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Posted on Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

Ann Arbor native ordained as Legion of Christ religious priest in Rome

By Danielle Arndt

An Ann Arbor man and graduate of Father Gabriel Richard High School was ordained in Rome as a religious priest earlier this month.

Father Mark Thelen, 31, was among 44 men between the ages of 29 and 39 and from 12 different countries to be ordained in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran on Dec. 15.

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Mark Thelen of Ann Arbor was ordained as a deacon in Rome in July. He was ordained as a religious priest earlier this month.


The basilica is the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, currently Pope Benedict XVI. A ceremony was conducted for the 44 legionaries of Christ and their closest family and friends.

The men earned degrees in philosophy and theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. Their time in seminary prior to being ordained lasted an average of 12 years and included three years of pastoral work carried out in different parts of the world, according to a news release from the Legion of Christ, one of the newest religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Thelen graduated from Gabriel Richard in Ann Arbor in 1998 and immediately entered the legion. He is the son of Brian and Mary Thelen of Ann Arbor and has four siblings.

In a testimony shared by the legion, Thelen talked about how he was called to become a priest and about his former unfulfilling quest to attain the worldly definition of success.

“I was young and ambitious, but I didn’t know what I really wanted,” he said in the testimony. “My principles and ideals were clear, but I didn’t understand. I had my whole life mapped out, but didn’t like the destination...

“Religion was just another necessary step on the path to success. Churchgoing was just another element among others, like studying math or running track.”

Thelen participated in swimming, ice skating, tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball, track and cross-country growing up.

Even though he was a standout both academically and athletically, by the end of 10th grade, Thelen got tired of striving for the ideal and scripted life, he said in his testimony. And with the nudging of his parish and school leaders, he gave up his worldly quests and entered the seminary, succumbing to the pull he felt for something more, something greater.

To become a religious priest, Thelen first was ordained as a deacon in July.

Jim Fair, communications director for the legion, said in Catholicism, there are two types of priests. He said diocesan priests are ordained within a geographic area and assigned to serve a particular parish. Diocesan priests also are expected to address the needs of their parish members and other day-to-day issues related to operating a church.

Religious priests, as Thelen recently became, are ordained through an order in Rome and work closely with the Vatican, Fair said. They usually do not serve in a parish, but rather complete mission work around the world, serving as spiritual directors, writing and publishing books or other spiritual works on Catholicism, teaching at a seminary, directing clubs or programs for youth or consecrated women and in various other roles, Fair said.

The Legion of Christ religious order was founded in Mexico in 1941 and presently is in 22 countries. As of last December, its membership included three bishops, 920 priests and more than 2,000 novices and students attending its apostolic schools. Other Catholic religious orders are the Jesuits, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, for example.

Fair said it is a “huge deal” to be ordained as a religious priest. Evangelization, the spreading of the Gospel and the Catholic faith, is the mission of a religious priest, Fair said.

The United States is second only to Italy in the number of Catholic priests it supplies the faith. According to CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 2012 there were 480 men from the U.S. ordained as priests. This includes both religious and diocesan priests. That number is up from 454 in 2005 and 442 in 2000.

Despite the increase in the number of ordinations, the number of total active priests in the U.S. has been steadily declining since 1965. In 2005, there were 42,839 total priests, compared to 38,964 in 2012.

About one-third of the world’s priests are religious priests and two-thirds are diocesan priests. This ratio has stayed consistent throughout the years.

“There is nothing materialistic about a religious priest’s life,” Fair said. “It is truly a life lived for others. It is similar to the military. You get a letter that says where you are needed and you pack a bag and you go. These men have very few personal possessions. They don’t own homes. They have a few clothes, polished shoes, their crucifixes and some have a laptop.”

The laptop is where many of the priests store their religious teachings and studies, Fair said.

Religious priests take a vow of poverty and are supported by their religious orders. Any personal earnings are given back to the order; and, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, poverty vows are recognized by the Internal Revenue Service, which exempts priests from paying federal income taxes.

Thelen is still in Rome, awaiting his first assignment as a priest. Throughout his journey, Thelen contributed to the blog and more recently started his own blog, called The Campion Project. People may also follow Thelen on Twitter: @CampionProject.

Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at


Fr Mark Thelen

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 10:11 a.m.

Thanks for the prayers and support above all to Danielle for the story! Count on my prayers from Rome, and please continue to keep me in yours.

Joseph Anthony

Sun, Dec 30, 2012 : 8:24 p.m.

Congratulations to the newly ordained priest. I hope he has a fruitful ministry. Thanks for passing on the news. I wouldn't I have heard about it otherwise.

Fr Mark Thelen

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 10:11 a.m.

Joseph, thanks a lot! Let me know if you're ever in Rome. Take care, and God bless.

Urban Sombrero

Sun, Dec 30, 2012 : 5:37 a.m.

How is an ordination newsworthy? I know this will garner nothing but down votes but still, how is this something newsworthy and/or something out of the ordinary? I am ordained. I'm a legally recognized minister. I can perform marriages in Michigan and all that other stuff. (Absolving sins, etc....) So, where's MY story? Not that I'd want one (I do not), but.....why does this cat deserve a write-up here? Whoop -dee-doo....he's a priest in Rome. Fantastic. But.....that's newsworthy.....why? I don't get it.

Fr Mark Thelen

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 10:12 a.m.

