"I'm excited about Pope Francis. I think he's figured it out. I think he removes barriers [of issues other than loving your neighbor] for people to relate to him."
-- Gene Ragghianti
"I think [the Catholic Church will] have married priests before we have ordained women. I would recommend it. Being married has nothing to do with [the priesthood]. But the wife of a married priest has to have a vocation. With a pastor in his ministry, a parish comes before his family, and that could be hairy."
-- Gene Ragghianti
Gene Ragghianti didn't know what to expect in a seminary high school, but he certainly didn't predict hazing by toilet swirly, Swiss cheese newspapers (with the suggestive stories excised) and an obscenity-spewing priest/teacher.
"I thought it would be sedate," the Chattanooga resident says of his decision to attend -- at age 13 -- St. Charles College in Catonsville, Md. "I thought every waking moment would be solemn. I found, heck, it was like any other high school."
But the experiences Ragghianti had in three seminaries over the next 10 years -- plus another seven years as a priest -- would form the backbone of his life.
"It's who I am today," he says. "It's informed my world vision."
Then Ragghianti -- pronounced ra-JHAN-ti --did the unthinkable, at least in Catholic annals. He left the priesthood to marry.
Since then, in a post-clergy career first as a parole officer and later as a hospital executive, he has been asked about his seminary days and begged to repeat his favorite stories about the not-so-sedate, not-so-solemn life in religious schools. Now retired, Ragghianti, 72, has gathered those stories in an electronic book, "Clerical Secrets: What Really Happens Behind the Walls of a Catholic Seminary and Parish Rectory?"
Its goal, he says, is to show that "priests are just human -- in their background, in their human experience."
"Many, if not most, are no holier than their flocks," Ragghianti says, "their paths to spirituality no different."
Plus, he says, the book might allow readers to "learn something about the Catholic Church, but it's not an attempt to be theology."
PRIEST IN TRAINING
Raised in Memphis as the oldest of five children, Ragghianti says he didn't feel pressure to become a priest, but his bedroom altar, the early Masses where he served his brothers and sisters with Necco candy wafers, and his service as an altar boy made it a strong possibility. At the end of his eighth-grade year, his pastor also thought the priesthood might be a calling for him. So off he went to seminary.
"I spent a lot of time at liturgies," he says. "I knew the priests. Did I know what I was doing? Probably not. Did I know what to expect? Probably not."
Seminaries, Ragghianti says, exist to teach their students theology and to help them develop spiritually. And while they did those things for him, they also provided him with the experiences that give the book its flavor. Such as:
• The seminary performs the plays "My Fair Lady" ("My Fair Laddie") and "Camelot" without women.
• The seminarian who, having his shower towel stolen, tried to dash naked to his room. Caught hiding at a desk by a priest, he pulled a drawer completely out and used it to cover his nakedness, only to have the priest comment, "Interesting frame," because the drawer had no bottom.
• "The Great Regurgitation," when nearly every seminarian needed the far-too-few restrooms following an E. coli-ridden batch of chicken chow mein.
PRIEST IN REALITY
Following his graduation from St. Charles College in Catonsville and St. Mary's Seminary-Paca Street and St. Mary's Seminary-Roland Park, both in Baltimore, Ragghianti was ordained as a priest and appointed as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Chattanooga in 1967. While there, he also was assigned as a teacher at Notre Dame High School, although he'd had exactly zero education classes during his seminary training.
"I was a rug for the first two years," Ragghianti says. "But after that I enjoyed teaching, maybe more than anything else."
During his tenure at OLPH, the young priest met the woman who would later become his wife at a small home Mass gathering. Even prior to meeting the former Ginny Stone, he says, he suspected it was not his vocation to be celibate, which is mandated for priests in the Catholic Church.
"Over time," Ragghianti says, "we fell in love, which created a crisis."
They struggled with their relationship for a year and a half, he says, and when he brought the situation to his senior pastor at OLPH, Monsignor -- and later Bishop -- James Niedergeses, the pastor cried and asked if he'd done anything wrong.
"The only thing you've done," he says he told the older priest, who later headed the Diocese of Nashville, "was show me what a priest could be. I couldn't live up to it."
Eventually, he was given a leave of absence to return to his home in Memphis and ponder his future. Things didn't improve when he talked to the Memphis priest who recommended him for seminary. He "got incredibly upset," Ragghianti recalls.
He understands the anger, he says, because the church "had invested a lot of time and effort" in his education.
"It was a very painful thing," Ginny Ragghianti, 63, says. "We prayed a lot. But we felt [our relationship] was a calling, and we were being guided by the Holy Spirit. We just had to discern what to do through prayer."
Eventually, she says, she moved to Memphis and got a job teaching in a parochial school.
Ragghianti's official request to leave the priesthood was at first denied and then, with the help of Niedergeses, who personally appealed to the Vatican in Rome, he was allowed to leave.
Ginny Ragghianti says her parents weren't too happy, either, about the whole situation.
"My father was quite upset and wouldn't give me away," the Notre Dame High School graduate says. "My mother was not all that happy, either, but she supported me. She told [Gene] to treat me well or else."
The Ragghiantis were married by one of his seminary classmates in December 1974 and eventually had two sons and a daughter, all of whom were baptized by Niedergeses. Now married for 39 years, they are expecting their first grandchild this year.
"It all worked out all right," he says.
After leaving the priesthood, Ragghianti says he was fortunate to get into hospital management, where his wife says he has "brought the priesthood to whatever he's done."
"He's helped many, many people from his background as a priest," she says.
In fact, even though Ragghianti was laicized as a priest -- meaning he can no longer carry out most of the functions of ordained ministry -- he can still give absolution, or absolve people from their sins in the name of Jesus Christ. During his hospital career, he was able to do that for patients from time to time, and even was able to do it for his father.
Ragghianti, his wife says, also brought "the priesthood to our children" through his actions. Each of their children is employed in jobs that serve people, he says.
The Ragghiantis continued to serve in Catholic parishes wherever they lived, then retired to Chattanooga in 2006 and are active members of St. Stephen Catholic Church in East Brainerd.
Returning to Chattanooga "has not been uncomfortable with anybody," says Ragghanti, who still teaches business courses at Chattanooga State Community College. "People have welcomed me with open arms."
Contact Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.