27Jun 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

br_eyre@hotmail.com

10 Responses

  1. Pádraig McCarthy

    A friend of mine asked why it is that there has been no response on the website to Brian’s article so far. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is simply that what he says makes such good sense that there is little need for a reply.
    He makes a good point that re-activating those priests who left to marry and who wish to resume should not be simply because of a shortage of priests. It should be because it would be an enrichment for the church to have both celibate and married priests – as indeed it already has, including in the Latin rite. It should also be in recognition of the right of every Christian community to have a full celebration of Eucharist every Sunday.
    There will always be difficulties, of course. A married priest is no more immune from going wrong than a celibate priest. There is the challenge of bringing about a new model of priesthood, freed from the chains of clericalism. It would require a new relationship with the people they and we serve – not least in the matter of financial contributions! The question of married bishops, including at some time married pope, would have to be addressed. But then, we’ve already had a married pope, a rock on which Jesus chose to build his church – not bricks and mortar and timbers and nails, but an ecclesia, a qahal Jahwe, a people called together to be the living Body of Christ and continuing his mission.
    It could bring about a healthy shake-up.

  2. Peter Clifton

    Padraig@1 speaks of the ‘enrichment’ flowing from having both married and celibate priests. Certainly,
    the experience of having married former Anglican priests in the Catholc church in England and Wales seems to have been entirely positive. The odd feature is that their accession to the Catholic church has been welcomed by different strands within the church for quite distinct reasons – by some, because they demonstrate that priesthood and marriage are in practice compatible; by others, because they are in general men of traditionalist views.

    I raise, however, as gently as I can the discomfort which would, I think, be quite widely felt at the readmission to public ministry of priests who chose marriage over their commitment to celibacy. I recall, although I cannot trace the reference, that Pope John Paul said something like “the gift, once returned, cannot be given again.”
    The thought may be intuitive rather than logical, but I think that you might find it quite widespread. But I cannot claim to speak about likely reactions on your side of the Irish Sea.

    In any event, whatever our differences, many thanks to Brian for a challenging post, and best wishes to him and his family.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    Peter Clifton, I suggest that shaking off this obsessive unease about celibacy is a first step to some daylight and common sense in the Catholic Church.

  4. Pádraig McCarthy

    Peter (@2):
    You quote, ““the gift, once returned, cannot be given again” – this does not seem to make sense. If the gift in question is celibacy, in the case of a priest who married, celibacy is not required to be “given again”.
    If the gift is the ordained priesthood, it was not returned. The ordination still stands.
    There could be some unease at the situation of those Anglicans whose move to the Catholic church was at least partially motivated by opposition to the ordination of women to priesthood and episcopate. It is also bizarre that a married Catholic priest who was formerly Anglican or Episcopalian celebrates Mass while a man in the congregation who was ordained a priest and later left the ministry and married, but would willingly continue in ministry if permitted, is forbidden to do so.
    Those married priests who are members of the Catholic church in other Rites may have much to contribute to this debate. Do we have any in Ireland?

  5. roy donovan

    I have absolutely no doubt that if God was to become a human being for the first time on our planet, in the 21st Century, it would be a big challenge/problem for God! God in order to reach modern people in a 21st century world would have problems with identifying completely with one gender.
    However, whether God becoming a human being in 21/22nd Centuries identifies with a Son or a Daughter as revealing God, I have absolutely no doubt that if there were to be 12 apostles, half of them would be women.
    I also have no doubt that we operate out of a ‘frozen’ Jesus/ imprisoned by patriarchial/hierarchial/authoritarian dominating mind-sets and structures. A risen, living Jesus of the 21/22nd Centuries surely would cringe at the present set up of the Catholic Church purporting to represent him to the modern world. As was said aloud at the recent Maynooth Reunion, we are totally taken up with ‘who’ should ‘Do this in memory of me’, rather than getting on with doing Jesus’ command ‘Do this in memory of me’.
    As written elsewhere, a weakness in the present Pope’s mindset, is that he does not get how critical the ‘women question’ is. I get hope in that he seems to be dealing better with one of his other weaknesses by addressing the child abuse issue in more credible ways.
    P.S.; I would also recommend that Fr. Donagh O’Meara’s homily at the Maynooth Reunion would be given widespread attention, that it deserves.

  6. roy donovan

    On a totally different issue! An Amos solution to present dilemma re Brook’s Concerts. Let all five concerts go ahead and that 20% of all proceedings be given to the homeless. Would that not be a win-win for everybody?

  7. Paddy Ferry

    Roy@5, an excellent analysis and@6, a truly brilliant suggestion.

  8. Teresa Mee

    I find Brian’s Article insightful, and at the same time provoking reflection on the whole issue of pastoral dedication to which we are all called.

