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In church rarity, a divorced dad becomes ‘Father’

The Catholic Church has lost its fair share of priests over the decades to the call of marriage and family life.

But the ordination Saturday of Michael K. Brown inside St. Joseph Cathedral marked a highly unusual reversal for the church. The Diocese of Buffalo gained a priest who had been married, fathered two boys and got divorced.

Brown’s two grown sons, Robert and Justin, traveled to Buffalo to watch Bishop Richard J. Malone ordain their father and two other men in a joyful ceremony rich in symbolism and ritual. And then Father Brown gave Communion for the first time as a priest to his sons and dozens of other Catholics who lined up for the Eucharist.

Brown, through diocesan officials, declined requests for an interview about his unusual path to the priesthood. The Buffalo Diocese has had at least one other man with children ordained to the priesthood, but it was after his wife had died. Brown is believed to be the first divorced man to become a Catholic priest in Buffalo, although diocesan officials refused to confirm it.

“He’s a very humble guy. He speaks pretty openly about his family life and being a dad today,” said Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel, temporary administrator at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Bowmansville, where Brown has spent the past several months preparing for his ordination. “He speaks very happily about his children and he speaks about how important it was for him that his sons were OK with him doing this at this point in his life.”

Both sons, dressed in dark suits and wearing white boutonnières, smiled throughout the two-hour service. Justin Brown used a smartphone to videotape some of the proceedings.

Afterward, they declined to comment. Malone, through a diocesan spokesman, also declined requests to be interviewed.

“We want to respect Michael Brown’s strong desire for privacy on his special day,” spokesman George Richert said in an email.

The diocese earlier in the week issued a news release requesting media coverage of the ordination – as it has done for many ordinations over the years. Additionally, the diocesan newspaper Western New York Catholic recently published a front-page story on Brown that mentioned his divorce and annulment. In the story, Brown, 55, discussed how his life experiences, from running a household and raising kids to managing people in his government jobs, “have all been stepping stones and preparations to be able to serve the Church.”

“As I approach active ministry, I approach it from a different perspective,” he said. “People’s ears perk up and say, ‘You were married. You have kids. You had to go to work. You know what our struggles are.’ Hopefully my life lessons will come in handy as ministerial situations arise and I will be able to use my experiences for the good of the Church.”

For decades, divorce has been a thorny and often taboo topic in the Catholic Church. Church doctrine asserts that Catholic marriages, even if civilly ended, can never be dissolved in the eyes of God. Thus, Catholics who remarry are considered to be in an adulterous relationship, unless they receive an annulment – which involves a lengthy church review process to determine essentially that the first marriage never existed.

More than 11 million Catholics across the country – or 28 percent of Catholics who have ever married – are divorced, according to estimates by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. But just 15 percent of divorced Catholics had sought an annulment, CARA found in a 2013 study.

The stigmatizing issue has caused thousands of divorced Catholics either to leave the church entirely or feel less than a full participant in its sacramental life. And earlier this year, in his exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis urged more compassion and leniency in the treatment of divorced Catholics.

Brown’s divorce ultimately turned into an opportunity for him to pursue the priestly vocation that he had abandoned as a young man decades ago, when he spent two years with the Conventual Franciscan Friars in Ellicott City, Md., before deciding on marriage and a secular career.

He was married for 14 years to Eileen Wode, who now lives in Lancaster. While admitting the situation was “odd,” Wode said she harbored no ill will toward her ex-husband and wished him well in his priesthood.

“We did not have a bad divorce or anything. We still talk,” Wode said in a phone interview. “Mike’s ordination is not about me and my beliefs or about past relationships. This day is about Mike and his relationship with the Lord. I respect his decision to pursue what makes him happy emotionally and spiritually in life. I believe that the many life experiences that he has gone through will help him in his vocation as a priest. I wish him well in his pursuit to serve the Lord in this capacity.”

Wode said Brown had invited her to the ceremony. She did not appear to be in the full capacity crowd at the cathedral.

Both sons supported their father’s decision to enter the seminary in 2010, she said.

Church law allows for divorced men with annulments to be ordained, but it’s not clear how many current Catholic priests fall into that category. In 2013, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain ordained the Rev. Mark Kiszelewski in St. James Cathedral in Seattle. Kiszelewski, who is divorced with two grown sons, told the Northwest Catholic newspaper, “A lot of people that I talk to say to me, ‘You have a great background, in terms of you’ve done a lot of things. You’ve been married – you know what marriage is about, the pros and the cons, what happens and how things can go wrong. You know what it’s like to try to raise children and the difficulties of parenting children.’ ”

And in 1998, the Patriot-Ledger in Massachusetts reported that the Rev. Andrew M. Meehan was married 20 years and had four children before getting a divorce and an annulment. He also had several grandchildren at the time of his ordination.

More than 60 priests from across the Buffalo Diocese helped welcome Brown and two other ordinands, Samuel T. Giangreco Jr. and Michael P. LaMarca, into their ranks. One after the other, each priest laid his hands on the heads of the three men, in a display meant to show the invoking of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of setting the candidates apart for sacred work and service to God,

Brown’s first appointment as a priest will be at St. Gabriel Church in Elma, while Giangreco is headed to Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna and LaMarca to St. John Paul II parish in Lakeview.

In interviews this week, some priests said Brown’s past experiences as a husband and father could be helpful in his ministry.

“When he is counseling, certainly from his experience, he may have a different angle that he could bring into marriage counseling, having been married,” said the Rev. Walter J. Szczesny, pastor of All Saints parish in Lockport. “It’s not a better angle, or that we’re lacking because we don’t have children or haven’t been married.”

Szczesny was diocesan vocations director when Brown first approached the diocese about becoming a priest.

Barbara Wyse leads a diocesan program that assists divorced Catholics in the annulment process. She said that Brown was an example of how people who have been through a divorce “can rebuild and move on.” Brown has been “very open” about his life story, she said.

“I think he will probably be somebody who understands a couple in trouble who comes to him because he has been there,” she said.

In his homily, Malone spoke generally about the symbolism of the ordination ceremony and did not offer specific remarks about any of the candidates.

Quoting Pope Francis, Malone said “the vocation of the priesthood is a gift that God gives to some for the good of all.”