four priests declare their lust for me and invite me to bed."
Since 1965, the number of priests in the United States has declined more than 27 percent, while the number of Catholics has risen 42 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. As a result of the increase, partly due to immigration from heavily Catholic Latin American countries, the number of Catholics per priest has nearly doubled.
CITI Ministries was founded by Louise Haggett of Brunswick, Maine, who had been unable to find a priest to visit her dying mother in an assisted-living home. "We're not out there to create controversy," she said. "We really feel like we're helping the church."
At least some church officials don't appreciate CITI's "help." In a Time magazine article in 2001, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called rent-a-priest "a mockery ... an absolute joke."
The question of whether rituals performed by members of CITI are accepted by the church is a "deceptively complex issue" said Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.
He agreed that an ordained priest is a priest forever, but said church law also says for a Catholic wedding to be recognized by the church, it must be performed by an officer of the church.
Rent-a-priest marriages are accepted by the state because CITI is an accredited "faith community."
Not every minister listed in the "rent-a-priest" Web site has the same style or approach.
Shuster's individual Web page, for example, stresses his Catholic credentials, identifying him as "Father John Shuster, married Roman Catholic priest."
In contrast, Sean Patrick O'Reilly's Web site identifies him not as a priest, but as a counselor and "creative celebrant."
"My Roman Catholic background was a solid background for service to other people in ceremony and ritual, and now I have branched beyond that," said O'Reilly, of Seattle, who describes his focus as "Catholic, Celtic and interfaith."
O'Reilly, 46, said he was drawn to the seminary as young man, when he felt the church reflected a spirit of openness fostered by the Vatican II Council of the 1960s. Now he feels the formal church has turned away from that spirit.
"The word 'Catholic' means universal, and I think the church has forgotten the meaning of that word. At least it's forgotten the practice of it," said O'Reilly.
O'Reilly took a leave of absence from the church in 1988 and did not return. He initially worked as a tour director, then went back to school for a master's degree in clinical psychology and now has a psychotherapy practice.
Like Shuster, O'Reilly says the church's insistence on celibacy has driven good men away from the priesthood. O'Reilly has been in a committed same-sex relationship for 14 years.
He conducts as many as three weddings a week during the May-October busy season, drawing on a variety of religious and secular traditions.
When Mike Towey and Margaret Doty chose O'Reilly to perform their wedding last year, his background as a priest was only of marginal significance. The couple met O'Reilly through a Celtic spirituality group. "I consider myself a Catholic, but I don't really feel that connection to Rome," Towey said. "The positive side of the church is a commitment to social justice, but on some issues, it's very exclusionary."
Ralph Bastian, 78, of Tacoma, became a travel agent after he left religious life to get married in 1969.
"It wasn't too popular to leave back then. I just figured that was one aspect of my life that was finished."
But about a decade ago, emboldened by the fact that men in similar circumstances were conducting services, he began doing weddings. Sometimes they're for divorced people who can't get an official Catholic wedding because they didn't get their first marriage annulled.
Bastian notes that the church, while refusing to let Catholic priests marry, has allowed married Episcopal priests to convert, becoming Catholic priests and remaining married.
"It could change eventually," Bastian said. "But whether the church will do something in my lifetime isn't something I'm sitting around waiting for."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company