Two Fathers, who happen to be father and son, are making history in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
This month, Greg Rapisarda, 62, will be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, joining his youngest son, the Rev. John Rapisarda, 32, in the brotherhood.
It's a situation unprecedented in the 221-year history of Baltimore's archdiocese. "We can find no records to indicate that a father and son have served as ordained priests," says archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine.
The fact that this is even possible will come as a surprise to many, since a priest's vows of celibacy would seem to preclude his having a family. Turns out, the church accepts older aspirants and widowers into the priesthood—it just rarely happens. (Only 11 priests over age 65 will be ordained nationwide in 2010.)
Though he's been a lawyer since the early '70s, soon-to-be Father Greg, a slightly-built widower who now resides at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park, says the change of profession isn't as much of a leap as one would think. A large part of his private law practice involved working with the elderly, who are often in transition: moving into assisted living facilities, making end-of-life plans, drafting living wills. "We'd discuss what they could expect. A lot of ministry went on," he says.
He and his late wife, Carol, raised four children in Bel Air. The church was an integral part of life in the Rapisarda home with Bible passages frequently used to launch family dinner conversations and Sunday reserved for family time, despite the occasional protest from the kids.
It obviously had an impact. "I had a friend who told me his parents 'imposed' first communion on him," says his son, Father John, who was ordained in 2008. "I asked him if his parents also imposed school or healthy eating? My parents weren't 'imposing,' they were parenting," he explains.
For Father John, the decision to become a priest was seamless. As an undergraduate at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH, he says, "I started asking questions about what the rest of my life would look like." He says he was acquainted with so many "joyful priests" that the decision was easy. He knew from observing his own father "what being a Dad was," he says, "and God put it in my heart to be a spiritual Father." He completed his studies at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg and served for a time as a Carmelite friar in Ohio before coming to Baltimore, where he is administrator of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Middle River.
"When John became a priest," says Greg, "I told everybody I had to get used to calling my son Father."
The elder Rapisarda's own route to the priesthood was more circuitous. In 2003, he made a solemn commitment to the church, becoming an ordained deacon. In the Catholic Church, diaconal duties call for a vow of celibacy, which a married deacon embraces upon the death of his wife.
"My mother was 100 percent supportive of my father's decision to become a deacon," recalls Rapisarda's oldest son, Greg, an associate at the Baltimore law firm Saul Ewing. "The church won't accept anything less."
Carol Rapisarda was diagnosed with lung cancer in April of 2004, and died about 20 months later. "My mother's death hurt Dad in ways I can't even imagine," says Greg. "But he was a rock. He was there for all of us throughout it."
His family has embraced his change of profession. "My father's decision to go into the priesthood is a joyous thing," Greg says. "Dad's always been a server. Now he'll be serving society through the church. So, in that sense, it isn't much of a surprise."
Though recent sexual abuse scandals have tarnished the Catholic Church's image, the Rapisardas remain committed to their faith. "The church takes a position of healing those who have been profoundly affected" by abuse at the hand of a minority of priests, says Greg. And Father John says the scandals have actually spurred him to "redouble" his dedication to his work. "My first year in the seminary was both 9/11 and the [sexual abuse] crisis in Boston," he says. "[My classmates and I] prayed for the Lord to give us the strength to go and heal what was broken."
It will be an important summer for the family, with the elder Rapisarda's ordination this month and the marriage of his youngest daughter, Joanna, in September at St. Margaret's Church in Bel Air, the family parish. On that day, Greg, newly a priest, will walk his daughter down the aisle and then share ceremonial duties with his son, Father John, who will be officiating the mass. Greg plans to perform the vows, during which, for the first time, he will fully inhabit his dual roles—as a father in the earthly and ecumenical sense.