Thursday, April 25, 2002
Photographer: Randy Tunnell
A tallish man in a golf-style sweatshirt sits at the bar in the Crown and Anchor in downtown Monterey, patiently sipping a V.O. with ginger and lemon. Skip Sikora, a proud Polish-American and distant relative of the Pope, is talking about love and God and contradiction.
Sikora, 62, says he has been a Catholic priest since 1966. He''s also been married since 1974. A New Jersey native who has all the straighforwardness and mannerisms of the Garden State but only a faint accent, Sikora has lived for the past two years on the Peninsula, where he runs a hotel in Pacific Grove. He''s been married to the same woman for 28 years, and still loves the Roman Catholic Church that says he can''t be.
Sikora still considers himself a priest. He does not refer to himself as an "ex-priest" or a "former priest." He says there are 25,000 men in America who, like him, remain true to the church despite the fact that they have surrendered their official church status.
"If they ever let us back, I''d go," he says. "I''d go back in a minute. But it''s not going to happen in my lifetime."
By the fourth grade, Sikora knew he was put on earth to be a priest. But as a young man, he says, he knew he loved girls. Inscribed in his Catholic boys'' high school yearbook is one of his allegedly famous pick-up lines, "Yes dear, I''m going to the seminary-but not until tomorrow."
After joining the Diocese of Newark, NJ in 1966, Sikora says, he found great and deep joy working in an urban parish of 10,000 people and later in a campus ministry of curious students. But in the early ''70s, after he fell in love with his wife, Susan, he had to go.
"It was love at first sight," he says. "That''s a gift from God. You can''t turn your back on that."
During the Church''s recent troubles, many non-Catholics and Catholics alike have professed the belief that the vow of celibacy is somehow tied up with the appearance of child abuse. (Two weeks ago, Bishop Sylvester Ryan of the Diocese of Monterey disputed that claim in the Herald.) But whether or not celibacy is linked to improper sexual behavior, it is almost certainly a barrier to many men considering the priesthood.
According to information from the Official Catholic Directory, the number of seminarians in the U.S. has dropped from a high of nearly 50,000 in 1965 to 5,000 in 1997. The number of priests is sliding from a high of 60,000 in 1975 to about 45,000 in 1997.
Sikora saw this first-hand as a young priest in the early 1970s. When he was ordained in 1966, he''d come out of a seminary in northern New Jersey with 350 classmates jammed into a facility with room enough for 320.
"There was an incredible vibrancy to the place," he says.
That was before the political, social and sexual revolutions turned the country upside down. When Sikora visited the seminary again in 1972 the evidence was apparent. There were only 20 men in the program.
At the time Sikora was a priest serving a campus ministry at a technical college in Hoboken, NJ. He was away from a parish and lived on his own, and soon fell in love with the woman who would become his wife. He had to make a hard choice. He had to give up a calling he''d heard as a boy.
"It took two years to decide," he says. "The priesthood is a great life. You''re working with people at the deepest level of humanity. Everything you do is for the benefit of that person in front of you. It was the best thing you could do with your life. It was joyous. But because I fell in love with this woman, the church said I couldn''t do it anymore."
Sikora and his wife spent the rest of the ''70s in the Virgin Islands, on St. Thomas, managing hotels. After coming back to the mainland, the couple spent time in various cities as Sikora continued managing hotels. A decade ago, they moved to the Bay Area.
In 1990 Sikora was hired as the director of Corpus, a national association of married priests. He served there for two years before going back to managing hotels. Today he is involved in the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict, a network of clerics based in San Francisco.
When a priest is ordained in the Roman Catholic Church he is a priest for life, Sikora says. And though he is no longer a parish priest, Sikora still ministers. Through the White Robes, he performs weddings for couples who''ve found obstacles in the church-such as divorced Catholics who want to be married by a priest.
"Our thrust is to help people in need no matter what religion, and without putting up barriers," he says.
Sikora is often referred by Roman Catholic priests who cannot perform marriages due to church prohibitions against divorce, or to minister to people who require a priest to do something outside the bounds of what Rome would allow.
"There''s a demand for the service because the church has alienated so many people," he says. "I think there will be more of them now with this crisis the church is in."
Sikora still loves the church, but he believes the revelations about so-called pedophile priests were handled poorly, and that strict rules may have contributed to the problem.
"They [the official church] demand a lot of the people," he says. "They put incredible moral demands on people. But in official acts and in this situation-especially this situation-the moral demand wasn''t there. They destroyed all the trust people had in the church."
As he speaks, Sikora closes his eyes, puts his head down and pinches the bridge of his nose.
Some say making celibacy optional will breathe new life into the church. Sikora thinks having a clergy that''s more reflective of church members will bridge what are now credibility gaps.
"I think we need married priests," he says. "It will make the church more real to people. I think the church has to face some serious questions. The church has to face that it''s been dishonest, that people are disillusioned."
Still, his faith is unshaken. Sikora says the church has survived for 2000 years and will live to "the end of time."
"People have lost faith before, but the church is more than churchmen. The church is people. It''s you and me," he says. "It will reform itself. It will take a new form."