ST. PETERSBURG — When Pope Francis raised the possibility of married priests earlier this month, it naturally raised a question for some men.
What might have been?
Consider Patrick J. Clarke.
He had been a well-liked priest at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor in 1996, when someone sent a copy of his marriage certificate to then-Bishop Robert N. Lynch. Clarke, it turned out, had been secretly married for 15 years. Lynch gave him a choice: leave the marriage or leave the priesthood. Clarke chose to stay with his wife.
Now 73, Clarke sounds like a man with no regrets. "I am happily married and am grateful for my experience both as a priest and husband, father and grandfather," he said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "I think the church would benefit from married clergy, but that is a decision for the Vatican."
Lionel Roberts, 91, had been a monk for 14 years in Trinidad when he sought and received dispensation from his vows. He had met Merlene, the woman he would marry, and they went on to have two sons and six grandchildren. Along the way, he was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1977 and now is assigned to Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.
Had the church's rules been different, he said, "I would have become a priest."
The pope's recent comments have people talking once again about the role of priests and the nature of their commitment. In an interview with a German newspaper, Francis said the church should "give thought" to the possibility of allowing married viri probati (men of proven virtue) to become priests, but made clear he would not open the priesthood to all married men.
"We then also need to determine which tasks they could take on, such as in isolated areas, for example," he said.
Merlene Roberts doesn't believe the dual roles of family man and priest are compatible.
"I don't see how one could perform both. They are both demanding," she said, adding that she would have supported her husband had the church permitted married priests.
Not all parts of the Catholic Church are the same when it comes to priests and marriage, said William Ditewig, who has a doctorate in theology and teaches at the University of South Florida and at several Catholic universities.
"We have always had married priests in the Catholic Church," he said, mentioning the centuries-old practice in Eastern churches, which include Maronite, Ukrainian and Melkite Catholics.
Ditewig also spoke of the special provision that allows married Episcopal and Lutheran priests who have converted to become priests in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Rev. John B. Lipscomb, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, is a convert. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2009 and now is based at the Bethany Center, the Diocese of St. Petersburg's retreat and conference facility in Lutz. Lipscomb, 66, and his wife, Marcie, have two children and grandchildren.
Bishop Gregory Parkes, newly installed head of the diocese — which spans Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties — has known Lipscomb for several years. "He is well respected as a priest and accepted by his brother priests," Parkes said.
The pope's comments about married priests need to be understood in the proper context, Parkes said.
"The Holy Father is speaking about areas of the world and even areas of the United States that are experiencing severe shortages of priests," he said.
The St. Petersburg Diocese — which has 340 priests for its more than 450,000 Catholics — is doing "very well," Parkes said.
"Over the last four years," he said, "we've ordained 15 new priests, which is a good number. We will ordain one new priest this year and next year, three. We have 24 men from this diocese in seminary. And we are looking at accepting anywhere between five to 10 to begin studying next year," Parkes said.
Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, noted that the shortage of priests has always been acute in Latin America and now is affecting the church's efforts to serve the Hispanic community in the United States.
"When the Irish came, the Polish came, the Italians came, they brought priests with them. In Mexico, they have no spare priests to send to the United States to help out," Reese said.
He added that a survey of college men indicated that more would be interested in the priesthood if they could also get married.
The requirement of celibacy for the priesthood is an obvious obstacle.
"We consider celibacy to be a gift that we freely ask for when we are ordained," Parkes said, "because we give ourselves to all of God's people, with an undivided heart."
Still, it's a rule that can be changed.
"The pope has universal power and authority in the church, so he could change that, since it is an assumed discipline," the bishop said. "Knowing Pope Francis, he would want to study the issues. He's a very collaborative pope, so I think he would want to consult with others before making such a major decision."
Reese, author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, agreed.
"Technically, the pope could just change this tomorrow," he said. "It's a law. It's not dogma. For the first 1,000 years of the church, we had a married clergy. For the past 1,000 years, we have had this law of celibacy."
Reese said allowing priests to marry would alleviate the shortage. "If you look at the Protestant churches, there is no problem with vocations," he said.
"I think there would be lots of people who would want to be priests if they were allowed to get married. One of the things is that parishes would have to pay them more, to support the wife, the kids. He's going to want to put his children through college."
The church's married deacons, often referred to as permanent deacons, could be a ready source to help replenish the dwindling ranks of priests, Reese said.
Ditewig, who was ordained a deacon 27 years ago and serves at Our Lady of the Rosary in Land O'Lakes, disagrees.
"The vast majority of us realize that this is a distinct vocation," he said of deacons, whose work includes assisting at Mass, serving in prison ministries and as chaplains.
"We didn't become deacons because we couldn't become priests," Ditewig said.
Ditewig, 67, who studied to be a priest, is a retired U.S. Navy officer who has four children and 14 grandchildren. He said it would be "an excellent idea" to open up all of Catholic priesthood to married men.
Parkes has concerns about the additional responsibilities they could face.
"I see the demands of married couples and families that I serve and it would be difficult for me to imagine having the demands of marriage and family life, in addition to the demands of my ministry as a priest and a bishop," he said.
According to the Catholic News Service, the issue has been discussed before by bishops and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. Reese said Pope Paul VI brought it up too.
"I would not be surprised if Pope Francis raised the issue at the next synod of bishops, which will take place in October of 2018," he said. "That may be a topic then. But who knows?"
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.