A Journey of Faith, Family, and Fulfillment. Olympio D’Mello, once a happy priest, now married, speaks about his journey.
By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | August 05, 2023
Olympio D’Mello: A Journey of Faith, Family, and Fulfillment
Fr. Olympio D’Mello was once a happy priest. Today, Olympio D’Mello is a happy man, ‘spiritually whole’. I have known Oly, as he is fondly called by those who know him well, as a cheerful priest. I also know him now as a happy married man. Surprisingly, we exchange notes more on spirituality than married life!
Initially, when I heard that Fr. Olympio D’Mello had left the priesthood, I was aghast. How could he? I asked myself. Doesn’t he have a responsibility to his calling? That was 25 years ago. Later, I saw from close quarters how the Church functions, and the many scandals within. I soon realized Olympio D’Mello did the right thing by staying true to his calling—he took the high road rather than leading the flock to hell.
In recent years, the scandals in the Church, especially in India, have upset the laity. Having known Olympio D’Mello since 1982 (as his student) and having had discussions with him about the scandals, and ‘sounds of silence’ from those in the high seat, I decided to prod him for a long-distance interview which he readily agreed to.
Olympio D’Mello, now living in North Carolina, USA, with his wife Angie, speaks about what it meant to him to be a priest and the process he took to slowly walk into the world, to start anew.
“I was never unhappy as a priest”
Even before we can begin our conversation Olympio D’Mello puts on record the following: “I do not want to denigrate or dishonor the priesthood (or religious life) in any way. It is not my intention to put down and disrespect Sisters and priests, especially my wonderful priest friends, who were staunch colleagues and are now my faithful friends. I have nothing but admiration for who they are and for their unceasing dedication to fulfilling their ministry.”
Speaking about his journey, he says: “It was tough navigating the process of leaving something that I loved dearly. Throughout the 17 years of my priesthood, I was never unhappy as a priest. There were difficult times and questionable moments, of course, but they never led me to radically think of leaving the priesthood.”
Even though he wondered how he would support himself and his family financially, after leaving the priesthood, he had a ready offer. However, he was not ready for the offer! “Interestingly, after I left the Catholic priesthood, I was invited to join other non-Roman Catholic churches to serve as a priest. A Bishop in the Old Catholic Church offered to get me a teaching position in the seminary. Some of those opportunities were very attractive and financially very viable. But I think I was too dedicated to the way I lived my Catholic faith to even explore these alternatives,” reveals Olympio D’Mello.
Opening Doorz to an insight on the journey of Olympio D’Mello.
What was it that initially drew you to become a priest, and how did you envision your life at that time?
When I look back at my younger days, I see two factors that drew me to the priesthood. I came from a Catholic family. My parents were engaged in church activities and took an active role in bringing me up as a good Catholic. I accompanied them to daily Mass before school classes began. We recited the rosary every evening at home and engaged in other religious practices.
This Catholic upbringing decidedly had a powerful influence on my wanting to be a priest. The other factor was an ever-prevalent and underlying desire to be a priest. I watched how priests inspired people to live good lives where God played a vital and central role. I attended a Catholic school, St. Sebastian (Goan) High School, in Dabul, Bombay. The school principal was a Diocesan priest who saw me as a potential candidate for the priesthood and invited me to join the local Diocesan Seminary after high school. But through a slew of circumstances (ordinary and divine), I was steered to join Don Bosco, Lonavala, which led me to join the Salesians instead.
Can you share with our readers the pivotal moment or events that led to your decision to leave the priesthood?
After completing my first stint of studies in the United States, I was privileged to be invited to teach at the Salesian University in Rome. I returned to the US to complete my doctorate and was assigned to a parish and school in Canoga Park, California while studying at UCLA. I met a wonderful woman who taught at the same parochial school I was at and immediately felt a strong attraction to her.
I had met many women before, but none like this. We became acquaintances, then gradually close friends. When I realized the interest was getting serious, I was in a quandary about how to proceed. I explained the situation to my spiritual director who I met with regularly. He advised me to pray, reflect and attend a spiritual retreat.
