15Jul Elderly Jesuit explains why he resigned from priesthood

Fr Bert Thelen’s Letter of Resignation, June 2013

TO : Family, Relatives, and Friends, Colleagues and Partners in Ministry, CLC Members, Ignatian Associates, Project Mankind, Parishioners of St. John’s, St Benedict the Moor, Sacred Heart, Jesuit Classmates and Companions
FROM: Bert Thelen, S.J., June, 2013

Dearly Beloved,

May the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Peace of the Holy Spirit be with you! I am writing to tell you about what may be the most important decision of my life since entering the Jesuits. With God’s help, at the behest of my religious superiors and the patient support and wise encouragement of my CLC group and closest friends, I have decided to leave ordained Jesuit ministry and return to the lay state, the priesthood of the faithful bestowed on me by my Baptism nearly 80 years ago. I do this with confidence and humility, clarity and wonder, gratitude and hope, joy and sorrow. No bitterness, no recrimination, no guilt, no regrets.

It has been a wonderful journey, a surprising adventure, an exploration into the God Who dwells mysteriously in all of our hearts. I will always be deeply grateful to the Society of Jesus for the formation, education, companionship, and ministry it has provided, and to my family for their constant support. I can never thank God enough for the loving and loyal presence in my life of each and every one of you.

Why am I doing this? How did I reach this decision? I will try to tell you now. That is the purpose of this letter. For about 15 years now, as many of you have noticed, I have had a “Lover’s Quarrel” with the Catholic Church. I am a cradle Catholic and grew up as Catholic as anyone can, with Priests and even Bishops in our household, and 17 years of Catholic education at St. Monica’s Grade School, Milwaukee Messmer High School, and Marquette University. I took First Vows at Oshkosh in the Society of Jesus at age 25 and was ordained at Gesu Church to the priesthood ten years later in 1968. I have served the Church as a Jesuit priest in Milwaukee, Omaha, and Pine Ridge for 45 years, including 18 years on the Province Staff culminating in my being the Wisconsin Provincial for six years and attending the 34th General Congregation in Rome.

My last 14 years at Creighton and St. John’s have been the best years of my life. I have truly enjoyed and flourished serving as pastor of St. John’s. I cannot even put into words how graced and loved and supported I have been by the parishioners, parish staff, campus ministry, Ignatian Associates, and CLC members! It is you who have freed, inspired, and encouraged me to the New Life to which I am now saying a strong and joyful “Yes.” You have done this by challenging me to be my best self as a disciple of Jesus, to proclaim boldly His Gospel of Love, and to widen the horizons of my heart to embrace the One New World we are called to serve in partnership with each other and our Triune God. It is the Risen Christ Who beckons me now toward a more universal connection with the Cosmos, the infinitely large eco-system we are all part of, the abundance and vastness of what Jesus called “the Reign of God.”

Why does this “YES” to embrace the call of our cosmic inter-connectedness mean saying “NO” to ordained ministry? My answer is simple but true. All mystical traditions, as well as modern science, teach us that we humans cannot be fully ourselves without being in communion with all that exists. Lasting justice for Earth and all her inhabitants is only possible within this sacred communion of being. We need conversion – conversion from the prevailing consciousness that views reality in terms of separateness, dualism, and even hierarchy, to a new awareness of ourselves as inter-dependent partners , sharing in one Earth-Human community. In plainer words, we need to end the world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate, which puts God over Humanity, humans over the rest of the world, men over women, the ordained over the laity. As Jesus commanded so succinctly, “Don’t Lord it over anyone … serve one another in love.” As an institution, the Church is not even close to that idea; its leadership works through domination, control, and punishment. So, following my call to serve this One World requires me to stop benefiting from the privilege, security, and prestige ordination has given me. I am doing this primarily out of the necessity and consequence of my new call, but, secondarily, as a protest against the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination for women and marriage for same- sex couples.

