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LIVES; The Marriage Penalty
By Liam Sullivan as told to Robert Mackey
Published: August 05, 2001
I'm originally from County Cork in Ireland. When I was 12 or 13, I made a commitment: I said I wanted to be a priest. My father worked at manual labor, and he couldn't put me through seminary or boarding school, so my education was paid for, at that early age, by the diocese of Birmingham, Ala. Of course, its goal was for me someday to become a priest for it. I went to an all-boys boarding school run by Trappist monks, where my whole focus was on my future priesthood. It was very strict back then; the monks did not have any communication with the outside world. I thought it was the ideal vocation for a very, very holy person.
I was ordained in June 1972 in Cork. I really don't remember taking the vow of celibacy. It wasn't important -- I was 23, and I had never had anything to do with any women. That August, I left for Alabama. It's hard to even describe what a shock it was when I arrived there.
It was not only simple things like the weather and the food. I met divorced people for the first time, and people who were practicing birth control. I was told at the seminary that those things were sinful. But after I got to know these people, I had to say, What's going on here? These people are as good as I am, probably even better. As far as I was concerned, the more I got to know them, the closer I became to God.
I had to re-educate myself to meet their pastoral needs and to try to love them as I found in the Bible, the way Jesus did. But I realized how out of touch I was: they were married people, people who had family problems, and all I had for them was a textbook answer. And so I began to question a lot of things that you weren't supposed to question. Eventually I began to question this idea of living a celibate life.
I needed the support of a human being who would understand me and love me as I believed God loved me, and love me not as a priest but also as a human being, just me. So I took a leave of absence after my 25th year to see if this was really what I wanted, and I came to the realization that I had to step outside the Catholic Church. I wanted to be loved as Liam Sullivan, not as Father Sullivan. I wanted to know what it is to be normal, not to be held on a pedestal, to be treated as a normal human being with strengths and weaknesses. It was the most painful decision I ever made. I was 50, and I had never known anything but the priesthood. All my education, my background and my social life were centered around it.
I had known Karen, a parishioner, for years. After I took my leave of absence, she went through a divorce, and through her trials and tribulations, we got closer. We did a lot of talking, and actually we did a lot of praying together. I finally decided that I wanted to marry her. Of course, I couldn't marry her as a Catholic priest. But I also wondered, Would this be what she wanted? To marry a former priest, who had no means of financial support? She didn't want to make a mistake, and I didn't want to make a mistake. So we dated for about a year.
Then two years ago, I found out that the church does allow certain exceptions to the vow of celibacy -- for married ministers from other religions who have converted, among others. I decided that if they could be allowed to have a wife, I should as well. And so a year and a half ago, Karen and I were wed. After that, the diocese cut off my financial support, and the bishop sent me a letter telling me that I should divorce. He said that my marriage was not recognized by the Catholic Church and that I was living in sin and that I was a scandal. I didn't take it personally -- I knew he had to say that -- but it hurt to be condemned.