Frustrated Priest Starts New Journey: Father Bob Timchak's Anguish over Diocese's Actions Has Him Leaving His Duties for a Year.

By Mark Guydish
Times Leader
July 16, 2006

Jul. 16--WEST HAZLETON -- When a parish priest suddenly has no parish and no pay, "putting your faith in God" takes on new meaning.

Such is the plight of the Father Bob Timchak, who has discovered that taking a yearlong leave of absence from priestly duties in the Scranton Diocese means more than losing his chance to live in a rent-free rectory. It means losing his $1,800 a month stipend and his insurance coverage. "I get a stipend for a designated period of a time, but it's not much of a severance package," Timchak said. "It's basically two months and that's it.

"I have no money stashed away and right now my major concern is I don't know how I'm going to live," he added in a disarmingly upbeat voice. "The lack of the concern that the church has shown in that regard is just another thing that is kind of dumbfounding to me, that in a time when they need priests, they show very little compassion."

Of course, he concedes, "You don't want to make it attractive for someone (to take a leave)."

Timchak, former pastor of Transfiguration and SS. Peter and Paul churches in West Hazleton, said he sought the leave "to see what direction I think God is calling me." He has been openly critical of the way Diocese of Scranton officials handled the closing of Transfiguration School, shut for good in June. In 2005, the diocese had said the school would be spared and a different one in Hazleton would close.

The flip-flop was less important than the way he, the staff and parents were treated after the decision was final. "If you can't even say to me, aWe're sorry for what happened and for the way things were done,' then how can you expect me to trust you?"

Timchak, 40, is the kind of priest who steps away from the pulpit and walks the church aisle during his sermons. He showed great joy in, and interacted with, the children's folk group during some Masses, as school students sang children's hymns in very upbeat styles, often evoking smiles from churchgoers. And he considered some of the recent changes mandated by the church hierarchy, including limiting priests to celebrating two Masses on weekdays, as "silly."

And, he said, there seems to be a steady shift in the direction of the church since he was ordained in 1984.

"I would say I am an early Pope John Paul II priest. I think I'm pretty representative of the priests of my era, a short period of time from the end of the Second Vatican Council (in 1965) until the beginning of the 1990s. There was a definite shift from the middle of the 1990s to now. Priests of the last seven or eight years are much more traditional.

"I'm wondering where our place is. This is not the church that I remember, or the church that I grew up in. There's a tone of rigidity."

His perception is backed by research cited by long-time religion writer Peter Steinfels in his book, "A People Adrift." "It seems clear," Steinfels wrote, "that the newly ordained priests are generally more conservative, expressing significantly higher agreement with contested church teachings like requiring celibacy for ordination or restricting the priesthood to males."

Timchak doesn't fit that mold. "I think the church should consider letting women be deacons," he said, referring to church deacons who, while allowed to marry, perform many functions in place of priests. Timchak also said the church should open debate about ordaining female priests, and letting priests marry. "How long are we going to have to wait and see fewer and fewer priests until we say, amaybe there is another way to do this.'

"Maybe God is telling you something. Maybe the answer is staring you right in the face. And maybe you should look at women who have credible gifts and talents and at least consider them as deaconesses, as they were in the early church. I don't know that Jesus ever said anything against it."

But the refusal to ordain female or married priests isn't the key reason for the shortage, Timchak believes. "I think more than anything it is American culture. Half of marriages end in failure. Most people do not want to commit to something that is lifelong. Americans are materialistic by culture and you're asking them to go into a life where the most you can expect to earn is $1,800 a month as a priest. That doesn't jibe with Americans today."

Timchak also thinks the church has been failing to "seem true and believable." The sex-abuse scandal is the most obvious example. "People are looking for something that is genuine and true, and they are not seeing it. So they are certainly not going to give their lives to that."

Of course, Timchak is uncertain what he wants to "give his life to," these days. His only interests have been working with children or the priesthood, and his assignment at Transfiguration, a church with a school, gave him the best of both worlds. In a brief announcement after one Mass shortly before his leave began, he stressed to those in the pews that "my leave had nothing to do with not loving being here," and visibly fought off the urge to cry.

Talk to him long enough, and he lets slip a suspicion that he will return to full-time work as a priest. Though he's pretty sure he could extend the leave beyond next June, "if you can't figure it out in a year, then you've already figured it out."

Timchak now lives alone in a Dallas apartment. "It's close to my family," the Valley native said. Family has been a frequent topic in a weekly column Timchak writes for the Times Leader. His father worked in construction, and died in a construction accident in 1987. Thanks to his dad's zeal for the game, he developed a passion for baseball he maintains today. And his family continues to gather on major holidays.

Timchak remains a priest during the leave, and has been told he can celebrate Mass, but said that, after several conversations with Bishop Joseph Martino, details about this and some other aspects of his leave were unclear.

"I expected a little bit more concern, a little bit more kindness, really. But I don't know why I should have. It's exactly in character.

"A priest took me out to lunch and said 'I want to speak to you on behalf of the church,' and he said 'we need you, so don't go too far.' And that meant a lot. Nobody in the diocese (hierarchy) has said that to me."

Among the many uncertainties he faces on leave, Timchak said he has been told the diocese will "pay for health insurance for a period of time," but that the coverage will stop at some point during his leave. He takes it in stride. "I'm as healthy as could be. I haven't been to a hospital since I was 8 years old." Believing he'll stay healthy is -- as his hope that everything else goes well -- a matter of faith.

"As in all things, I think we've got to put our trust in God, and that's what I do, and I think things are going to work out."

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