Tuesday, April 14, 2015

what happens to the wife & children when a married Catholic priest dies?

No one knows. No one talks about it. Everyone hopes that he will pass away after all the children are out of the house and can support their mother. Or they hope that the priest's wife has a good education and career that she used during his priesthood, financially supporting the family so he could focus on ministry and then supporting the children after he passes away.  
for Romanian Catholics, the 'burial of Jesus' service on Good Friday is very similar to our funeral services for all believers. 
Last year, I took an on-line course for Eastern Catholic clergy wives. We discussed lots of issues- children in church, working outside the home, how we could support our clergy husbands, how we can improve our relationships with parishioners and more. Maybe I missed the conversation, but I believe that we passed over any sad discussion of what we would do if we lost our husbands at an early age. And what would we do? 
Clergy wives are expected to sacrifice for their clergy husbands' ministry. We had a four-month old, and I was one-month pregnant when we first moved across the country to serve our bishop. Three years later, we moved across the country again to try and salvage an ailing mission. I could expound on the fact that it is very very difficult for me, an extreme INFP, to form relationships quickly and to deal with change, but being the 'trailing spouse' was also murder on my teaching career. 
After Europe, I taught in Oregon for two years. Then I taught in Ohio for two years, and then after we moved again I was forced to commute an hour one way four evenings a week for my first teaching position here in California. I even drove that hour one way commute to give my students their midterm exam when I knew that I would have to go into the hospital the next day to labor with our deceased twenty week son. I made that commute for two years before I could get a better position closer to home. And I am lucky to teach four evenings a week. My career has not progressed, however, because it is disjointed after following my clergy husband around the country and I work part-time to accommodate homeschooling our children. But I do have education and a part-time career to support my family alone if need be, God forbid. 
A little over a month ago, an Orthodox priest was killed in a car accident. Fr Matthew Baker was also a husband and father to six children. I would love everyone to be Catholic- Western or Eastern, but I was relieved he was Orthodox. I knew that financially his family would be okay (not great- not to compensate the loss of their father, but they would survive financially).  In a month, over $735,000 was raised for his stay-at-home wife and his young children. And with his jurisdiction being a large one- Greek Orthodox- I assume that there is severance (again- any amount of money will not compensate their emotional loss) from their archeparchy as well. I do not begrudge her a penny of this after the tragic death of her beloved husband. 
I'm just jealous because there is no plan for Catholic clergy wives. If my husband does not receive anything now, why would I receive anything if he died? Now, we have a small retirement fund through his hospital, and I have a Master's degree and work part-time. I could put the children in public school so I could work more. We could sell our townhouse and move in with my parents. Of course, that would entail moving across the country again and losing my 'place in line' with the college. But we would probably survive financially with no help from the church. It is right that the church allows married clergy with nothing put in place to help them when the clergyman passes away? I suppose this is yet another argument against married clergy, so we keep quiet about the problem. 
Anecdotally, I have learned of clergy families who are left with nothing- no retirement fund, no housing, and really no parish community. In Romania and the United States, the clergy family is so wrapped up in the image of having the priest-husband-father there, there is nothing left when he is gone. The wife leaves the clergy house as quickly as she can (a new priest is coming!), and her family moves in with the closest relative. A few parishioners remember her and send her some of the foodstuffs their farm is producing. But she cannot attend services at her priest-husband's parish. It is too sad, and the new clergy family would feel like she is trying to undermine the new ministry. In Romania, there are other Byzantine Catholic parishes to attend, but in the States, Eastern churches are few. So the family ceases attending Byzantine services. At best, the family becomes Roman-rite Catholic, forsaking the traditions that once were so important to their family culture.
And this reality is what I fear for my family: losing our priest-husband-father at an early age. My greatest dream is to be wrinkled and grey with him, still preaching and singing and making Easter bread and praying that more than twenty people come to church. My wildest dream is that our son would be ordained and he could take over our mission (funny- my dreams do not extend to the crazy notion that we would actually be able to build an actual parish in the wild West). Then, we could be wrinkled and ancient and semi-retired, a Catholic priest never completely retiring. 
The motto of our bishop and of this blog is 'Fear Not Little Flock'- and I suppose that will be what I will say to my children if the worst happened. So why do we live this life? We know that it cannot end well. Like any happy marriage, it will end- somehow- in tears. But we clergy wives try to act bravely and live the life, knowing that it could end in poverty and loneliness. We clergy wives chose martyrdom, even if we did not realize that was the life we signed up for when our husbands were ordained...
"Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal. " (C.S. Lewis in film Shadowlands)
I would love to revise this blog post with your stories of clergy families being taken care of by their church- through their bishop and the people. I have not heard of this happening...

24 comments:

  1. The pastor at our Eastern Catholic church has a wife and two daughters. I'm certainly not aware of any insurance carried by the Eparchy for his family, and it amazes me that they can get by with so little (our parish is so small that we are constantly behind the curve for collections vs parish expenses); his salary is tens of thousands of dollars in arrears, and the situation seems to be getting no better.

