A faith for all seasons

For a former Reno priest, doing the will of God has taken a different form over the past several decades

John and Rita Marschall married in 1972 after John, a priest, was granted lay status by the Catholic Church.

John and Rita Marschall married in 1972 after John, a priest, was granted lay status by the Catholic Church.

Photo By David Robert

The first ideological hurdle for former Reno Catholic priest John Marschall was birth control. In 1968, after Marschall had been an ordained priest for seven years, the pope issued an encyclical, the Humanae Vitae, which stated the only form of birth control to be used by Catholics was “rhythm,” a method of timing marital sex against a woman’s fertility patterns. It wasn’t long before Marschall, a recently retired assistant vice president for student life at the University of Nevada, Reno, knew he’d be giving advice to couples that was contrary to a papal statement.

“What do you do when people psychologically and economically are unable to have children?” he says. “As a pastor, I had to use a technique that’s thousands of years old in the church.”

In effect, he would decide that in matters like liturgy or birth control or celibacy, if, in the judgment of a prudent person, a law does not seem binding under certain circumstances, then the law doesn’t bind.

It was a loophole that Marschall would come to use more and more as he worked with college students and academics at UNR during the late ‘60s. When Marschall was transferred to Reno in 1968, he became director of the Newman Center and associate pastor of Our Lady of Wisdom church. With the help of then local bishop Joseph Green and a Methodist minister, John Dodson, Marschall began an ecumenical and interfaith campus ministry, the Center for Religion and Life. The center became involved in working with minority students and anti-war protesters.

“We were trying to resolve in a peaceful fashion many of the testy issues that were breaking apart campuses across the country,” Marschall says.

Then, in 1970, the pope declared that no pluralism—tolerance for diverse religious points of view—would be allowed in Catholicism. Marschall viewed that as a historically narrow-minded move.

“At this time, I was preaching and teaching and counseling very literate people: college students, professors,” he says. “I felt compelled to articulate not only the church’s position … but also to show there was another side to these issues. I found myself officially a representative of the Catholic Church, but I was also in the spirit of academic inquiry, pointing out the other side.”

For a man who’d entered the monastic religious life at the age of 17, it was a troubling position to be in. Desperate for reform on such issues as birth control, optional celibacy and crafting more contemporary liturgies, he began to despair that dramatic changes would take place in his lifetime. By 1969, Marschall was talking to friends, fellow priests and family members about giving up the priesthood and seeking “laicization” in order to be a lay Catholic in good standing with the church.

In a letter applying for laicization addressed to the cardinal prefect in 1970, Marschall wrote of his difficulty in being a representative of ideas with which he disagreed.

“Already, I feel the beginning of a sense of bitterness and anger that I do not want to taint my priesthood or to sour my attitude toward the church,” he wrote. “I depart in peace knowing that I can no longer attempt to bring about the renewal of the church from within the priesthood.”

This photo taken by a photographer for the Sagebrush, UNR’s student newspaper, captured John Marschall making a humorous face before performing a mass at Our Lady of Wisdom church in 1969.

The decision tore Marschall apart. Even after being granted lay status, fellow priests talked Marschall into having his status as a priest restored. Marschall was confused but allowed friends in the Catholic hierarchy to work toward restoring his status. Marschall was reinstated as a priest, but the move came a bit late.

“I had started doing things that I hadn’t done in 20 years,” he says, seeming slightly embarrassed. “I went dancing. I dated. By August 1971, I had met someone I was really in love with. I was now in another bind. Here I was, reinstated, but I honestly could not see myself living out the rest of my life alone, without a family.”

A visit to his mother, a pious lifelong Catholic, helped Marschall clear his mind. His mother told him what he needed to hear.

“She said, ‘All my life I’ve prayed that you would do the will of God, and I have no reason to believe that you are not doing it now.’ That was an enormous relief to me.”

On July 4, 1972, Marschall received notice that he was free to marry. He married Rita, a former Carmelite nun who’d attended a class Marschall taught at the Center for Religion and Life. They were married in Chicago, but the story made the front page of the Reno daily newspaper. Family members, priests, friends and students attended the wedding, which Marschall calls “a very joyful occasion.” When the pair came back to Reno, another celebration was held here.

Marschall pledged his support to the local Catholic Church, promising to stay in Reno and do what he could “as a counselor and a human being” to be part of this community. He put his doctoral degree in history to good use as a member of the history faculty at UNR. He served on the Faculty Senate and chaired that body in 1978-79, before becoming an assistant to UNR President Joe Crowley in 1979 and moving on to various other administrative positions.

Marschall doesn’t regret leaving the priesthood to marry, but if the Catholic Church’s official stands had been a bit more flexible, things might have turned out differently. He maintains that celibacy, for example, ought to be optional for priests who feel a need to marry.

“There are people who have the gift of celibacy, and some have the gift, as I did, for 20 years, but it isn’t always permanent,” Marschall says. He and Rita have two grown children: Pete, a UNR journalism school grad who recently married and works in Reno, and Sarah, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science and working at the Desert Research Institute.

Marschall, still a practicing Catholic, attends church in Reno and says he still feels a strong connection to his faith. After his retirement from university administration in June, he says he’s already starting to work on some research for a book that he’d shelved, a history of the Jewish faith in northern Nevada.

“I’ve always felt that I’m trying to do the will of God for me,” he says. “After 20 years of a rich religious life, I wanted to serve God and my fellow man in a different way—to be part of the human family as well as a human community in Reno.”

He sees that change is coming for the church, but he expects that it will emerge stronger.

“The church is bigger than popes and priests," he says. "The church is people."