Congregation for Clergy, Correspondence Concerning the Reinstatement of a Priest and the Dispensation of an Irregularity, 1994-1996.


What follows is an actual case of reinstatement of a priest who had left the active ministry many years previously. Some of the above issues are addressed in the correspondence of the diocesan bishop and the Congregation for the Clergy. Not all of the correspondence will be completely reproduced in order to maintain the anonymity of the priest and the diocese. However, there will be enough to indicate the steps of the process. First we turn to the diocesan bishop’s votum:




20 May 1994

His Eminence Jos. Cardinal Sanchez, Prefect

Congregation for the Clergy

Vatican City State, Europe

Your Eminence,

I write to ask your assistance on behalf of Father ____________, a priest of the Diocese of ____________, who is seeking to be restored to the active ministry. The facts concerning the petitioner are as follows:

Father ____________ was born on 14 December 1932 in ____________, and was ordained priest for service of this diocese by the late Most Reverend ____________, then Bishop of ____________, 24 May 1958 in our Cathedral.

Father’s priestly assignments in this diocese were as assistant pastor of ____________ in ____________, 1958-1960, and of Saint ____________ in ____________, 1960-1964.

In 1964 Bishop ____________ gave him permission to join the Missionary Society of Saint James the Apostle for priestly ministry in Latin America. He labored in Peru with this Society until 1969. On 23 June 1969, Father ____________ was granted a leave of absence by Bishop ____________. In his letter of that date, responding to a letter of Father ____________, Bishop ____________ said “It is my conscientious

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judgement that an extended leave of absence from the active ministry may be of help to you and I grant and authorize by this letter.’’

On 20 June 1970 Father ____________ contracted civil marriage in ____________, with ____________, Catholic. Two children were born of that union: Jane, born 27 June 1971, now of major age, and Richard, born 27 December 1977, currently a student in high school. The former wife of Father ____________ now has legal custody of Richard.

In 1983, in ____________ County, Illinois, a civil divorce was obtained. In intent and in fact ____________ and ____________ are permanently separated. Father ____________ has composed a “Fact Sheet’’ on Richard, which accompanies my letter, and explains Richard’s situation in great detail. The former wife has been the principal provider for the children’s care and education.

In June, 1985, Father __________ suffered an aneurism, which required brain surgery. During the course of this brain surgery he suffered a stroke, which has left him paralyzed on his left side. His mental faculties are intact, his speech is clear. His movement, however, is impaired. He can walk short distances with the assistance of a cane; he requires a wheelchair generally.

At the time of his surgery in June, 1985, two years after his divorce, when he was in danger of death, Father ____________ received sacramental absolution, along with the Sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick at the hands of the Catholic Chaplain of ____________ Hospital, ____________, Illinois in the Diocese of ____________.

Father and I have been in dialogue since 1991 about his return to the active ministry. He sincerely wishes to rectify his relationship with the Church and seeks to be reinstated in active priestly life and ministry. I am convinced of his sincerity.

In line with my understanding of the established praxis for reintegration into active ministry, Father ____________ attended a theological and pastoral updating at Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners, Wisconsin, 15 January through 15 May 1993. A letter of recommendation from the Rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology is included with my present letter. In addition, Father ____________ made a week of retreat

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of spiritual exercises with the priests of our diocese in June, 1993, at ____________ Retreat Center in ____________.

Currently Father ____________ lives in ____________, Diocese of ____________, and attends Saint ____________ parish in ____________. The pastor Father ____________ is his spiritual director. The petitioner in this case is earnest about his return to active ministry, and has already taken several important steps in this regard.

I have made discreet consultation about the possibility of any wonderment or admiratio populi which might occur if Father ____________ were to return to active ministry in our diocese. It is important to remember that Father ____________ left the active ministry twenty-five years ago. Furthermore, he has not been in a pastoral assignment in this diocese for thirty years. More than a generation of Catholics have passed in those years. Many now active in their faith would not even have been born when Father ____________ was last active in priestly ministry in our diocese. During his years away from the active ministry, Father ____________ has been away from the Diocese, even at great distance, as his enclosed curriculum vitae demonstrates. His current residence is in the Diocese of ____________.

Those who do know of his situation, mostly family members and priests who are classmates, will rejoice at his return to priestly ministry. I know that they pray for this eventuality. The importance of Father’s return to active ministry is attested to by Fathers ____________, ____________, and ____________, all priests of our Diocese. I attach their letters of recommendation, along with a letter from Father ____________, pastor and spiritual director of our petitioner, and Father , a priest of our diocese and a friend of Father ____________.

