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'We don't have children, but we have had fun trying' - when priests fall in love and marry


Big moment: Pope Francis leads a Mass of Amazonian bishops in Rome
Big moment: Pope Francis leads a Mass of Amazonian bishops in Rome

By Kim Bielenberg

Father Brian Eyre is happily married and living in Tralee, and he has two grown-up children. He has no parish, where he can say Mass, but he still resolutely considers himself a Catholic priest.

The Irish Holy Ghost father spent 18 years living happily as a celibate Catholic priest, working in Brazil, but then he fell in love with Marta, a nun. "I met her doing church work in shanty towns and we wanted to continue to spend our lives together," says the priest who spent half a century as a missionary.

"It was a difficult decision and I realised I was taking on a different lifestyle as a married man.

"I had to look for a secular job in order to put bread on the table and look after a family."

New direction: Father Dwight Longenecker (fourth left) and his wife and four children at the dedication of the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church by Bishop Robert Guglielmone (right) in South Carolina
New direction: Father Dwight Longenecker (fourth left) and his wife and four children at the dedication of the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church by Bishop Robert Guglielmone (right) in South Carolina

At the time of his big decision three decades ago, the priest stood by the lake at Glendalough and cried to Heaven: "My God what do you want of me?"

He does not regret his decision to embrace married life with Marta, and in many ways his life continued as before, working in poor communities in Recife in north-eastern Brazil.

He says he was accepted in the community as a married priest. He chose not to keep the relationship hidden and Marta worked closely with him.

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"I ceased to be a member of the clergy, but I didn't stop being a priest - I continued with my work in the community."

He administered to the sick and the poor, officiated at ceremonies in cemeteries, gave Bible courses and retreats, and organised prayer groups.

Stripped of his official role as a parish priest, he made ends meet by teaching English as a foreign language

Father Eyre, whose two children now live in Ireland, welcomed the news that the Catholic Church may be softening its stance on the ordination of married men in certain limited circumstances.

At an historic synod in Rome, Catholic bishops from across the Amazon region have called for the ordination of older married men as priests to address the clergy shortage in their region.

Although there are already married priests in the Catholic Church, if Pope Francis accepts the proposal, it would be seen as upending centuries of Catholic tradition. There is the hope among reformers that if the Pope allows married men to be ordained as priests in the Amazon region, it will soon open the door for a married clergy across the Catholic world.

This would include Northern Ireland and the Republic, where the bishops are struggling with a collapse in vocations and a dire shortage of priests.

This is the first time any synod of bishops convened by a pope has endorsed a call for a change in the tradition of priestly celibacy. But there is still no room for women in the set-up.

The synod's proposal to lift the restriction on married men and the priesthood limits ordination to married men who are already permanent deacons.

Different outlook: Liamy McNally
Different outlook: Liamy McNally

Although it is not a doctrine of the Church and was not obligatory during the Church's early history, the issue of celibacy is one that priests have grappled with for centuries.

Michael Kelly, the editor of The Irish Catholic, tells the story of a young priest starting out on his career, who seeks the advice of an elderly mentor. One evening after supper, the young priest asks his colleague: "And celibacy, father, when does that stop being an issue?"

The older priest smiles before responding: "Oh, I don't know. I imagine shortly after rigor mortis sets in."

One argument in favour of allowing married men to become priests is it might rid the Church of the culture of secrecy about sexuality and relationships that has led to so much scandal.

After years of research into celibacy and sexuality within the clergy, the psychotherapist and former priest Richard Sipe concluded in the 1990s that at any given time, only 50% of priests were celibate.

According to the New York Times, church authorities responded by saying the estimate was overblown.The moves to allow married men to be ordained in certain limited circumstances is driven less by changing attitudes to sexuality and relationships than by concern about a critical shortage of manpower.

With competition from evangelical churches, the hierarchy in certain areas in South America is facing a simple question of survival.

As well as turning to married deacons, will the Church turn to the thousands of priests who have married and want to return to active ministry?

Like Brian Eyre, Liamy McNally is one of those married men who still sees himself as a Catholic priest. He says there is a ready supply of trained priests who no longer serve in the clergy, because they married. He trained as a priest in Clonliffe in Dublin in the late 1970s and was ordained in the archdiocese of Tuam. McNally, who married his wife 30 years ago, says: "Whatever kind of ology they want to use, I am still a priest."

He believes every priest in Ireland knows several others who have left formal ministry and are married, but have not left the priesthood.

"I can't say Mass in public, but I am heavily involved in our church in Westport. I have been on the pastoral council, and I did a Bible study class in my house, and I have done burial ceremonies."

McNally and his wife Ger knew each other as children growing up. They met up again when they went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and were married in 1989 in a civil ceremony in London.

They also had a religious service in an Anglican church in Dublin, because priests who are not laicised (who have their clerical status removed) cannot marry in a Catholic ceremony due to their celibacy vow.

"We don't have children, but we have had fun trying," he says. Although he married 30 years ago, he never applied to be laicised by the Church.

"Most of the priests I talk to are extremely supportive. I am sure there are some priests who might be against the idea of married priests and that's fine."