I have become convinced that the Catholic Church will never give up its clerical privilege until and unless we priests (and bishops) willingly step down from our pedestals. Doing this would also put me in solidarity with my friend, Roy Bourgeois, my fellow Jesuit, Fr. Bill Brennan, the late Bernard Cooke, and many other men who have been “de-frocked” by the reigning hierarchy. It will also support the religious and lay women, former Catholics, and gay and lesbian couples marginalized by our church. I want to stand with and for them. I am, if you will, choosing to de-frock myself in order to serve God more faithfully, truly, and universally.

But why leave the Jesuits? Make no mistake about it: the Society of Jesus shares in and benefits from this patriarchal and clerical way of proceeding. We still regard ourselves as the shepherds and those to whom and with whom we minister as sheep. I discovered this painfully when the Society of Jesus decided against having Associate members. We are not prepared for co-membership or even, it seems at times, for collaboration, though we pay lip service to it. “Father knows best” remains the hallmark of our way of proceeding. I can no longer, in conscience, do that. But I still honor and love my fellow Jesuits who work from that model of power over. It is still where we all are as a company, a Society, a community of vowed religious in the Roman Catholic church. Leaving behind that companionship is not easy for me, but it is the right thing for me to do at this time in my life. When I went through a formal discernment process with my CLC group, one member whose brilliance and integrity I have always admired and whose love and loyalty to the Jesuits is beyond question, said of my decision, “You cannot NOT do this!” He had recognized God’s call in me.

A few other considerations may help clarify my path. The Church is in transition – actually in exile. In the Biblical tradition, the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian captivities led to great religious reforms and the creation of renewed covenants. Think of Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. I think a similar reform is happening in our Catholic faith (as well as other traditions). We have come through far-reaching, earth-shaking evolutionary changes, and a new (Universal) Church as well as a new (One) World is emerging. My decision is a baby step in that Great Emergence, a step God is asking me to take.

Consider this. Being a Lay Catholic has sometimes been caricatured as “Pray, pay, and obey.” Of course, that is a caricature, an exaggeration, a jibe. But it does point to a real problem. Recently, the hierarchical church mandated the so-called revision of the Roman Missal without consulting the People of God. It was both a foolish and a self-serving effort to increase the authority of Ordained men, damaging and even in some ways taking away the “Pray” part of “Pray, pay, and obey.” No wonder more and more Catholics are worshipping elsewhere, and some enlightened priests feel compromised in their roles. I, for one, feel that this so-called renewal , though licit, is not valid. It is not pleasing to God, and I feel compromised in trying to do it.

Now, consider this. All of this liturgical, ecclesial, and religious change is located in and strongly influenced by what both science and spirituality have revealed as happening to our world, our planet, our universe. The very earth we are rooted and grounded in, as well as the air we breathe and the water we drink, are being damaged and destroyed even beyond (some say) our capacity to survive. And, as Fr. John Surette, S.J., has so wisely observed, “Injustice for the human and destruction of Earth’s ecosystem are not two separate injustices. They are one.” Biocide is even more devastating than genocide, because it also kills future inhabitants of our precious Earth.

It is time. It is time to abandon our refusal to see that our very environment is central to the survival and well being of ALL earthlings. It is time for the Church to turn her attention from saving face to saving the earth, from saving souls to saving the planet. It is time to focus on the sacred bond that exists between us and the earth. It is time to join the Cosmic Christ in the Great Work of mending, repairing, nurturing, and protecting our evolving creation. It is time for a new vision of a universal Church whose all-inclusive justice and unconditional love, an expression of Christ consciousness and the work of the Holy Spirit, empowers ALL and can lead to a future that preserves the true right to life of all of God’s creatures. This includes future generations who will bless us for allowing them to live, evolve, and flourish. Can’t you hear them crying out, “I want to live, I want to grow, I want to be, I want to know?”

In light of all this, how can I not respond to the call both Isaiah and Jesus heard, the call of our Baptism? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and sent me to bring Good News to the oppressed.” All creation will be freed, and all people will know the freedom and glory of the Children of God. Yes, Lord, I will go. Please send me.