So prayer played an integral part in you taking a decision that made you feel at peace?
Absolutely. After a year’s prayerful deliberation, lengthy discussions with my priest friends, my wife, and others, much internal wrestling, and with the guidance of my spiritual director, I decided to leave the priesthood to live with and get married to this lovely woman, who is now my wife. That was twenty-five years ago!
Were there any particular challenges or obstacles you faced during this time of discernment?
During my discernment process, many fundamental challenges rushed through my mind about marriage. There were many questions to face and navigate through before I could come to a decision. Was I “betraying” my vocation by leaving the priesthood? When we got married, where would we live? How would we support each other financially? Who would employ a 45-year-old man with no experience? What kind of a profession would I embrace since I had never held a regular job in my life? Would I want to raise a family?
One of the key areas of uncertainty was how I was going to face my Salesian fraternity, my superiors, and my peers who looked up to me for direction and example. What impact would my leaving the priesthood have on my Salesian community and the lives of the numerous ex-students I had taught? But the biggest challenge was how I was going to break the news to my mom and my family.
After you left the priesthood did you feel a sense of liberation or uncertainty?
Once I left the priesthood, many thoughts continued to race inside me. I was in a turmoil of emotions. I wondered if I had made the right decision… how would the parishioners and my friends accept the news, would my wife and I be ostracized, how many would welcome us, would I be branded as a “betrayed vocation”? Would I be happy as a married man?
Though I wrestled with uncertainty, I was always reassured by the presence and love of my wife. The transition was made easier for me because both of us continually shared our emotions, thoughts, feelings, and plans. There was a sense of liberation because I did not have to live in the shadows but could happily share my new life with everyone.
What impact did your decision to leave the priesthood have on your relationship with spirituality or your personal beliefs?
It is difficult to answer this question with a simple statement. While debating my decision, my spirituality was in flux, changing gears into a different brand. At that time, I was unsure if it was for the better or the worse. I had not paid much attention to my spirituality per se for many years, since I believed I was already in the spiritual field as a priest. As a cleric, I went through the routine spiritual practices we had to attend daily. My spirituality then morphed into a priestly one, where I believed that my sanctity consisted in serving as a priest and performing my sacerdotal obligations. I felt a connection with God and relished a healthy relationship with the people around me.
When I looked deeper into myself toward the end of my tenure as a priest, I realized I had to remodel my spirituality to adapt to my new situation. My relationship with God did not change, but I had to translate this new understanding of spirituality as a layperson. What kind of spirituality did I need to evolve into? There was a transformation in some of my personal beliefs. I had to re-evaluate the way I lived my faith and had to fine-tune certain past beliefs and practices. But the important thing I learned was that decision-making like mine was a shared responsibility, not a personal prerogative.
How has your life transformed since leaving the priesthood?
My whole life has been transformed since leaving the priesthood. My married life has brought me much happiness, peace, and stability in my life. From the very first day, my wife has been my constant support and guide. She has educated, counseled, and held my hand as I maneuvered my new way of life. She made me see the “reality” of life and how I had to flourish. Living with another person every day has helped me comprehend the struggles and joys of a life together.
My wife has taught me a deeper sense of love, caring, and tenderness. She has helped me better understand the importance and meaning of relationships, feelings, emotions, and choices. My life with her has also enriched my spirituality and my relationship with God. I feel God’s closeness in the love we share and when we pray, worship, and live our daily life together.
How do you perceive the concept of vocation now, especially in light of your journey?
I still recognize“vocation” as a call from God, specifically a call to the priesthood or married life. I once thought it was something permanent. But, today, looking at the world, society, families, and people in particular, there seems to be a shift in the whole understanding of “permanence”, from the way we understood it in the past.
As students and clerics, we were told and warned about the “betrayed vocation”, the one who failed to be a priest until death. Or, a marriage had to be for life, even if it had to be endured in heartless, detrimental, painful, and insensitive circumstances. I may be on the wrong side of the spectrum to talk about the perpetuity of a vocation. Also, it is not fair to compare the priestly vocation with the vocation of married life. However, we must admit that the Church has seen the wisdom of annulling marriages just as it has allowed priests to be laicized.
