Ordination marks the first time a married man will be ordained a priest in diocese
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Only in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph will the ordination of Ernie Davis be unprecedented.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Valerie Davis and the soon to be ordained Ernie Davis with their children, Ian, 10, Margaret, 17, and Ernest, 14.
Under a special "pastoral provision" that the Vatican issued in 1980, some 80 married former Episcopal priests have been ordained as Roman Catholic priests across the United States.
While his ordination, scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 23 at St. Peter Parish, will mark the first time a married man will be ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the event will not be a life-altering moment for Davis' family.
"He was a priest before," said Davis' 10-year-old son, Ian. "It's not that much different for me."
"It may be novel for other people," added his wife, Valerie. "But to us, he has always been a priest."
Married priests are not unknown world-wide. Hundreds of priests in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, fully united with Rome, are allowed to be married.
Under terms of the pastoral provision for former Episcopal priests, Davis will not take a vow of celibacy. He will, however, give up much, including the Episcopal parish and people he still loves dearly at St. Michael in Independence.
"I never imagined I would be doing this," said Davis, 51. "You have to leave something behind in order to go toward something."
Davis said he is sensitive to the feelings of his friends who remain in the Episcopal Church. When he and Valerie made the decision that their family would seek communion and his ordination in the Roman Catholic Church, they did not share it for months with the people of St. Michael. When they left, they made a complete break, moving from Independence into a home not far from St. Peter Parish in Kansas City's Brookside neighborhood.
"I didn't want to do anything to hurt the congregation," he said. "I couldn't talk about it with my friends in the Episcopal Church. It wasn't their issue. It was mine."
Davis said the decision came when he and Valerie realized that they were called to be Roman Catholic.
"My whole priesthood was in a time where the Episcopal Church was shrinking," he said. "I gave myself and my ministry to turn that around, to be part of the rebuilding of the Episcopal Church. I came to realize there wasn't anything I could do."
The issue for Davis, he said, was the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the central, unshakeable, unchanging doctrine upon which it stands.
The Episcopal Church "is built on compromise," Davis said.
The Elizabethan Settlement, which formed the Church of England, was constructed to attract both Roman Catholics and Protestants so that "they could all meet in the same church on Sunday," he said.
"It had to be fuzzy in what it believed so that people wouldn't be too challenged, shocked or appalled," he said.
For many people, that works fine, he said. "You can say that it is a sign of how much trust (the Episcopal Church) has in people,"Davis said.
But for Davis, that wasn't enough.
Though he, like many Episcopalians, always considered himself to be Catholic as a member of one branch of the same faith tree, thoughts about what it truly meant to be Catholic began to haunt both him and Valerie, he said.
On vacation in August 1997, they discussed their spiritual journey as they walked along a Florida beach.
"It was one of those moments when you say, 'This is what I believe and what I practice. Why am I not a Catholic?'" Valerie said. "We looked at each other and asked the same question. The answer was obvious."
"It was clear as day for both Valerie and me," Davis said. "We were going from one place where we didn't feel we can be Catholic to another place where we can be Catholic."
Davis said he told his congregation at St. Michael that he was leaving during the following Easter season. As soon as the family settled into its new home near St. Peter, he approached then-pastor Father Jerry Waris, who arranged to receive the family into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Both Davis and his wife called that moment a continuing step on their journey of faith.
"A lot of people think that once you have settled into a denomination, your faith journey has ended," Valerie said. "But you always remain open to a deeper understanding of what God wants."
"I'm glad I didn't go on any other path," Davis said.
The Davis family entered the Roman Catholic Church with no assurances he could ever be a priest again. In their first meeting, Davis said that Bishop Raymond J. Boland promised only to begin the process that could lead to ordination.
"He told me there were no guarantees, but that he would walk with me every step of the way," he said.
Davis said he put his priesthood in God's hands. If God wanted him to continue serving as a priest, he would serve as a priest. If not, then God had other plans for him.
"You have to be able to say that you could give it all up," he said. "You have to come in with no strings attached. You have to let go."
Davis pursued a degree in public administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
"That was a fall-back position in case the option of being a Catholic priest didn't go forward," he said.
During that time, Valerie, now a theology teacher at Rockhurst High School, supported the family financially.
"God calls me to support Ernie," she said. "At times, I have needed to be a financial support."
Davis said he strongly feels the call to be a priest.
"When I first felt the call, I was Episcopalian - so, Episcopal priest," he said. "There was never any question, never any doubt. But I had never asked myself, in my heart, if I was Episcopalian. What I was, was a Catholic in the Episcopal Church."
In order to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, Davis underwent a process that included instruction, a review board examination and submission of a dossier including his life history to the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, where each case is decided individually.
Davis said he received the congregation's decision allowing his ordination on Valerie's birthday.
Davis said he is so certain of his call and so certain of the goodness of people that he is unconcerned about how Catholic lay people might react to a married priest. "I'm not worried about how people will treat me," he said. "I have found people to be very good, very warm and very accepting."
When the Vatican announced the "pastoral provision" excluding married former Episcopal clergy from the discipline of celibacy, it clearly stated that the provision "should not be understood as implying any change in the church's conviction of the value of priestly celibacy."
Davis does not want his ordination to become a flashpoint locally in any debate over celibacy. Instead, he said, he would rather be held up as an example of service to God's call.
"Catholics are so caught up in conflict over church issues - pastoral issues, the roles of lay and clergy," Davis said. "As important as those issues are, they are side issues compared to the real problems of the world."
Through its doctrine, which at the heart holds life as sacred, the Roman Catholic Church is equipped to take on and solve the world's problems, he said.
"The social justice encyclicals are such a wealth," Davis said. "It takes people of courage to say that life is absolutely sacred. You can only say that if you believe it to be absolutely true, and not something held by majority vote, subject to change."