Former Catholic priest finds new meaning in family

Ricardo Xavier-Zatwon Bailey wanted to marry and raise a family.

Not so unusual, you’d think.

There was one thing, however, standing in Bailey’s way.

He was a Roman Catholic priest who had taken a vow of celibacy.

Roughly two years ago, Bailey, 39, left the priesthood and the Catholic Church. He wed his high school sweetheart, Marica, and they now live in Canton, where they are raising three daughters and a pit bull named Vick.

This story doesn’t end here.

Bailey, a cradle Catholic, was recently received as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

“I’m still on Cloud 99,” said an exuberant Bailey, who teaches New Testament studies and is a chaplain at Westminster Schools in Atlanta. Bailey will also join the staff at the Cathedral of St. Philip, where he will work with the Spanish-language ministry.

“The priesthood is a means to serve God,” he said. “A priest is a priest. This is the basic theology of the Christian church. No priesthood is better or more valid than the other.”

Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta has visited Bailey in the classroom.

“He has an infectious sort of authenticity that I think is exactly what is missing in so many of our churches now,” Wright said. “He is Ricardo. He is Father Bailey. They get him, and he gets them.”

In too many cases churches have become like “museums of what God used to do,” Wright said. “Young people are saying in their voices and in their absence, ‘What is God doing now, and is that stuff really real?’ ”

It’s always been real to Bailey.

The Rev. Frank Giusta gave Bailey his first Communion.

He remembers Bailey as an elementary school student at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, attending Saturday Mass with his mother, Elizabeth, an African Methodist Episcopal convert. Every once in a while, she had to work extra hours and couldn’t make it. Bailey would take two buses to get to Our Lady of Lourdes. “He never missed a Mass,” Giusta said. “Never. Never. Never.”

There, Bailey sat wholly absorbed in Mass, but on Sundays he was glued to the television where he watched Protestant preachers and imitated their actions.

Bailey became your typical teen, interested in girls and hanging out with his buddies from Shamrock High School in DeKalb County. Still, one day the idea of being a priest stayed in the back of his mind.

In 1988, Pope John Paul II named Eugene Marino as Atlanta’s archbishop, the first African-American so named. Bailey was in the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center when Marino was installed. The large number of African-American priests and nuns in attendance surprised him.

Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so far-fetched he could one day wear the vestments.

“I felt that God was calling me to ministry,” Bailey said. “The Catholic Church was the only church I had fundamentally known, worshipped and loved in. It was natural to progress to that.”

While he attended Xavier University in New Orleans, he and Giusta kept in touch. Later, Giusta traveled with him to St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore. “It was very interesting,” Giusta said. “When he came back to Atlanta, he was obviously very different than before. He matured in his way of thinking about religion. It was getting much better. Much deeper.”

Bailey returned home and in June 2003 was ordained a priest. At 29, he was one of two African-Americans ordained to the priesthood in the nation that year.

He served at several churches in metro Atlanta, including St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and Holy Spirit Catholic Church and as the chaplain at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School.

While at Holy Spirit, Bailey’s unorthodox style came to the attention of radio personality Bert Weiss, who offered him a periodic spot on his show during which Bailey would weigh in with a biblical perspective on the happenings in popular culture. Weiss dubbed him “Father Crunk.”

“He said I had a very unorthodox portrayal and image of what a Catholic priest looked like and how a Catholic priest spoke,” Bailey said. “… I pretty much knew how the streets operated and was very comfortable with street lingo.”

Bailey reached a younger audience that had slowly drifted away from the church. Parents, who may not know what “crunk” ( a person or party that is exciting or full of energy) means, saw their children making a connection to their faith.

After about eight years as a priest, Bailey started to waver. He felt conflicted, not only about his desire to be a husband and father, but to continue to serve as a Catholic priest. He questioned various aspects of Catholic doctrine and teaching. He declines to say what those divisions were, other than that they were “significant.”

In 2009 or 2010, he went to France with others on a pilgrimage.

He prayed. Was he making the right decision? He asked God for a sign.

That sign appeared when he returned. Going through emails, he found one from Marica, the woman he had dated in high school.

“Hello, stranger.”

Two words. A life changed.

“It wasn’t a decision I made overnight,” Bailey said. “It was one I had wrestled with for years.”

After he left the priesthood, the two dated for several months and were wed Sept. 10, 2011.

That changed life includes being a father to Marica’s children.

“No one ever gave me a manual,” he said. “As a priest, you always have this quasi-theoretical view (about parenting). You have no one to look out for except yourself, unless you have parents or grandparents. It’s a great blessing, profoundly enriching and humbling.”

He watches the time to make sure he’s not late picking up his daughter from an after-school practice. A wide grin spreads across his face as he talks about the time he and Marica surprised their two youngest daughters, Makiya and Zahria, who both hope to be Olympic gymnasts, by taking them to see gold medalist Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas during a visit to Atlanta.

Bailey struggled with the decision to leave the Catholic Church, said Marica, who was raised as a Baptist. She called him “courageous.”

“When people weren’t supportive,” she said, “it made me want to support him more.”

A majority of Catholics responded in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center that they thought priests should be allowed to marry. But many also would disagree with Bailey’s choices. That’s fine with him.

“I make no apology,” he said, “for my life or my wife.”

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