Married priests and their return to public ministry: some considerations
There is a growing movement in different parts of the world to allow priests who have married to return to public ministry. Pope Francis gave scope to this discussion in a recent call to the Conference of Bishops to ordain married men thus making it clear that matrimony does not exclude priesthood and vice versa.
Let us consider some points about this question. First of all, who are these married priests?
These are men who after some years as celibate priests opted for the marriage state. By this decision they did not turn their backs on the church, they were simply professing their desire to carry on their lives now with a wife at their side.
For many this was a difficult decision to make as seminary training and even parish life did not prepare them for this step. Many had to go for professional training in order to qualify for a secular job. Some experienced great financial difficulties at the beginning of their married life as they quickly learned, like any other married man, that to set up a home and furnish it isn’t easy and like any man too they had to learn what it is to be a father.
In many cases they were forgotten and ignored by the hierarchy with whom they had worked and served for many years. Some even experienced bad will and a lack of cooperation from some Bishops and Religious Superiors when they looked for a letter of recommendation for a secular job.
Their religious state was reduced to such a situation that pastoral work was frowned on and closed to them. It was only when they met a parish priest who welcomed them and invited them to do pastoral work in his parish, that they had an outlet for their priestly gifts.
There were though some priests who on getting married decided that they would leave behind, as something of the past, all forms of pastoral work and would now get on with their new role in society as that of a married man. These were men who as celibate priests had done great work among the people but who now wished to experience a new way of life away from church work. This decision must be respected and it is to be remembered that the good that they did as celibate priests will always stand to them.
However a good proportion of married priests are able, even in spite of the restrictions placed on them by the ecclesiastical authorities, to reconcile being a husband, a father, holding down a secular job and doing pastoral work. They have also made the happy discovery that even though prohibitions exist the ordinary man and women in the street accept and welcome their pastoral work as married priests. But still there are certain acts that are completely closed to them such as celebrating public masses. They feel this prohibition very deeply especially when they know of many communities that due to the shortage of priests, are deprived of frequent access to the Eucharist.
Now this discipline and attitude may be changed and they may be called back to public ministry. The reason being that there is a dire shortage of priests in many countries. This situation will get worse over the next 15 to 20 years in some countries, among them Ireland, which in the past had a surplus of priests. However to justify the return to ministry of married priests on the grounds that there is a shortage of celibate priests is to miss a very important point. It should be clearly stated and explained that marriage and priesthood are not irreconcilable and that obligatory celibacy is a discipline that can be removed without changing the nature of priesthood; we can have celibate and married priests working side by side for the good of the Christian community. This way prayers for vocations to the priesthood will be better understood in the broad sense, so that when we do pray for vocations we are praying that people who are called to serve others can be either celibate or married.
When the day comes and married priests are once again working in parishes hopefully they will present to the community a new model of priest. They will have learned, through marriage, to be a good listener, to take into account the opinions and ideas of others, to remember that their word hasn’t got to be the last one and that honours and titles mean nothing. They should be priests who give great importance to working in teams and not just alone and so their parish pastoral councils will have real force and authority to carry through decisions that are taken. Hopefully too their close relationship with their wife will have mellowed them to be loving, caring, and warm priests. It would be a pity if they went back in time to the situation where “Father’s word from the pulpit, was gospel, never to be challenged or questioned”.
Brian Eyre, married Catholic priest, Recife, Brazil