It is hard to believe that I am a Priest and that I have been one now for the past 15 years. I held ordination in a two different Evangelical churches dating back to 1989 and had served as a Chaplain in civilian hospitals as well as the Army National Guard and Reserve before I was ordained as a Priest by Bishop Phillip Zampino of the Charismatic Episcopal Church Diocese for the Mid-Atlantic on July 7th 1996. It was what I thought was the culmination of my journey to the Catholic faith since the Charismatic Episcopal Church in that area considered itself very much on the Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic leaning side of that denomination.
My journey to a sacramental and catholic faith had began as a child when Navy Chaplain who was a Roman Catholic priest was instrumental in helping me continue to believe when a Methodist Sunday School teacher told me that my dad, then serving at An Loc Vietnam was a “baby killer.” I really do still trace my vocation as a Priest to that man even though my journey on the way to this faith was rather circuitous. That journey continued all thorough my life as an Evangelical Christian and was intellectually cemented in at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where in my Church History and Systematic Theology courses I became convinced of many Catholic teachings. It took another four years after graduation leave the Evangelical movement to the CEC and had I not gone there I would have likely ended up in the Episcopal Church or one of the more Catholic leaning continuing Anglican churches or somewhere in the Old Catholic movement. What took me to the CEC was the recommendation of an Anglican friend who thought it would be a good fit.
I was ordained on the evening of July 7th 1996. The ordination date was actually advanced several months because of my impending mobilization to support Operation Joint Endeavor, the Bosnia peacemaking mission. We arrived the night prior to my ordination and I had a talk with Bishop Zampino talking about the “new phase of ministry” that I was entering. He reminded me that the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination) was not was not about a change of ministry but something different. In Catholic theology ordination is very different from most of Protestantism where there is little difference in the estate of the ordained minister and lay people. In Sacramental theology when a person is ordained to the Priesthood there is an ontological change brought about by the Holy Spirit. Once a person has been ordained they are spiritually changed, which is the origin of the saying, “Once a priest, always a priest.” The Priest can be dispensed of his or her obligations as a priest and in the case of grave misconduct or heresy even forbidden to act as a priest; but they remain priests forever.
The Bishop’s words reinforced something that I already understood from my theological education and formation but had not been put as bluntly with such effect by any of my professors or the Priests that mentored me. When I was ordained that Sunday evening it was on the feast of Saint Willibald of Eichstadt, a Celtic Benedictine missionary born in England who settled in the small Bavarian town of Eichstadt. He remained as the Bishop of that small diocese for 40 years and is buried in the picturesque cathedral located in the city. His brother Wunibald was also a missionary and Abbott in Heidenheim and their sister Walburga governed the female community at the same abbey. I was ordained in the evening which also meant it was July 8th in Germany, the feast day of another Celtic missionary Saint Killian the martyr bishop of Würzburg. It so happened that my first assignment as a Priest would be in Würzburg just a few weeks later. I feel a close connection to each of these Saints as the date of my baptism was that of the Feast of Saint Wunibald, December 18th.
My life since ordination has been rather interesting or as Jerry Garcia put it a “long strange trip.” I have travelled the world as a Navy Chaplain and been able to care for God’s people in many diverse and often dangerous places. To be a priest in the Navy, be a person Roman, Anglican, Orthodox or Old Catholic is an adventure, to celebrate Eucharist, to baptize and to administer the Sacrament of Penance as well as the Sacrament of Healing or as it used to be called Unction in often dangerous places is for me the pinnacle of the priestly ministry. Many of my friends of other branches of the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox traditions echo that sentiment. To proclaim the Gospel to men and women in harm’s way and to care for those of other traditions that are given to our care, providing what we can and helping them the best we can while respecting them and their beliefs.
For me the path has not always been easy and I think that most Priests can echo that. In my 14 years as Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I ran afoul of some rather autocratic Bishops all of whom are no longer in that Church. I was banned from writing for a number of years because of my published essays which were considered “too Catholic.” During that time Bishop Zampino even suggested that I explore the Roman Catholic priesthood. I looked into it in a number of dioceses but never went beyond exploring possibilities. Bishops were polite but less than interested in a married Priest from a Church that was considered valid but illicit.
So despite being banned from writing and even banned from contact with civilian Priests in the state where I was stationed by another Bishop who is now a Roman Catholic layman I remained in the church. During this time I became more disconnected and disenchanted with the church. When I returned from Iraq I was in a full blown spiritual crisis brought about by PTSD. My conditioned worsened to the point that for nearly two years I was a practical agnostic. Faith returned in December of 2009 when administering the last rites to a dying man on the Emergency Room of the Medical Center where I was serving as a Chaplain.
But the faith was different and I no longer fit in the Church though I tried. Despite this my writings, which I had started as part of my therapy became too much for my church and even though faith had returned it was not welcome. I was asked to leave and thankfully was received by the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a North American expression of the Old Catholic faith. Since my ordination was valid I was simply received into the Church.
I am very blessed to be able to serve as a Priest and care for the people that God brings into my life. It is now 15 years since that night when Bishop Zampino laid his hands upon me and ordained me into this life. Despite some to the twists, turns and even disappointments I am fortunate as my faith is real again and I can see the good in people and experience the Grace of God in my daily life. It really is miraculous. I have a joy again that allows me to pass through the painful and sometimes lonely times that I still occasionally experience.
In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned. In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain. In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.” (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)
I have found that this is more than true. My belief now is that the church must be a church of love. In another book Greeley has a fictional papal contender named Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia makes a speech which the end of which I find particularly inspiring. While it speaks of the Roman Catholic Church I think that it speaks to most churches and reflects how people see us:
“So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.
In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.
More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.
Does such a Church have a future? How could it not?”
Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.”
I hope that I do that as imperfect as I am and as earthy as I tend to be.
On the anniversary of my ordination I ask you to pray for me a sinner.