    I wish I knew what I could do, besides contributing more of my time, talent and treasure - which I try to do - but unless I win the lottery, I can't carry the whole parish by myself, and it would be bad for the parish if I tried to do so.

    We Eastern Catholics better decide whether we're willing to pay the price to keep our traditions, and part of that price is to recognize that the provision for the welfare of the families of our priests has got to be one of our highest priorities.

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  2. We have the same problem with married deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. It seems that after serving the church for many years, and the deacon dies, the wife (children are usually grown up) is left to take care of herself. As far as I know, there is no funds to assist the wife with daily living. I read a document from Rome that did say that bishops should take care of spouses of deceased deacons, but I think it has been ignored. I pray that this will change sooner than later. We're all getting very old!

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    1. I think a solution would be life insurance required by the bishop. We tried to get life insurance twice through the Knights of Columbus (when we were 15 years younger...so easier to insure)- twice, the K of C agent didn't come to appointments, so we never got it. We have nothing except a very small amount from the hospital....I suppose it is a good thing that we have only 4 children....

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    2. haha.. "only 4 chidlren".
      I would try again with the Knights. They have special clergy discounts. My only life insurance is through them..and one of my husbands. We dont have huge amounts or anything but enough that I could care for my 4 children without thought for long enough for me to compose myself and find a career.
      I have seen the Knights show up on the doorstep of a recent widow and help her with yard work, help her with funeral arrangements or other stressful situations. The whole reason they started was to help widows and I have seen them do it. The Knights in my Eparchy even send donations to help with seminary formation and expenses!

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    3. Have you contacted the Greek Catholic Union? http://www.gcuusa.com/

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  3. We have three levels of life insurance for this exact reason.
    When I went to my first clergy wives retreat there was a widow who had lost her priest husband when her oldest was 14. I cried as she told me about how they kicked her out of the parish home and she had nowhere to go. She told me that we had to take care of ourselves. That we couldn't rely on bishops or parishioners to help us.
    I went home and got more life insurance and have since discovered the OUR Bishop has life insurance for his priests (but Im not sure how much)

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    1. ...so is the bishop the beneficiary of the life insurance- like some big businesses have- because if he loses a priest- he loses an 'asset'? .....

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    2. No. It's like the life insurance you would get through an employer. The eparchy pays in some and some comes off the paycheck. It goes to the family or designated beneficiary.

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    3. you Canadians are organized... ;)

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    4. I can't speak for other provinces..we have five different Bishops in Canada so it's not the same in every Eparchy.

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  4. Well.....sad situation indeed. When I was a priest our Archdiocese (Orthodox) required the parish to contribute to an insurance fund held by the Archbishop....great if all went well with your priesthood...you would get this as a pension. BUT...if for any reason you left the priesthood (mine was a divorce)...guess who keeps the 'life insurance'? That's right...the Archbishop. As far as being taken care of by the Orthodox....do not hold your breath....it seldom happens....even when the priest dies young or old. My truth. My experience.

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    1. Anonymous....I'm sorry for your situation

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  5. You hit on a hot issue. Part of the problem is that we don't pay priests a living wage. No married man can expect to support a family on $1,700 per month. All the talk about social justice issues and wage issues coming from the Rome and Pope Francis and yet many of his priests would qualify for food stamps.

    Hand in hand with that is that catholics do not contribute adequate financial support to their parish. The number of people giving $5 or $10 per week amazes me. And yet, many of these people go out to breakfast every Sunday after the Divine Liturgy. So, until catholics start to contribute adequate support to their parish, we will always have this issue.



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    1. I think it begins with monastics who take a vow of poverty- but then- most don't live with nothing, they live in common. So, many people believe that all clergy should also take a vow of poverty and live on air. The one time we lived in clergy housing, there was black mold. many parishioners knew there was mold- but they thought we should just live with it. So we did- until I got sick. I still deal with the consequences of that mold today.....it makes one wonder if parishioners even believe in what the priest can do.

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    2. The average Roman Catholic priest is paid about $33k, plus room and board, car allowance, etc. This is more than many parishoners with children earn. Roman Catholic priests don't marry because they are married to the Church. This seems pretty sensical when you look at how awkward it is to have a priest who also has a family, and all of their expenses become the expenses of the Church. I think Simcha Fisher had a post about how if RC priests married, parishoners would judge small families as being the result of birth control and begrudge large families their room and board. (Etc. "Why should I give money to the Church when we are wearing hand-me-downs and have no activities but the priest's kids are wearing Gap and in ten sports?" (Doesn't matter if the money comes from the wife/her family/they're just good at getting deals--it's a scandal if they live well! A scandal if they don't!))

      Any married priests and their families sound like they really need solid life insurance. It also sounds like the wives ought not to SAHM full time or for too long.