McNally believes the move to allow married men in the Amazon to become priests offers a chink of light to other married men across the world.

"They are talking about the Amazon today, but it will be Ireland tomorrow," says McNally. "There are just not enough priests to go round here anymore."

Although there will be stiff resistance from some traditionalists to the dilution of celibacy rules, the idea of allowing a certain cohort of married men to become priests has won mainstream support in the Catholic hierarchy.

Some conservatives see it as an alternative solution to the manpower shortage to allowing women to become priests.

As history professor Sara MacDougall put it in the New York Times this week, the bishops' solution is simple: "Do anything other than ordaining women as priests."

The reform is made easier by the fact that in a number of Catholic churches in full communion with Rome, priests already do not have to be celibate. In the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, priests are routinely married and have families of their own.

In Britain and the United States, Anglican ministers who convert to Catholicism are often ordained as Catholic priests and serve in parishes with their wives and children. If married former Protestant clergymen can become priests affiliated to Rome, does the ban on married Catholics seem like an anomaly?

The American Catholic priest and blogger Father Dwight Longenecker started his career as an Anglican clergyman before converting to Catholicism.

He was ordained in 2006 with his wife Alison and their four children in attendance. He was allowed to become a priest under a Vatican rule change from the time of John Paul II permitting married men who had been ordained in the Anglican or Lutheran churches to receive a dispensation from the celibacy vow.

He believes there are pros and cons to having married men in the priesthood. "This decision is above my pay grade, but on the whole it might bring a balance to the priesthood," he says.

"It may solve problems, but it can create problems. Just because a man is married does not mean he's a good husband, a good father and a good priest."

He says the Church will have to be prepared to deal with the effects of marital breakdown. They must also consider how to provide for priests' widows and dependent children.

"It takes a strong, independently-minded woman to be a priest's wife," he says.

And spiritual love can prompt jealousy as much as the human variety. "I remember hearing an Anglican priest's wife complain that her husband loves God more than he loves her."

According to Fr Longenecker, there are some neglected issues that need to be considered when it comes to marriages involving a priest - and one of them is the ban on artificial contraception.

"Many people seem to forget that a priest and his wife will be faithful to the Church's teaching. That means they will not be using artificial contraception. If they are young and fertile, is the parish ready to accept the responsibility of feeding and housing a dozen clergy kids?"

On the plus side, Fr Longenecker says: "Very often, when I come home after a long day, I thank God for the blessing of a wife as my friend and companion and I offer a prayer for my fellow priests who have accepted the discipline of celibacy and return to an empty home. They have made a great sacrifice."

Professor Thomas Groome, a theologian from Kildare who left the priesthood to get married to his wife Colleen, is heartened by the news from Rome that married men in the Amazon region may be able to become priests.

"The bishops taking part in this synod overwhelmingly request the notion of a married priesthood. If they allow it in the Amazon, then obviously other parts of the Church are likely to follow.

"In five or 10 years, it will become an open question among the whole Church."

Professor Groome, who was ordained at St Patrick's College in Carlow and is now professor of theology at Boston College, says he would like to return to priestly ministry if the option was open to him.

"I would happily go back to functioning as a priest if they readmitted priests who are married. Of course, I would have to talk to my wife to make sure she was on board with it."

Professor Groome met his wife, Colleen Griffith, when he was still a priest and he was teaching in university. She is also a professor of theology.

The academic applied to Rome to be laicised before the couple were married.

"My faith has never wavered before or since I left the priesthood. I enjoyed being a priest, but I never appreciated the celibacy requirement," he says.

"There are ways in which being married can enhance a person's priesthood and also ways in which being celibate can enhance it, especially if you are faithfully celibate.

"A married priest can have insights about families, relationships and kids - and I often think I would like to go back and re-preach some of the sermons I gave when I was a priest. I sure know a lot more about family life now."

If the Church opens up the priesthood to mature married men, inevitably questions will be asked why women are still excluded.

It is said that the Church thinks in centuries, rather than years or decades. By the time, any reform reaches here, it may be too late to stem the decline in the number of priests.

Priests, celibacy and the Pope's children

The Code of Canon Law says celibacy is a "special gift of God" which allows priests to stay close to Christ with an "undivided heart", but it has not always been obligatory for the clergy.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, a significant number of priests could have families.

The first pope, St Peter, was a married man and it was not uncommon for early popes to have children.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, at least seven popes were married.

None of these papal husbands were recent pontiffs.

Pope Julius II (1503-1513), the pontiff who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, fathered several children before he was made pope.

At times, the popes liked to keep it all in the family.

Pope Hormisdas (514-523) was father to Pope Silverius (536-537), who himself fathered a daughter.

According to most historical accounts, it was not until meetings of the Catholic Church at the First and Second Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139 that marriage was officially banned.

Outlawing clerical marriage ensured that the offspring or wives of priests did not make claims on church property.

Celibacy is still a "discipline" of the Church, which can be changed, rather than a "dogma", or a divinely revealed truth from God which cannot be altered.

Today, in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, priests are routinely married and have families of their own. Anglican ministers who convert to Catholicism are often ordained as Catholic priests and serve in parishes with their wives and children.

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