Urban, undoubtedly you do deserve that story! I would love to hear it. Take care, and count on my prayers. Fr. Mark


Sun, Dec 30, 2012 : 8:46 p.m.

You're no Jack Kennedy, are you?

Dog Guy

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 3:28 p.m.

Enlistment in the Légion étrangère is only five years unlike Thelen's lifelong hitch where any citizenship which may result is not French. The LC motto is "Adveniat Regnum Tuum", but as several commenters here have pointed out, "Watch Your Back" is also appropriate. So Mazel Tov to Mark Thelen.

Fr Mark Thelen

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 10:13 a.m.

Thanks for the well wishes, and count on my prayers.


Sun, Dec 30, 2012 : 1:27 a.m.

Exactly the problem Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich contended with in "Morocco" (1932).

Rob Pollard

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

I have no knowledge of this young man, but the organization he is joining, the Legion of Christ has a sordid recent history, to say the least. From the National Catholic Reporter (10/11/12) "The Vatican is currently leading a reform and reorganization of the Legionaries in the wake of revelations that Maciel, who died in 2008, had fathered children and sexually abused seminarians. Maciel founded the Legionaries in his native Mexico in 1941." Notice how that reform is referred to on the Legion's website: "Currently, the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi are in a process of revision and renewal, requested by Pope Benedict XVI..." This is not an organization that has owned up to its recent past, which as a Catholic, makes me worried about it being an influence for the future. More here, if interested,

Fr Mark Thelen

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 10:16 a.m.

Rob and the rest, thanks for your concern. God calls us all to something in life, and it's up to us to respond regardless of what others do. Now that we are under the immediate direction of the pope and his delegate I feel pretty confident that we're on the right path as a congregation in the Catholic Church. Things are not always easy or as we would choose, but then as some of you rightly mention, there are no perfect situations. Please keep us in your prayers, and count on mine. Let me know if you're ever in Rome, and I would be happy to show you around. Fr. Mark

Rob Pollard

Tue, Jan 1, 2013 : 1:12 a.m.

Angry Moderate, this wasn't "in their past" -- this happened while he was there (he started there in 1998; this blew-up across the entire decade of the 2000s.) That he decided to stay there during this time when the Legion's leader was proven to be a fraud and an abuser of children/seminarians, and they fought his ouster all the way, is troubling.

Angry Moderate

Sun, Dec 30, 2012 : 2:48 a.m.

So people aren't supposed to join organizations that have trouble in their pasts? Good luck finding any church, place of employment, union, etc., to join.


Sun, Dec 30, 2012 : 1:10 a.m.

Even though (am perhaps because) I am a Roman Catholic, I'm glad you mentioned this. I was going to if you had not. I'm surprised he chose this organization in the light of these scandals.


Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 10:47 p.m.

"... but the organization he is joining, the Legion of Christ has a sordid recent history, to say the least..." Because the democrat viet nam war with the million plus dead wasn't sordid.


Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 3 p.m.

This order has a rich history stemming from its founder's boyhood experiences in the long Cristero War that began in Mexico in the 1920s after the revolutionary government there seized all church holdings, closed church schools, and imposed broad restrictions on clerics. Marcial Maciel Degollado may have been the only boy in Mexico with four serving bishops as maternal uncles. Of more contemporary interest might be the 15-year fundraising and personal conduct scandals that engulfed Fr. Maciel. He was banished by papal order to a life of prayer and penitence in 2006, and the entire order was placed on reserve status after his death, in 2009.

Fr Mark Thelen

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 10:17 a.m.

Nick, thanks for the comment. Count on my prayers, and please keep me in yours. Fr. Mark

In Deo speramus

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 2:01 p.m.

Congratulation to Brian and Mary on the ordination of your son.


Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 1:54 p.m.

God bless you Mark and blessing in all of your future endeavors.

Fr Mark Thelen

Sun, Jan 6, 2013 : 10:17 a.m.

Carole, thanks a lot! Fr. Mark

Sabra C Briere

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 12:12 p.m.

Please correct this story. It's Father Gabriel Richard High School. Father Gabriel Richard was born in France in the second half of the 18th century and served in Detroit and the Michigan Territory before Michigan was a state. He was the first Catholic elected to the US Congress (as a non-voting member from the not-yet-state of Michigan. He was a co-founder of the Catholepistemiad of Michigania (which would become the University of Michigan) and served as its Vice-President from 1817 to 1821. Following the reorganization of the University in 1821, he was appointed to its Board of Trustees and served until his death. My source was Wikipedia. It took less than 30 seconds to find this.

Sabra C Briere

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 2:22 p.m.

Sigh. It's still wrong on the home page, though. Sorry, Paula - so many places to check!

Paula Gardner

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 1:08 p.m.

OUCH. You're right (sorry for the all caps ... it's my mortification). Finishing a pot of coffee here and hoping to wake up soon. It's corrected.


Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 1:05 p.m.

OK Sabra, how long is it going to take you to come up with the correct pronunciation of Catholepistemaid?

Sabra C Briere

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 12:42 p.m.

The first reference still shows (at 7:41 am ) the wrong name, with first and last names reversed. I know it's early, but still . . .

Paula Gardner

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 12:35 p.m.

Thanks, Sabra. The full name is in the first paragraph. I shortened the 2nd reference to the common reference "Gabriel Richard" so it doesn't sound like we missed the full name there.