And that is why I am leaving Jesuit priesthood. Since first vows I have always thought and hoped and prayed that I would live and die in this least Society of Jesus. But now, something unexpected! A real surprise! I HAVE lived and died in the Society of Jesus, but, now, nearly 80, I have been raised to new life. I am born again – into a much larger world, a much newer creation. I have greatly benefited from the spiritual freedom given in and by the Society of Jesus. I feel no longer chained, limited, bound, by the shackles of a judicial, institutional, clerical, hierarchical system. As St. Paul once reminded the early Christians, “It is for freedom that you have been set free.” And as St. Peter, the first Pope, learned when he said to Jesus, “You know that I love you,” love is all about surrender and servanthood.

Thank you for your attention to this self presentation. I am grateful that you have followed me in the journey described here, and I am sorry for whatever sadness, disappointment, or hurt this may have caused you. But what I have written here is my truth, and I can’t not do it! If you want to discuss this with me, ask questions, or give me feedback, I welcome your response, either by letter, e-mail or phone.
( 402-305-2665 ). Please pray for me, as I do for all of you, the beloved of my heart and soul.

Yours in the Risen Christ, Bert Thelen

19 Responses

  1. Wanderer

    I was reading something the other day about how everything we do, think, feel, say and omit affects the entire Creation at some level – quantum. Maybe at that smallest level of existence – the very web of life – and how prayer works to undo any damage we might do. I had been thinking of Paul speaking about the entire Creation waiting in groaning for our deliverance. The birthing process of that very web of Life.

    Prayer that converts our hearts from stone to those able for feeling better/more positively, thinking better, speaking better, being silent when better needed, doing better – and better at being less neglectful of those things we should do. We are meant to be vice regeants. In unity with and caring for all – the entire Creation God makes good.

    It was very profound, beautiful, deeply Spirit filled and made so much sense to me; offering another perspective, a new view to life – spiritual life, prayer – all of it.

    Even made me wonder about the old ‘confession’. What we did, said, thought, omitted. They were moving in the right direction afterall it seemed.

    I don’t know you Bert, other than what you have written here – and thank you for writing and telling us of your ‘evolution’ – as it were. The Cosmic Christ. :-) “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend or overcome it…… ”

    I don’t see you leaving anything. Just moving house – to another part of the Body where you are more needed now.

    From the head to the Heart.

    The Heart pumps blood and life and love to every cell of the Body.

    The core, and all those on the ‘margins’ – peripheries too.

    Good luck to you and God continue to bless you richly as you have been so richly blessed. ‘Lay’ or not – I for one am very happy to call you ‘Fr.’

    Need more like you. :-) Take care.

  2. Darlene Starrs

    I picked up the phone and I talked with him and it was wonderful!

  3. Jo O'Sullivan

    I read and value everything that is written on this site – I’m deeply grateful for its existence. It’s a privilege to be allowed into other people’s hearts and minds and to have the opportunity to see the world as they see it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only way we can truly develop as our Creator wishes us to. If we reach a place of certainty, where we feel we have all the correct answers, where we don’t need to ask any more questions, then we have “left the path of wisdom”.
    So I do my best to read everything with an open mind and heart and, though I cannot agree with the viewpoints of some contributions, I totally accept and respect the writers’ rights to hold them.
    But then, sometimes I read something and my heart soars! Sometimes I find myself wanting to run up to the writer and hug him/her within an inch of their (wrong word, I know!) life as I’m yelling “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You’ve said things that my very soul feels to be true, but I haven’t had the words to convey.”
    Bert, I can’t begin to let you know how much I admire you. It goes without saying that you have great courage and integrity to “change paths” at your stage of life – (hopefully, eighty is the new sixty, and you’ll have many fruitful years on the new path!). But what makes my heart soar most of all is your total lack of bitterness/anger towards those who believe differently and the sense of freedom and joy that you exude in facing the future.
    Yet again, at a time when I’m feeling a bit helpless and hopeless about the future of Catholicism (Do I even WANT my new grandson to be raised a Catholic?), something comes at me to let me know that it IS worth hanging in there.
    From the bottom of my heart, Bert, I thank you. And I’ve no need to wish you well for your future – you’re sorted!