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  6. Just another thought..about clergy wives. I think it's really important to create community among ourselves. I can see how being the only clergy wife in town can be isolating but with the connection abilities we have through the internet it is possible to form true and lasting friendships. These friendship will help us to weather the storms of inconsiderate parishioners, Bishops or even distant husbands. Other women who understand the sacrifice and can empathize with your situation. I have some close clergy wives friends. Some more mentors but others, my age, that I hope to stay in close contact with as we get moved around the world. If my fellow wife were to find herself in such a horrible situation as to loose her husband, a community of wives can get together and support in a way that no one else can. We do not have be alone in this.

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    1. This is another problem with losing generations of married clergy! I believe that a lot of clergy wives (we are really busy anyway) try to stay 'under the radar' to not make any troubles- so - no community

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  7. I admit I never thought about this. It is so very sad. I don’t see why insurance couldn’t be done through the bishop. And I would say the same for deacons. Would it really be so expensive it would be impossible? Why not do that?

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    1. In my opinion, the bishops should ensure that deacons and priests have life insurance. It is such a scandal to not take care of those ministers of the sacraments!

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  8. I'm not a priest's wife, but our situation is not much different from yours. My husband is self-employed, I'm a SAHM, and we have seven children. I help my husband with his work, but I am not a paid employee. We have very little savings (some years we have none). We are in our 50's and have no retirement plan except work until death. We recently purchased life insurance on my husband with Knights of Columbus, but it is not a big policy since we only can afford a small monthly premium. It is probably enough to cover funeral expenses. I have no idea how I and our remaining children at home would manage if my husband died. I try not to think about it. I come from a large family and have siblings who I know would come to my help, but they also have large families and limited resources. I used to worry and have occasional panic attacks when I was a young mother (especially those times when my husband would be gone a lot longer than usual and my morbid imagination would take over). But I've come to firmly believe that it is all in God's hands as everything is. There are many things I could worry about (and have) - what would my husband do if I had breast cancer (as some of my friends). How would he work and care for the children? How would he school them and work? How the heck would we pay for treatment? I try to think of my anxiety and worries as a suffering that I can offer up like physical pain. St. Joseph has taken care of us for 28 years in our counter-cultural marriage and I continue to rely on his guidance.

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    1. Kate- I hear you about anxiety! It is better now that we have cell phones- early in our marriage with the 3 year old and 2 year old, my husband would drive alone from Canton, Ohio to St Paul- to finish his Masters degree once a month- no cell phone and a thousand mile drive....

      I guess it is time to make another appointment with K of C (my husband is 4th degree and the faithful friar for 2 councils....)

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  9. Wow. This is scandalous. And I'm especially incensed at what you say about the clergy wife having to leave the parish and find a new one. To be bereft of husband and father and spiritual home in one fell swoop-- how devastating for a family!

    Sadly, I can well believe it, though. I know from experience, my husband being a Church employee for most of our married life, that the Latin Church is terrible at providing benefits, at paying a living wage to married employees, at providing severance packages when people are fired. Instead of being a leader, setting an example of how to care for employees, the Church follows the worst practices of the secular business world and often trails even behind that.

    Of course what anonymous says above is also quite true, most Catholics don't support their parishes or their clergy. It's a bad scene all around. But at least we have provisions in place to care for elderly and retired priests. We should never abandon our own.

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    1. Yes, having to leave the parish is very rough. My husband, though not a priest, has always been a full-time parish employee. He was laid off from his job-before-last for financial reasons, and this resulted in us having to leave the parish. We had moved to that state just for him to take that job and really had no local friends or support system outside of the parish. I had a part-time job then, but never told my boss that my husband had been laid off until he had a new job - it was the kind of place where my hours and responsibilities would have been cut if they knew my husband was looking at new jobs out of state. So we had to suffer in silence, and it was pretty awful. The only fortunate part was that my husband found a new job within a few months, so I can't even imagine what that would be like in the situation of a death. Ultimately, we have ended up moving nearer to family, and that has really been a huge help.

      I agree that life insurance is critical. We have insurance just through our home/auto insurance company, Liberty Mutual, and as it is term life insurance, it is pretty inexpensive. It would not be enough for us to live on forever in the event of myself or my husband passing away, but it would certainly give us a few years to get things sorted out.

      I also think it is really important for any stay-at-home parent to become involved with something that could help them be marketable if they needed to begin working again. Whether that is taking online classes, doing some freelance work, or volunteering - just something to try to keep them a little more versatile. I know this doesn't solve every issue, but it would go some way toward improving the situation if a spouse passed away.

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  10. I urge you to check out the Knights of Columbus. Your husband is eligible to join even though he's Eastern Catholic. This is the very purpose for which they were founded, to protect families. He can be an insurance member with no obligation to attend meetings on the fraternal side of the organization. You can be assured they will never invest in anything that conflicts with our Catholic faith.

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