A Priest Who Almost Left Ministry

We hear too often about priests who leave ministry. But it's instructive to learn about a priest who considered leaving but didn't: Fr. Bud Kieser.

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I have been ordained since 2015, and I personally know of nearly a dozen priests who have left ministry. They are priests from my diocese (five readily come to mind) and others whom I went to seminary with, either classmates or men ahead or behind me in formation.

Priests leave for any number of reasons. The most tragic is when the priest has abused someone or there is an allegation. Followed by that, it is the priest who falls in love or impregnates a woman whose soul he had care of. Priests also leave because they do not feel supported by their bishop or vicar of clergy; they are burnt out and under-appreciated; they lose their zeal and love for ministry; and/or they missed the signs in their personal discernment during formation.   

I recently had the opportunity to prescreen a documentary about Paulist priest Fr. Bud Kieser. I was unfamiliar with him as a figure, which, after I learned about him, surprised me. Fr. Bud worked in Hollywood and produced the show Insight. His later directorial and producer credits would include a movie I watched in high school Spanish class, Romero, recounting the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom. I am a movie-loving priest who has had the opportunity to interview producers, directors, actors, and actresses for my podcast Hey Everybody! It’s Fr. Edward. I am a devotee of Fr. Daniel Lord, S.J., (1888-1955), who wrote the code of ethics for Hollywood. The documentary Hollywood Priest was the first time I encountered the name Fr. Bud Kieser. 

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Hollywood Priest is a documentary that will be airing on public television beginning May 1 (check local listings for times). The story of Fr. Bud’s career is told through several chapters and interviews with people like Bob Newhart, Martin Sheen, and others who worked alongside Fr. Bud. 

One aspect of his story that was brought to the forefront was Fr. Bud’s struggle with his vocation as a priest. I’m sure there are some who wish that this was not portrayed or that it would have been glossed over as a passing reference. Some of the faithful might be scandalized that a priest would consider abandoning his vocation and disregard the documentary, turning it off or changing the channel. I grappled with where I stood on the issue. Was it necessary to share this part of his story? Does it damage the priestly vocation? At first, I believed that it was unnecessary; slowly, though, I realized it was an important and necessary part. 

I thought of the priests I knew who have left ministry for love. It’s only their stories we know. The lay faithful will often tell me stories about the priest who witnessed their marriage or baptized their child and how they left ministry. In some cases, they kept tabs on the man and can share parts of his story still today. We only hear the stories of priests who have left ministry and why they left. We don’t hear the stories of priests who have contemplated leaving and stayed. I wondered if knowing Fr. Bud’s story could have changed the outcome of those priests who have left. Could they have turned to his story, wrestled with what they were going through, and be inspired to stay?  

The story of Fr. Bud falling in love seems like one for the movies and is an often-written script: a Catholic priest falls in love with a nun. In this case, the nun’s name was Sr. Genevieve. She wrote an outline of an episode for Insight about a nun struggling with her vocation and her decision to leave the convent. Little did people realize at that time that she was writing from her personal, lived experience of religious life. 

Sr. Genevieve provided Fr. Bud with friendship and companionship. She understood him and challenged him, too. They spent time together. I wonder how this was perceived by people in Hollywood who were close to the situation and to Fr. Bud’s religious community and the nuns. Fr. Bud was in love, and the situation could be described as an emotional affair. I don’t know if it went beyond that, and I don’t want to know. What we know now, all these years later, is that as Fr. Bud prayed through this, he decided to stay. 

Sr. Genevieve notified Fr. Bud that she was going to leave the convent and was interested in pursuing marriage. As she shared this news, she only hoped it would be marriage with him. Fr. Bud asked her if he could perform the ceremony, a subtle way of letting her know that their love affair was over and that he would not follow her out of the religious life. 

The documentary states that Sr. Genevieve went on to marry. It doesn’t say if Fr. Bud witnessed the marriage or the state of their friendship over the years. If I had to guess, I would imagine that Fr. Bud distanced himself from this past friendship to focus on where God was leading him in his priesthood. He had to grieve over that love and make sense of it all in his recommitted priesthood.

Fr. Bud was a man of prayer. It was said that he spent an hour in the chapel before anyone else got there. Like Archbishop Fulton Sheen, he knew the value of the Holy Hour. He understood prayer as being vital to his life and ministry. When a man contemplates leaving the priesthood, prayer is often abandoned, and the decision is not done in consultation with the Lord in prayer. 

With Jesus in the Eucharist, Fr. Bud shared his struggles with celibacy and the desire for love—to love and to be loved. For a fleeting moment, he believed that Sr. Genevieve could provide that love and be the subject of his love, but he slowly realized that the Lord God was to be the sole object of his love. That love story with God would continue to unfold with a deepening awareness of the plight of the poor and a deep desire to serve them. 

For Fr. Bud, it would have been easy to abandon his priesthood. He was in love, and he was successful outside of ministry as a producer and director. He easily could have found other work to support himself and his family. He knew what could have been if he left the priesthood and pursued love. Yet, he chose to stay. He was faithful to God, and God was faithful to him.

Many people will become familiar with the story of Fr. Bud as Hollywood Priest airs and becomes more available. Perhaps the people who need to hear his story the most are priests, especially struggling priests. With the hope that Fr. Bud is with the Lord in Heaven, he can become an intercessor for the priest on the brink of leaving for love. 

[Photo: Fr. Bud Kieser on the set with Martin Sheen.]

Author

  • Fr. Edward Looney

    Fr. Edward Looney holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, is a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, a pastor, Marian theologian, author, columnist, and podcaster.

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