Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, whose 2001 marriage caused an international scandal within the Roman Catholic Church, set out on a new mission Wednesday to override church rules and let married priests continue their ministries.
The Zambian archbishop said he was championing the cause of married priests even before his marriage, but his new goal is to end the church’s celibacy rule.
“I feel it is time for the church to reconcile with married priests,” Milingo said. Now, he said, they push them aside.
At a news conference, he appealed to priests punished for marrying to “come out of their Catholic prisons and be reinstated, taking once more their pastoral responsibility among the married priests.”
“To those priests who may feel that by marrying they have stepped down or fallen short, unleash your burden of humiliation, exclusivity and shame. Come among your fellow `sinners,’ so considered, who were to be branded, and to be forgotten forever as weaklings.”
Milingo renounced his marriage and returned to the church in August 2001, four months after he and South Korean acupuncturist Maria Sung were united in a mass wedding presided over by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church.
“It was wrong,” Milingo said of the marriage after spending a year in seclusion in Argentina. The late Pope John Paul II personally intervened to persuade Milingo to step away from the marriage.
The prelate credited with bringing Milingo back to the fold, Monsignor Tarcisio Bertone, was chief assistant to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Vatican. Ratzinger now is Pope Benedict XVI, elected to head the church last year after the death of Pope John Paul II.
Milingo, 76, appears now to be back with his wife, although he said Monday, “This is irrelevant.”
What is important, he said, is that the church stop making priests suffer for falling in love. “Some of them have been driven to become almost mental cases,” he said in a telephone interview.
The archbishop said he is not leaving the church but wants to change it.
“My position is very clear in my understanding of my ordination by the church. Once a priest, always a priest,” Milingo said. “Even though a priest can renounce his vows and be defrocked by the church, the church avows that he always remains a priest.”
A priest who is married is not allowed to perform priestly duties such as hearing confessions or administering sacraments.
He estimated that 150,000 priests are in that position around the world – about 20,000 in the United States – and said half would be willing to return to active ministry if invited.
His host in Washington, Archbishop George Augustus Stallings Jr., said, “I excommunicated myself from the church” in 1989 when he married and set up his own church, Imani Temple. He likened Milingo’s situation with that of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a French cleric who broke with Pope Paul VI over modernization of the church and was suspended in 1976 after he ordained priests. John Paul excommunicated him for ordaining bishops.