In the 4th century the dominant mentality at that time was that the believer who for love of God did not marry, was considered the typical Christian. Matrimony and priesthood were seen as incompatible because it was believed that you cannot reconcile sanctity and matrimonial sexuality.
Women at that time were seen as the temptress, the Eve who brought about the fall of Adam. This negative attitude towards women goes back to the early church and was based on the doctrine of dualism. Saint Epifanio would write: “A woman is a creature of the devil from her head to her feet, a man, on his part is only such by half from the waist upwards he is a creature of God. So the union in marriage between a man and a woman is therefore the work of the Devil”.
If however we look at the narrative of creation in the Book of Genesis Chapter 2, V 18, we see a much more positive image and attitude towards women. Genesis says : “Let us make him a companion(a helper)”.
A companion is someone who goes with you on a journey, someone who shares with you the joys and sufferings of the way. If decisions have to be taken on the journey your companion can give you their opinion, you are not alone and your companion is not seen or considered as a hindrance.
When it comes though to consider married priests you will have the prophets of doom who will say that if you allow priests to marry their hearts and time will be divided.
Today, thank goodness, this anti-woman mentality that was evident in the early church is not as shocking as it was then, and today the accusation that a woman will cause a priest to lose his vocation is not accepted although courageous steps will need to be taken today to recognize the rightful position and role of women in the church.My wife has been my companion for the past 34 years. She has given me unconditional support to carry on doing pastoral work after we got married. In many professions men and women are able to reconcile having a demanding job and at the same time being married with a family, in most cases they benefit from this companionship and support of their partner.
We know from Scripture that Our Lord did not ask his Apostles to abandon their wives, they continued to be married, and their wives accompanied them on their missionary journeys (1 Cor. Chapter 9, verses 3 – 7). In the Evangelical churches the pastors can marry as also priests in the Orthodox churches. So where is the problem in the Latin Rite? Many will point to tradition but up to the 12 th century it was also tradition for priests to marry.
If and when married priests return to be part of the Latin Rite we can expect that in the beginning there will be a period of adaptation necessary. People will need to be patient and learn to live with this new reality and above all not to fall into the trap of comparisons. Celibate priests do wonderful work, married priests likewise will play their role in a positive way but both will have different roles to play, both will be different, not better. It is only human to make comparisons when we have been used to something for a long long time. It will though be helpful if married priests are not expected to be photocopies of celibate priests. The ideal situation will be seen when both celibate and married priests work together for the good of the christian community, may they never be seen acting as rivals.
As with many other good dedicated laymen and women the married priests will divide their time between their family, their job and pastoral work. It is possible to do this if their role is seen as animators of communities. It won’t be necessary for them to be in charge of a Parish Church, this can remain in the good hands of the Parish Priest who together with the parish pastoral council and the financial council will look after the running and maintenance of the Parish Church. The Parish Church will continue to be the “Mother Church” where baptisms, weddings, funerals, First Holy Communions and Confirmations take place, a place where the wider community gathers on Sundays to praise and thank Our Lord, it will always have a very special place in the lives of catholics.
So how do I envisage the role of married priests? I can see them, male and female, as animators of small communities, a network of small communities. Their work will entail a lot of house to house visitation in order to get to know and meet people in their homes. They can set up small groups of people in a neighborhood who on a weekly or monthly basis will gather together to reflect upon the Word of God and pray together. The agenda for these group meetings should not be devoted only to prayer but to prayer and action. The group can try to bring about an improvement in the human conditions of the neighborhood. Working in partnership with local and civil authorities human development projects can be set up, this way the group will be giving witness to the importance of uniting spiritual faith with action. Every month the group can come together in one of the homes where the married priest can celebrate Mass for them. In the context of the Irish Church in rural areas, this is nothing new, as the custom of celebrating Station Masses goes back to the Penal Laws when it was forbidden for Catholic priests to say Mass in public.
If married priests once again become part of the Latin Rite, as they were for the first 11 to 12 centuries, this will help to create a new image of the priest . For they will live in a house similar to other people and not in a rectory separated from everybody else. They will be seen going to work, doing the shopping with their wife or husband. They won’t need to wear a distinctive clerical dress for having worked with a small group or groups in a neighborhood they will be recognized in that area as the married priest. People will get used to seeing them walking hand in hand with their companion and playing with their children and no eyebrows will be raised.
So why talk about the possibility of introducing once again married priests when there are many wonderful lay people doing lots and lots of church work? If we believe and hold to tradition that we need a priesthood male or female, to celebrate the Eucharist, to visit the sick and offer them the sacrament of the Sick and to hear peoples confessions then a change is necessary for there are countries where due to the dire shortage of celibate priests people are being deprived of the above religious services and in some cases these may become museum pieces.
In the life of a priest, be they single or married, prayer is very important. By prayer I don’t mean vocal prayer, although this too is very important, but prayer being understood as a daily encounter with Our Lord. This can take place in the silence of the sitting room early in the morning, in the bedroom, on the veranda, under a tree in the garden or any place where you can step aside from your daily activities and just listen and talk to Our Lord. The habit of daily meditation is very important. These 10 to 15 minutes every morning or late at in the evening can be so enriching to the life to a married priest. Basil Pennington O.C.S.O has a wonderful little book on this type of prayer, the title is ”Daily we touch Him”, it is well worth reading. The book points out that it is not possible to talk about Our Lord and be a spiritual guide if we are not on intimate terms with Him that is why this daily meeting with Our Lord in meditation is so important for the married priest.
If and when a change in the discipline of celibacy comes about the walls of the Vatican won’t fall down, we should not be afraid of change. It is good to remember that beginning with Saint Peter, who was a married man, there never was a time in the church when there wasn’t married priests. The Holy Spirit is always with the Church guiding it so that it can be a light and path for our modern times.
Brian Eyre: Catholic Married Priest, Recife, Brazil – 29/9/2017