Father ____________ is able to live and move independently, even though he uses a cane and a wheelchair. I witnessed his activity myself, when he lived for a time at our Cathedral rectory, where I reside. He was then taking a clinical pastoral education course at Saint ____________ Hospital in ____________. His letter addressed potential concerns about the support of his minor child Richard. Richard will be of majority next year. Father ____________ refers in his letter attached to these concerns of support.

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With this letter, I ask the faculty to remove the canonical irregularity brought about by his civil marriage. The censure which he incurred would have been absolved by the sacramental absolution which he received when he was in danger of death in 1985.

I am convinced through my friendship with Father ____________ and knowing the esteem in which he is held by his priestly classmates in our diocese that his return to active ministry would be a source of edification and spiritual rejoicing.

I am most grateful for your assistance, Your Eminence, and assure that I will abide by your directives and counsel.

With sentiments of appreciation and great esteem, I am

Respectfully yours in Christ,

Bishop of Diocese




The first reply from the Congregation for the Clergy was this:




Rome, June 28, 1994

The Most Reverend Bishop

Diocese of ____________

Somewhere, U.S.A.

Your Excellency,

This Congregation has received your petition, dated May 20, 1994, for the reinstatement of Father ____________ to the active ministry.

In studying this request, on page four of the documentation entitled “Biographical Summary of Father ____________… ,” it is said: “married: June 1970, ______ University Chapel, before a Catholic Priest.” May we ask your Excellency to comment upon this matter?

With sentiments of esteem and every best wish, I remain,

Sincerely yours in Christ,

C. Sepe

Secretary

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The marriage which the Congregation had questioned had been performed by a priest who himself was on a leave of absence, but apparently was recognized by the civil authorities to witness marriages. The Bishop of the Diocese then asked the petitioner in this case to write a letter of explanation, which he did. The contents of the letter will not be reproduced here, but basically it contained an explanation of this irregular situation, and a statement that few were present at the ceremony, and that it was a matter of bad judgement on his part at the time. On August 11, 1994, the Diocesan Bishop wrote the Congregation for the Clergy again, with the written response of the petitioner, and a letter, which says in part:




“I am enclosing a notarized copy of a statement of Father ____________ in explanation of the circumstances of his civil marriage ceremony June 12, 1970. This civil marriage was performed by a ‘Catholic Priest’ solely from the desire of the parties to have some religious character in what was, in fact, only a civilly recognized marriage. The choice of the ‘Catholic priest’ for this purpose stemmed in the petitioner not from any ecclesiastical protest nor from a desire to demean the true meaning of a Catholic marriage, but should be seen, it seems to be, in the hesitancy in 1970 of Catholic persons to be married by a judge or by a minister of some Protestant denomination.”




The letter then goes on to explain the status of the priest who witnessed the marriage, and the fact that he, too, was on a “leave of absence.”

The Congregation responded in turn:




Rome, October 4, 1994

The Most Reverend Bishop

Diocese of ____________

Somewhere, U.S.A.

Your Excellency,

This Congregation has received your letter dated August 11, 1994, providing clarification in the petition of ____________ for reinstatement to the active ministry.

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To complete the study of this question, the Dicastery has requested both the opinion of the Ordinary of the Diocese of ____________ where Father ____________ has been residing, and a recommendation of the Superior of the Missionary Society of Saint James. If the information expected from these superiors is favorable, Father ____________ might avail himself of the present opportunity to take courses in liturgy prior to his rehabilitation.

With renewed sentiments of esteem and every best wish, I remain,

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Jos. T. Card. Sanchez

Prefect

C. Sepe

Secretary




The next correspondence is from the diocesan bishop:




May 18, 1995

His Eminence Jos, T. Cardinal Sanchez, Prefect

Congregazione per Il Clero

Citt_ del Vaticano

Your Eminence,

I appreciated your kind letter of October 4, 1994, regarding the petition of Father ____________ for reinstatement to active priestly ministry.

I am happy to state that the petitioner has taken courses of liturgy, along with other disciplines, at Sacred Heart Seminary, Hales Corners, Wisconsin. He has also been more recently under the tutelage of the Reverend ____________, a truly exemplary priest of our diocese, who has given him instruction in liturgy and aspects of pastoral theology. Father ____________’s facility with the Spanish language has been put to good use in some assistance he has given to Father ____________ in Father ____________’s outreach to Hispanic persons in the area of ____________, where he serves as pastor.

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You indicated that you wished to contact the Bishop of ____________ and the Superior of the Missionary Society of Saint James. I hope that those contacts gave you positive information.

May I now inquire if we might receive an affirmative reply to the petition of ____________ for reinstatement to active priestly ministry. It would be, I am convinced, a grace, not only for him and for myself, but for the clergy and people of this local Church.

