A hush fell over the congregation when the pastor delivered the news.
He was leaving them, the Rev. Mike Krieg told parishioners at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Not because he wanted to, he said, but because he had no choice: He wanted to get married.
The priest received a standing ovation when he made that announcement at Mass nearly three years ago. Many were happy for him, but they were sad to lose their beloved pastor. As the reality sunk in, many grew frustrated with the Catholic Church’s rule that prevents married men – and all women – from serving as priests.
Their grief and anger became the driving force behind the recently formed “Call to Action Spokane,” a group with a mailing list of about 500 Catholics and a few priests in the diocese. Inspired by the reforms of Vatican II, these Catholics are part of a national movement that has challenged the church hierarchy on a number of issues, including the role of laity, women’s ordination and priestly celibacy. “We are people who very much love our church,” said Maggie Albo, a member of St. Mary’s in Spokane Valley. “We just want to make it better.”
Albo and others across the country collected more than 35,000 signatures from Catholics asking church leaders to address the priest shortage and the possibility of relaxing the rule on mandatory celibacy. The petition was sent to Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane and the five other American bishops who traveled to Rome this month for the International Synod of Bishops – an advisory council to the pope that gathers every few years.
Members of Call to Action worry that the growing shortage of priests will prevent even more Catholics from going to Mass and receiving the sacraments. They’re also concerned about the toll it has taken on priests, who have so many duties they have little time for pastoral care. While Call to Action members recognize and praise the many priests who have chosen to embrace celibacy, they believe it’s an outdated rule that hurts the church.
Since the 1970s, more than 25,000 Catholic priests have given up their clerical status to get married. Meanwhile, about 3,000 parishes nationwide don’t have a pastor. The Diocese of Spokane has more than 80 parishes, but only 45 active priests.
The most logical response to this crisis, according to Albo and others in Spokane, is to open the priesthood to married men and allow women to serve as deacons. Since Krieg left, parishioners at Sacred Heart have asked Skylstad to consider starting a pilot program in Spokane for married priests to return to ministry.
“I loved being a priest,” said Krieg. “The call to ministry and the desire to serve and to bring God’s love to people was so strong in me. … I would have stayed if I could have.”
Krieg, 53 and a priest for 20 years, is married to Georgie Ann Weatherby, a sociology professor at Gonzaga University. They remain devout Catholics and go to Mass at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, along with five other men who left the priesthood to marry. The former pastor at Sacred Heart now works as a counselor at Hazen and Jaeger funeral home.
Even now, almost three years since he last celebrated Mass at Sacred Heart, Krieg grieves over the loss of the priesthood. He doesn’t regret leaving, he said – married life was just as much of a calling for him. But he misses the people, the fraternity of priests, the Mass. While his work with grieving families and others at the funeral home is a microcosm of his former priestly duties, he still mourns the end of his vocation.
Krieg had romatic relationships prior to entering seminary at age 25. Although his main call was to “share the experience of God’s love” as a priest, “I put the celibacy piece in God’s hands,” he said. Deep inside, he was never able to soothe that deep ache in his heart, a yearning for a soul mate. “I spent 20 years – my best years – serving faithfully and serving well,” he said. But when he fell in love with Weatherby, Krieg said, he knew he had no choice but to go.
Church law in the 4th century required priests to be celibate, but the rule was never strictly enforced or obeyed. In fact, many priests and bishops – even popes – kept wives and mistresses. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the church’s Council of Trent decided to enforce the mandatory celibacy rule. Today, only married ministers from Protestant denominations who convert to Roman Catholicism and become priests are allowed to remain married.
“I don’t feel like I’ve disappointed God,” Krieg said, but he’s sorry for the pain he may have caused the parishioners of Sacred Heart.
Many at the church have been supportive of the couple, said Mary Lee Culbertson, a Sacred Heart parishioner. So have many other Catholics throughout Spokane.
“Because my husband was so loved, it really stirred some emotions in people and brought them forward in a way that’s just heart-wrenching and beautiful,” said Weatherby, who supported opening the priesthood to married men and the ordination of women long before she met Krieg.
Soon after Krieg left Sacred Heart, a group of parishioners started meeting weekly to discuss the issue. They later invited the bishop to hear their concerns and to bring the issue forward to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, over which Skylstad now presides. That small group grew over time and eventually evolved to become the Spokane chapter of Call to Action earlier this year.
Although it’s been almost three years since Krieg’s departure, there’s still a lot of pain among the congregation. “We lost him because of this outdated rule,” said Patricia Garvin of Sacred Heart.
Krieg – who hasn’t applied for a dispensation to be laicized or lose his clergy status – would return to priesthood “in a minute” if the Vatican were to change its rules.
“Married clergy would better relate to the vast majority of their parishioners,” he said. “We’d have a healthier priesthood and a healthier church.”