  4. ger gleeson

    Fr Bert, I have no doubt that you are an inspiration to so many people. Having been baptised into the Priesthood of the faithful over 80 years ago, you now believe that God is directing you to do his work, but coming from a new direction. God bless and keep you for many more fruitful years in his vineyard.

  5. Darlene Starrs

    Kevin, you are quite right to speak about quantum change….and I would add that a “quantum” change or shift in the “Body”, that being, the “Body of Christ”, even for one person like Bert Thelen, might well create a quantum shift, in the entire “Body”.

  6. Wanderer

    That they be One, as You and I, Father are One.

    I don’t believe Jesus was speaking of the Roman Catholic Church – that we all become some Borg Collective.

    This man speaks of the ‘marginalised’.

    I was with one of my brothers this morning – today, who may very well die. He is younger than I but looks about thirty years older. Alcoholism destroying him – robbing his once vital body and his spirit. Washing his body – a body he can’t even raise from the bed, to get him into hospital for some treatment that might relieve his suffering for a while longer. Hoping, praying for some light – some grace to raise again.

    Those people need to get out of their ivory towers and get their hands ‘dirty’ once in a while, really touch the suffering in the world – and they will far sooner and more fully realise how One we all truly are. Full of utter BS so much of it.

    One humanity. One race. Suffering – groaning, waiting for that day of deliverance. The first year of seminary, at least, should be spent in such work and out of books. Really and truly ‘washing feet’ and not just ‘symbolically’ – and the dirtier and smellier the better.

    I’d not let them through the door till they’d shown they could do it.

    With or without Darlene – this ‘quantum’ shift will happen.

    They’ll come, sooner, or later – but they will come. Or be left behind.

  7. Wanderer

    PS I don’t mean that to seem like an overall criticism of everything. Faith makes well and keeps me well, and with whatever sanity I have, which I am sure we can all claim the same.

    Looking too much too Rome is a waste of positive energy that might be put to better use getting on with and healing the Body of Christ. The Human Race. One at a time one day at a time. Moment by moment as able.

    And I don’t mean either that people don’t need guidance or a place of central authority – provided it has a Heart.

    Like all things in the spiritual life – seeking ‘discernment’.

    We don’t need anyone’s permission to love.

    The very life of God flowing through us – acting in and through us, and I think anything that stops that – like a blood clot in a vein, should be zapped with a huge Zapper.

    Maybe ‘sacramental’ encounters are those zappers when truly sacramental – sacred encounters – two or more gathered in, with and through Christ. Loving. I’d think and believe so though not sure how ‘theological’ that is.

    That’s as polite as I can put it for now. :)

    As we all keep saying, it ain’t rocket science and no need to make it so.

    God bless this man, and us all and all the priests and laity and everybody.

    Mother Mary you help me ponder, which drives me nuts at times, but other times helps me see wheat from chaff and remain in some sense truly sane. Ora pro nobis. :-)

  8. J. R. P.

    It was suggested to me that, under these types of circumstances, one should ask: “When did you stop praying your breviary?”

    May I commend to your notice St. Bruno’s letter to Lord Rouel, on the occasion of the Saint having heard his friend was leaving the religious life.

    May I especially point to this passage of St. Bruno: You should always be aware of the one who wrote these words: “If anyone loves the world and what is in the world — the concupiscence of the flesh, the covetousness of the eyes and pride — the love of the Father is not in him”; and these, too: “Whoever wishes to be a friend of this world becomes an enemy of God.” Is there any greater sin, any worse folly and downfall of the spirit, anything more hurtful or unfortunate, than to wish to be at war against the one whose power cannot be resisted and whose just vengeance cannot be evaded? Are we stronger than he? If, for the moment, his patient goodness moves us to repentance, will he not at last punish the offenses of those who disregard him? What is more perverse, more contrary to reason, to justice, and to nature itself, than to prefer creature to Creator, to pursue perishable goods instead of eternal ones, those of earth rather than those of heaven?