Thank you for your kind pastoral attention to my request. Wish best wishes, I am

Respectfully yours in Christ,

Diocesan Bishop




In turn, the Congregation for the Clergy responded with this letter, noting that the study of this petition was nearing completion:




Rome, September 13, 1995

The Most Reverend Bishop

Diocese of ____________

Somewhere, U.S.A.

Your Excellency,

This Congregation has nearly completed its study of Your Excellency’s petition regarding Father ____________’s return to active ministry.

On October 4, the Dicastery wrote to the Most Reverend Ordinary of ____________ and the Director of the Society of Saint James the Apostle for recommendations. His Excellency, the Most Reverend responded promptly and quite favorably. The Director of the Society of Saint James has now responded also offering a positive recommendation.

Father ____________’s second child reaches majority at the end of December of 1995, at which time he would be free from any natural obligation in rearing his children. It would be reasonable for him to plan

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for an extended spiritual retreat possibility during October or November reflecting on the effect of past failings and his return to ministry; the nature of priestly consecration; the witness of priestly fidelity and communion with one’s Ordinary and brother priests; the place of prayer, meditation and spiritual reading in the life of the priest (see especially Chapters One and Two of the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests).

In my name and that of the Cardinal Prefect who is away from Rome, I take this opportunity to renew my sentiments of esteem and, with every best wish, I remain,

Sincerely yours in Christ,

C. Sepe

Secretary




The next piece of correspondence represents a faxed letter sent by the diocesan bishop as a response to the above letter:




January 12, 1996

S.E.R. Mons. Crescenzio Sepe, Segretario

Congregazione per Il Clero

Città del Vaticano

Your Excellency,

I am grateful for your letter of September 13, 1995, relative to the petition of Father ____________ to return to active priestly ministry.

As your are aware, by the end of December, 1995, the youngest child of Father ____________, Richard, reached his majority. For some years previous to that time Richard was in the custody of his mother.

Father ____________ has spent some time in an extended retreat of spiritual exercises at ____________ in ____________. I visited him during the time of that retreat. I am satisfied that his contrition is sincere regarding his expression of human weakness. He is truly anxious to renew his commitment to priestly consecration, and to

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return to priestly ministry in communion with his bishop and fellow priests and to give witness to priestly fidelity. He is indeed given to prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading, and has studied the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests.

Once again, I beg your Excellency’s good offices in obtaining soon the favor which I most humbly and persistently seek: the return of Father ____________ to active priestly ministry. Such a grant will be edifying to me in my own priestly and episcopal ministry; it will support our priests who pray for Father ____________ daily, and will, I know, be a source of edification for our faithful.

Please be kind enough to extend to His Eminence, the Cardinal Prefect, my sentiments of esteem and gratitude, and be assured of the same for yourself. I am

Respectfully yours in Christ,

Diocesan Bishop




The following letter represents the response of the Congregation for the Clergy which authorized the diocesan bishop to return the petitioner to active ministry:




The Most Reverend Diocesan Bishop

Diocese of ____________

Somewhere, U.S.A.

Your Excellency,

The Congregation has received your fax transmission dated January 12, 1996, requesting the return of Father to active priestly ministry.

Having thoroughly considered:

The circumstances brought forward by Your Excellency;

The recommendation of the superiors of the Saint James Society in which Father ____________ served for five years;

The recommendation of the Most Reverend Ordinary of the place where Father ____________ lived during the past three years;

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The theological renewal Father ____________ has already completed;

The spirit of repentance and desire to make reparation demonstrated by means of prolonged spiritual exercises;

And having determined that neither scandal nor known obstacles preclude the granting of the dispensation;

The Congregation authorizes the Ordinary of the Diocese of ____________, the Most Reverend ____________, to lift the censure (c. 1047, §3) incurred by Father ____________ so that he may return to active priestly ministry.

Given at Rome on this 26th day of January, 1996.

Jose T. Cardinal Sanchez

Prefect

Undersecretary




The diocesan bishop then issued this decree:




DECREE

By this decree, in virtue of authorization from the Congregation for the Clergy, I hereby lift the censure (c. 1047, §3) contracted by Father ____________ and grant him the faculties of the Diocese of ____________, restoring him to active priestly ministry, effective immediately.

The Most Reverend Bishop

The Very Rev. Vicar General

Notary

Somewhere, U.S.A.

February 12, 1996

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Post Script: The priest who was the petitioner in this case was subsequently assigned to a canonical ministry in the diocese, where he is doing well, is happy, and so are the people he serves. This is the result, as the above correspondence shows, of a lot of work, study, good will, and prayer on the part of the petitioner, the diocesan bishop, the Congregation for the Clergy, and priest friends and classmates of the petitioner.




RRAO (1996): 16-25.