There was great hope that the close of Vatican Council II (1967) would open new ways and invigorating ways of being church. Mass was now celebrated in the vernacular language; old prohibitions (meatless Friday) were given over to more positive and productive habits; there was a ecumenical outreach to other faith groups (Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, etc). Two of the most anticipated reforms were the acceptance of birth control and the welcoming of a married priesthood.
Papal Commissions were established to study the viability of both issues. Sadly, Pope Paul VI favored the counsel of his close Bishops over the overwhelming majority opinion of the Commissions. In 1968, birth control was banned; in 1972, an exclusive celibate priesthood was reaffirmed.
This history served as a backdrop to the origins of CORPUS.
Priests who had fallen in love chose to follow their conscience over church policy. The exodus was significant. Falling in love did not necessarily mean falling out of love with priestly service. Unfortunately, the church would not allow requests by priests to marry and remain active in a parish.
In 1974, Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Grady announced that priests who had left to marry had no interest in the church. This spark ignited a desire on the part of several Chicago, now married priests, to set the record straight.
Frank and Janet Bonnike, Bill and Teddi Nemmers, and Frank and Mary McGrath met and organized a gathering at Sheridan’s Restaurant. They invited married priests in the Chicago area who would be interested in returning to service if their marriages were recognized and their wives and families were welcomed. They ended the meeting with a list of at least 30 married priests who would welcome a return to service. CORPUS was born.
The wives suggested the name “Corps of Reserved Priests United for Service”, indicating a willingness to serve actively. The initial group of 30 grew to over 300. Each was asked to connect with other married priests and “stand ready to serve”. CORPUS was described as a “movement” rather than an “organization”.
In 1980, key contacts gathered in Los Angeles, CA to coordinate and expand their efforts to bring about a married priesthood. Fifty Facts about a Married Priesthood was drafted and widely distributed. It was hoped that this could serve as the historical and canonical basis to finally convince bishops to lobby for the change.
Terry Dosh, a Benedictine priest/historian, married to Millie, was hired to become its National Coordinator. A more formal newsletter was developed and sent six times a year. It focused on history, theology and the contemporary church happenings. It was received with an overwhelming sense of healing and hope to married priests who still hoped to serve. Its circulation reached over 11, 000.
Church officials conducted systematic shamming when a priest requested that he be released from the promise of celibacy in order to marry. Many were asked to sign a document that they had lost their faith. Rescript instructions included moving at least 40 miles from your last parish assignment; prohibition from participating in any official church function (lector, Eucharistic Minister, member of the parish council); and silence with regard to your ordained status. Many married priest couples were labeled as scandalous by parishioners. Some family members found it impossible to accept their decisions to marry and raise a catholic family. This dark shadow of shunning was soon to see the gospel light of day.
In 1988, the first National Conference of Married Priests drew over 330 participants. Featured speakers were Frank Bonnike (Loyalty to Two Callings), Terry Dosh (A Living Tradition Rediscovered) and A. W. Richard Sipe (The Future of the Priesthood: Celibacy, Sex and the Place of Women). But, by far, the most impactful presentation was given by Anthony T. Padovano (Broken Promises) (see Resources).
This was an electrifying and transformative event. One of the workshops was entitled “Married Priests and their Wives”. It was the first opportunity for women’s voice to be heard. The message was clear. Wives were not baggage but blessing. In response to participants, a Resolution Committee was formed to develop CORPUS Directives (see Resources). This included the full participation of women as co-equal members of CORPUS. Participants left the Conference to reignite their call to ministry.
The following year, Anthony T. Padovano issued a research paper “Canon Law and Non-Clerical Priesthood” which laid the basis for public ministry by married priests. (see Resources). A Directory of married priests was drafted and distributed. In 1992, Louise Haggett formed Celibacy is the Issue (www.citiministries.org). Her work and witness jettisoned married priests into communities to perform marriages, baptisms, funerals and counseling services.
CORPUS published a Wedding Manual, Rite of Passage Funeral Services and the Top 10 Reasons for a Married Priesthood. As a founding partner of Catholic Organizations for Renewal, CORPUS played a key role in promoting a reformed and renewed priesthood in the Catholic Church. CORPUS held national conferences for over 26 years, attracting prominent speakers on theology, church history, social justice and spirituality.
Realizing that this reformed and renewed priesthood was not singularly about a man’s ability to be ordained and also marry, CORPUS changed it focus and tagline to “the National Association for an Inclusive Priesthood”.
Now celebrating its 49th year, members are still adamantly passionate about priestly ministry which truly serves the People of God and rabid commitment to a Vatican II vision of church.