    I note with irony at how easily silly ideology (panentheism? Really?) have lead you to throw away that ministry that I, myself, have worked hard in Seminary towards, but was not privileged nor graced to attain. I stand here, aging but not quite so aged, perhaps having missed my vocation entirely, and often I weep for the lack of fulfillment of that great call: you reject that which is the deepest desire of my heart and place a veneer of nobility to it.

    Perhaps we will one day meet, and you will have pity on me. Or perhaps I will stand next to St. Thomas overlooking, and contemplate your fate.

  9. Wanderer

    “If one of you is ill he should send for the elders of the Church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again……. ”

    Would one of you good priests be able to do that vicariously – from a distance ? The light is going out in his spirit and he is giving up and has been for a time. He is afraid. But we cannot give up – where there is life there is always hope. The grace of God, the love of God is powerful and does raise to life again all the time. If it’s for him – to give him this spiritual assistance also.

    And for all those suffering on such ‘margins’ – outer darknesses, hells of addictions of all kinds. Praying for them all to raise them again – life, light in their spirits, their hearts and their lives and the lives of those they love and who love them.

  10. cathy swift

    I’m reading a book on Pilgrimage to Rome in the Middle Ages by Debra Birch at the moment and among other tidbits, it indicated that pilgrimage there flourished across Europe in the eleventh century but died away again in the later twelfth. The pendulum movement that encouraged centralisation around the turn of the millennium seemed to have reached the arc of its swing and change direction. I find that a very cheeful thought – there are few villains, just changing attitudes among the Church en masse that makes it difficult for us always to be on the same page. I hope that I’ll manage to embrace new situations with the same enthusiasm, integrity, energy and joy that Bert shows – his letter was truly inspiring and life-enhancing.

  11. Wanderer

    “I note with irony at how easily silly ideology (panentheism? Really?) have lead you to throw away that ministry that I, myself, have worked hard in Seminary towards, but was not privileged nor graced to attain. I stand here, aging but not quite so aged, perhaps having missed my vocation entirely, and often I weep for the lack of fulfillment of that great call: you reject that which is the deepest desire of my heart and place a veneer of nobility to it.
    Perhaps we will one day meet, and you will have pity on me. Or perhaps I will stand next to St. Thomas overlooking, and contemplate your fate.”

    Some might call that ‘projection’.

    A veneer of ‘noblesse’ over spiritual pride. How can he reject the deepest desire of YOUR heart ? Only you can do that.

  12. franciscan

    I also want to resign to become a dolphin in the sea…

  13. ger gleeson

    Good for you franciscan, and take some of the Hirearchy with you.

  14. Stephen Edward

    Mr. Thelan seems to have done what is logical and honest in his situation. I can’t understand why he is such an unusual case. Everyone in his situation should follow their conscience to its logical conclusion and do the same.

  15. Cyril North

    As one who left the priesthood nearly 40 years ago, disillusioned by the politics of the Vatican and the institutional church, I am glad you made this decision. I feel your journey was my journey.

  16. Kathleen

    What an inspiring address by Bert Thelan.It gives me hope about the future of catholicism and encourages me to stay with it and work for change from within. So much of what he says echoes my thoughts and feelings. I pray that many people will read and discuss these issues positively. He is an inspiration! Is this how the Holy Spirit works through us?

  17. Eddie Finnegan

    Following Pope Francis’s appointment of a Monsignor with what L’Espresso calls “a colourful and well-documented gay past” going forward as Secretary to the IOR Banking Cardinals, should we now await the next headline: “Elderly Jesuit explains why he resigned from papacy” ?
    Cherchez la main cachée de la Curie.

  18. fr john george

    A total rationalisation for most grave scandalous infidelity-God have mercy on your soul,as you approach the doorstep of eternity[Learn a perfect act of contrition asap]

  19. Linda, Derry

    ” Loyalty to the Jesuits”? No harm to anyone, but as an authentic catholic I have loyalty to no-one other than Jesus and Our Lady…and whoever doesn’t like it can lump it! Much saner attitude that immunises against being influenced by public opinion, criticism, contradiction, false accusation, attempts to control! Exclude or degrade etc :-)