BOSTON — The priests came from three states, converging on a suburban park one Sunday to conduct an outdoor Mass. Wearing white vestments with rainbow-hued stoles, they led the worshippers in prayer and song. They stuck closely to traditional Roman Catholic liturgy.
But as they raised their arms in blessing, the five men revealed unmistakable proof of defiance: All wore wedding bands.
These men, who still consider themselves Roman Catholic priests, have wives, children -- and unflinching commitments to their 2,000-year-old faith. As married priests, they say, they are not heretical anomalies but, instead, are following a model set by priests and popes in the earliest days of their church. They are part of a growing national network of thousands of deeply religious men who believe marriage does not compromise their ability to serve as spiritual ministers.
These married priests honor ordination as an irreversible sacrament, though the church no longer recognizes them as priests. They are solemnizing marriages -- including second marriages and same-sex unions. They baptize babies. They officiate at funerals. They say Masses at healthcare facilities and private homes.
More and more rank-and-file Catholics, whose respect for church hierarchy was shattered by the clerical sex-abuse scandal, are accepting married priests and seeking their services.
Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope said the abuse crisis made Catholics question not only the teachings of the church, but also "the credibility of the teachers." The disaffection is so strong, Pope said, that "a lot of average Catholics today would be open to married priests because they think the priests would understand their plights more readily than a celibate priest."
About 2,500 married priests have joined an organization called Rent A Priest, which maintains a website www.rentapriest.com that lists the priests' services in a directory called God's Yellow Pages. Rent A Priest is run by a Massachusetts ministry known as CITI: Celibacy Is The Issue.
Weddings performed by married priests are legal. But the Vatican does not sanction the ceremonies they conduct. Boston archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon said the married priests had no standing within the church.
"We are the elephant in the living room," said Father Terence McDonough, a celibate priest for close to three decades before marrying 20 years ago.
"They don't talk about us. But we are here."
Married priests head renegade congregations around the country. In Framingham, Mass., a CITI-sponsored service each Sunday is sometimes led by as many as six married priests and includes communion loaves baked by one of them, Father Ron Ingalls. CITI founder Louise Haggett defends such gatherings -- and the priests who conduct them -- as "licit and valid" under canon law.
Haggett, 64, started CITI 13 years ago after church officials said no priest was available to visit her dying mother at a nursing home. Haggett, a former Catholic doctrine teacher, was perplexed. Until then, she had never heard about a priest shortage.
Vowing to learn more about priests, Haggett discovered that Pope John Paul II had approved a provision in 1980 allowing the Catholic Church in America to ordain married Protestant priests. Haggett found that about 100 married Catholic priests in the United States had converted from other denominations. Most had been Episcopalians.
Father Thomas Rausch, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said Rome made an exception for these married Protestants because "it was seen as a way of acknowledging the ministry of those who had lived as pastors and priests and now wanted to become Roman Catholic priests, and already had families."
Haggett learned that priests were allowed to marry in some Eastern rite branches of Catholicism, all of which reported to the Vatican but had their own codes of canon law that did not require celibacy.
Haggett said she found the inconsistencies absurd: Catholic priests were required to be celibate, yet some exceptions were allowed. And if the church had a shortage of priests, why not retain those who left to marry?
Haggett quit her job and poured her life savings into the organization that became her mission: recruiting married Roman Catholic priests, enabling them to follow their spiritual callings and providing practicing Catholics with priests who could temper their counsel with real-world experience.
"Celibacy has not worked, has it?" Haggett asked. "It is really nothing but a farce. It is all about church politics."
Mandatory celibacy was imposed on the Roman Catholic priesthood in the 12th century. St. Peter, the first pope, was married. Theologians say as many as three dozen popes may have had wives.