    Rather than offer a long spiel, I have inserted my bracketed responses in capitals for ease of spotting within the body of the original text.
    Teresa

    Responses in bracketed capitals to Married priests and their return to public ministry

    There is a growing movement in different parts of the world to allow priests who have married to return to public ministry. (HAVE THEY ALL LEFT 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. (WHY, HISTORICALLY, WAS CELIBACY INTRODUCED ?;A PLEA FOR HONESTY HERE.
    WHAT was the place of priesthood in the New Testament communities, apart from Temple worship? 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. (WITH, AS TOOL/ADJUNCT) OR SIDE BY SIDE WITH?)
    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(IF HE’S DOING IT ON HIS OWN) 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. (PASTORAL WORK CONFINED TO PARISH?)
    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? (WHY ‘LEAVE BEHIND 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 (‘TO LEAVE BEHIND ALL FORMS OF PASTORAL WORK’) must be respected (SERIOUSLY?) and it is to be remembered that the good that they did as celibate priests will always stand to them.
    (‘THE REST SHALL BE INTERRED WITH THEIR BONES ’)

    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. (THANKS BE TO GOD!) They have also made the happy discovery that even though prohibitions exist the ordinary men and women(‘ORDINARY’, MEANING??) 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. (IS THE MASS A COMMUNITY CELEBRATION OF EUCHARIST OR AN ACT OF A PRIEST?) 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(. ???? BUT ARE COMMUNITIES DEPRIVED OF ‘access to the Eucharist?’ THEY WOULD BE DEPRIVED OF WITNESSING TO A MAN PRESIDING AT A CELEBRATION OF INCARNATION, LIFE, DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST FOR ‘US MEN AND FOR OUR SALVATION’, IN SOME INSTANCES WITH HIS BACK TO ‘US MEN’ ). AM I WRONG THERE, DO YOU THINK? AND ALL OR MOST YOUNG MOTHERS OF FAMILIES AND OTHER YOUNG ADULTS ARE ABSENTING THEMSELVES FROM MASS – DUE TO A RANGE OF SECULAR AND OTHER ‘ISMS’. WRONG THERE TOO?

    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 (WHAT IS THE NATURE OF PRIESTHOOD SHORN OF ALL THE EXTRAS?); we can have celibate and married priests (AND CELIBATE PERSONS WHO ARE NOT PRIESTS) working side by side for the good of the Christian community. This way prayers for vocations to the (MARRIED STATE AND TO) 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.

    Question: (DO THE CLERGY BELONG TO THE PEOPLE OF GOD?)
    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
    (NO DOUBT FAITHFUL MISSIONARY STILL SERVING AMONG THE PEOPLE OF GOD.

  9. Kevin

    I hope those of you who wish to marry can marry one day. Enforcing celibacy on any human being is barbarism and not natural.

    I know this from bitter experience which is why I have now officially left the Catholic Church.

    It creates sick people who haven’t got a clue how to support or care for each other. And that’s just the clerics.

    I wish you all the best in your lives and journeys. Sorry for the times I’ve been remiss and shown anger here in various ways.

    That’s not me – an angry, raving loon. :-) The Church did that.

    But the anger does not go away nor do you heal from the pain when you remain in the place that caused it in the first place. Where none know how to help or to heal. Just sick trying to care for more siok people while all get sicker.

    The Church is not a hospital. Hospitals help people get well – heal.

    The Church does not do this – so to call it a ‘hospital’ is a misnomer at best.

    If you do nothing else – for God’s sake and your own – learn to support each other or you’d all be better off jumping from a bridge.

    Have more chance of survival and getting your real lives back and I am serious when I say that.

    Take care and whomever or whatever God may be – may you be blessed and truly, truly heal.

    The truth sets free. I am realising it already.

  10. mangydonkey

    I haven’t been here in a while, but just popped in to get the flavour of any discussion going on. For what it’s worth, I suspect that we run the risk of getting bogged down in discussing the minutiae of whether or not a Priest should or shouldn’t be in a normal sexual relationship.

    If someone wants to get married and later take on a ministering role within his community, happy days. If someone wants to take on a ministering role within his community and later get married, happy days. If someone wishes to take a vow of celibacy for some reason, best of luck with that. What we really should be interested in is how to live the best lives that we can, and thus how we enable others to do likewise.

    I’m just back from the UK, having visited a retired Vicar and his wife there, and I brought him a copy of Brendan Hoban’s ‘Who Will Break Bread For Us’. I suspected he might be interested, since he was originally ordained an Irish Priest. I wondered did he have a lucky escape from a rigid mindset which might have broken him and halted his bloom. Again I go back to intellectual citadels where from safely remote locations, man as the priest of creation is given lip service, by celibate royalty.

    Who will break bread for us, if not us for each other?


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