Both annulments and laicizations are based on individual circumstances. Some things can be fixed, but sometimes things reach a point of no return. There is no one common formula or fixed rule to determine and pass judgment on either vocation.
Looking back, what advice would you give to individuals who may be questioning their paths or feeling uncertain about their priesthood?
My advice to those questioning their chosen vocation is not to negate their doubts and blindly continue doing what they do. Keep an eye on those doubts and try to find out how and why they originated. Do not compare yourself with others, wondering if and in what way others handle their doubts. Spend time with supportive people and share your uncertainties with people who can counsel you with openness and honesty. Pray to God for inspiration and guidance. Above all, be open to the final resolution and mainly, follow your heart.
One of my theology professors, in response to our constant questioning, once blurted in exasperation, “The more you challenge your faith, your questions will turn you into atheists!” Even though, hopefully, it may not necessarily be true, the fact is, having doubts is natural. It is what we do with our doubts and questions that will help us in our survival in whatever chosen vocation we are in.
What, according to you should the Church do to move in a newer direction to get vocations as well as reach out to the youngsters who do not enter the church?
There are many things the Church can (and should not) do to move in a newer direction. I am not sure if one can employ the same modus operandi collectively, at the expense of questioning the “universality” of the Church when it comes to applying certain procedures.
But first, what can the Church do to attract young Catholics back to church? I can only speak of the situation of the church in the United States, where I live. We also cannot compare the church in Europe with the church in the US, though both are classified as “the West”. It is encouraging to see vigorous attendance at Mass in many parts of the US, either because of the influx of Latino immigrants or the conservative nature of certain areas. But generally, one does not see much of the younger generation attending church services.
There are local vocations to the priesthood in some US dioceses, though not as many as in India and other countries (the Philippines, parts of Africa). There, the church is still flourishing and quite a number are attracted to the priesthood and religious life. The church will have to come up with innovative ways to combat the lure of what society offers to see a rise in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. There has to be an internal analysis within the hierarchy. Outsiders may suggest and offer ideas, but self-examination can and must lead to better results.
In your view, should Nuns be involved in a more immersive role rather than serving on the sidelines?
As their numbers precipitously dwindle, the role of Sisters and Nuns is another searing topic that needs fresh and continued discussion. Again, I speak for the West. Sadly, the male-dominated Catholic hierarchy has displayed utter irrelevance in not keeping up with the times.
Today, gender equality has grabbed headlines in every sector, be it family, business, education, or even sports. We realize women play a huge role in shaping society, they are a high-value asset and are a vital part of the fabric of progress. Can women do a better job than men in many spheres? Yes, they can. Then why relegate them to a secondary status, when seriously integrating them in church administration and leadership can help the church blossom and grow?
Once more, the medieval clerical-based patriarchal mentality and the ecclesiological theology behind it hold back sensible modern decision-making.
Do you feel the Church should be open to ‘married clergy’?
In my opinion, if there is one thing (among others) the Catholic church lags far behind many Christian churches, it is the openness to a “married clergy”. (Christian) Protestant congregations and the Eastern Orthodox Church have long accepted the ordination of married men. But for the best part of a millennium, celibacy has been required of priests in the Roman Catholic tradition. There is a surprisingly positive understanding of the value of married clergy today in the Western world, even though some may think it to be imperfect or impractical.
Finally, one last question: If the Church decides to have married clergy, would you consider joining?
I was a very contented and fulfilled priest until the day I left the priesthood. I have been completely at peace with my choice and have never rued my decision. If the Catholic church changes its edict and allows a married priesthood, I will be greatly inclined to rejoin the fold of priests. I think I will be a better priest today having experienced what real life is and having shared the challenges that married people and non-clergy face. But I guess that is wishful thinking! My distress lies in the fact that the Catholic Church is still adamant about even venturing to open a discussion on the compelling subject of married clergy.
Also Read: The Catholic Church is Shielding Wolves