TORONTO (CCN) — None of Rev. Trevor Plug’s seminary professors is quite willing to say Plug is the first man to be ordained a priest in a wheelchair, but then none of them could find any precedents either.
Thirty-one-year-old Plug was born in St. Catharines, Ont., with spina bifida, a genetic condition that causes babies to be born with the spinal cord partially uncovered by the sheath of membranes and backbone that normally encloses around it. Plug has lived his whole life in a wheelchair.
“He’s canonically, validly ordained,” said St. Catharines Bishop Gerard Bergie. “He may not be physically perfect in every way, but he can function in every way to celebrate mass. The only thing is, he’s not able bodied.”
Canon law has a long list of things that bar a man from priesthood, including “psychic illness,” a history of public apostasy, attempted marriage, etc. But there’s no mention of physical disability. Bergie, a canon lawyer before he was made a bishop, saw no problem in ordaining Plug. In fact, the bishop believes his diocese has just gained an exceptional priest.
“It’s true that he won’t be your typical priest in that he will be in a wheelchair, but he will be as effective as anyone else,” Bergie said. “What they will see in him is a man who has been able to overcome adversity . . . I think he will be able to touch many people in ways that probably I could never touch them. I think he will be a sign of hope. And I think it’s very appropriate in this Year of Mercy that he’s being ordained. It speaks so profoundly about God’s mercy — that it is meant to be healing. We’re all broken in our own ways.”
Plug concurs with his bishop. He’s scoured canon law and various theologies of ordination and can find no reason a wheelchair would stop him.
Before being accepted by his bishop, Plug found immediate, warm acceptance from parishioners at St. Alfred Catholic Church in St. Catharines when he was assigned there as a theology student.
“They actually tried to make me their priest, like immediately,” Plug recalled.
He had to slow them down a couple of years until he had finished his master of divinity and proceeded to his May 21 ordination. St. Alfred Church finally has its wish. Plug has been assigned there as associate pastor.
“A disability is never an inherent advantage,” said Plug. “That goes with all suffering. Suffering is never inherently a good thing. You need to be able with the grace of God to embrace it.”
But that doesn’t mean Plug is ignoring the obvious. As he prays for the people, as he preaches, as he offers reconciliation in the confessional, Plug does so as a disabled man.
“In my disability, I have been able to understand in a particular way how Christ laid down his life for us,” he said. “Through my disability, that’s just one way that I can access, can really understand that.”
Before seminary, Plug did a bachelor’s at the University of Ottawa in linguistics, followed by a master’s at King’s College, University of Western Ontario, again in linguistics. The power of words and the Word of God are an idea he has carried with him as he discerned a calling to the priesthood.
“The first thing is the story of Jesus at the wedding at Cana,” he said. “Mary’s word to the servants, ‘Do whatever he says’ — that was a passage that was really foundational to my vocation.”
Following through on that vocation has been the work of determination.
“He’s up at least an hour before everybody else is with his morning routine,” said St. Peter’s Seminary rector Rev. Stevan Wlusek. “Then all day long, where the other guys just saunter along from class to class, he’s working his butt off to get from place to place, heaving himself around. Sometimes in class he has a tendency to kind of fade out, so the other guys joke about his naps in class.”
Bergie found it difficult to communicate how profound and inspiring Plug’s ordination was for him as the ordaining bishop, for Plug and for the people gathered in St. Alfred Church.
“The ordination celebration was incredible. You could really feel the joy. It was a true sense of spiritual joy.”