The gift of married priestsJohn Crowley
- 2 July 2005
After 40 years as a priest, the Bishop of Middlesbrough hopes for a mixed, celibate and non-celibate clergy. Access to Mass, rather than marital status, matters
RECENTLY it has been my happiness to celebrate 40 years of priesthood. On the actual anniversary date itself I was able to offer a Jubilee Mass of Thanksgiving in our cathedral, together with many of my brother priests, deacons and lay faithful. It was an intensely joyful experience which touched me more deeply than I had anticipated. On the eve of that celebration I was interviewed on local radio on a whole range of issues which included a question about my view on married priests. I expressed the personal hope that within my lifetime the Church might more generally allow married priests. Subsequently that remark has produced some lively debate, not least in some parts of the Catholic press. That is all to the good, but it might be helpful to put my remarks into their wider context, and The Tablet has kindly allowed me the space to do so.
First, I would want to sing my song in favour of celibacy as one blessed route to living priesthood. How could I do otherwise when, having just clocked up 40 years as a celibate priest, I personally have found it such a grace from God? Like any other celibate, I could tell of the times when that call from God has seemed to cost not less than everything. No need to expatiate on the seasons of struggle, the sometimes profound aching within, when the human heart feels all the God-given drive towards the most intimate union with one other. That is how we are gloriously made, and there is no need to labour that side of the celibacy challenge.
Rather, let me labour a little the other side of the celibacy opportunity. For me, and for countless others, it has offered deep down a possibility of that kind of relationship with the person of Jesus as friend and brother, which is life-giving, joyous and ? potentially ? transforming. Read that last sentence by the way within the real context that (and this I imagine is also true within a good marriage) you simply get on with the day-to-day routine of being faithful in word and deed to the other.
How often have I preached ? the last time as recently as 18 June to one of our newly ordained priests ? along the lines of the above, preached it because I profoundly believe it. Let me quote from that recent ordination homily. ?[Celibacy] has been a great gift to the Church right from the beginning, an invitation by Jesus who, against the general cultural and religious grain of his time, freely chose, this being the tradition and teaching of the Church since earliest times, to remain unmarried for the sake of God?s kingdom. The choice, so it seems to me, is between enduring celibacy as a duty, which is required by the present law of the Church, or embracing celibacy for love of the Lord. Without that sense of intimacy, that sense of sharing with him in companionable friendship the joys and sorrows of priesthood, we risk being driven priests rather than drawn priests.?
Let me expand that remark a little. The seemingly endless pastoral duties that fall to a priest could soon begin to feel like ?one damn thing after another? unless sweetened at source by the pulling power of tasks undertaken for love?s sake. What the Lord offers to his priests is partnership in mission, not the drudgery of time-serving compliance. Enough said perhaps to indicate what I believe about celibacy, in which state I hope, by God?s grace, to persevere happily all the days of my life.
But now let me, within that vital context, quote from something else said within that same homily. ?We have some excellent married priests in this diocese.? (These are men ? five in total ? who were formerly in the Anglican ministry. Without exception they have been warmly accepted and assimilated into the parishes where they serve. In my experience parishioners look primarily for their pastors to be accessible, kindly, spiritual leaders. Once that gift is given them, the fact of whether it is located in a celibate or married man seems somehow less important.) ?The Sacrament of Marriage can in such cases add a very special dimension to the Sacrament of Priesthood. In addition, the day might soon come ? I express the personal hope it will ? when it will be equally possible to serve God in the priesthood either in marriage or in celibacy. I say that, because it?s the ready availability of the Eucharist, especially perhaps in some missionary situations where Mass can at present only be rarely celebrated, which should, so it seems to me, be the determining factor in the Church?s thinking, not whether a priest is celibate or married.?
The above remains my view two weeks on, just as firmly as the day on which it was first said in our cathedral. Others will have a different view ? which I respect ? but let the debate continue to flourish openly and honestly within the family which is our Universal Church. In that debate, all sorts of other issues are bound to surface, including the particularly sensitive one of what might be once more possible for former celibate priests who left to get married. Again, that particular debate needs a lot of mutual listening, discernment and, supremely, charity.
If I say that with some feeling, it is because one of the less pleasant surprises over my years of episcopal responsibility has been the rancour which can too quickly infiltrate what would otherwise be good, healthy, horizon-widening discussions within the Church on important issues. Just this weekend a colleague, recently on the receiving end of some vituperative and astonishingly personal letters, called me on the phone to say, ?our Catholic community, at its best, is second to none in its breadth of vision and generosity, but at its worst ?? That art of being able to disagree with one another, vigorously if necessary, but always with courtesy and grace, is one we need to cultivate more attentively within our contemporary Church.
Let me now touch lightly upon a related issue. More and more I am personally convinced that, for celibacy to flourish to the full within the diocesan clergy, we should look more often towards the possibility of priests living together in small communities of two or three. Most Religious to whom you speak will tell you that for them the way of fruitful celibacy was only possible within a community context. Many, probably most of my brethren, will not be slow to tell me that their own strong preference is for living independently. I respect that viewpoint totally: priests, like everyone, can only fruitfully be drawn, not driven, to see the possibilities within another way. My own generation, though, and this indeed was the norm until comparatively recently, grew up into priesthood by learning our gospel trade alongside other priests. Horror stories notwithstanding, many of us would gladly acknowledge the benefits we gained from such mutual support and companionship within presbytery life. The argument that the good priest will find his community within a supportive parish and among his personal friends is worthy of respect, but it is not one that finally convinces me. There are, I gladly recognise, many fine priests who live contentedly by themselves and who yet are excellent community builders. But there is another model, which, for some at least, might serve their own personal needs as well as the pastoral needs of the people. Within our diocese I have seen enough good examples recently of the possibilities created when priests share the challenge of priesthood from under the same roof to encourage me towards further modest experiment in times to come.
If I speak with particular personal conviction about the value of community, it is because I have been so fortunate in that direction. For the greater part of priesthood, and for virtually all of the last 19 years as bishop, I have had the chance to live within highly supportive communities. In our present community of three, the daily prayer times we have together are for each of us a source of special strength and encouragement. Respecting each other?s privacy and personal space, we live as a little family, sharing each day?s routine, its joys and sorrows to our mutual benefit. In the light of that experience, I would never now opt voluntarily for a solitary existence. Another thought occurs to me. Would I be very wide of the mark in reflecting that it might have become more burdensome than previously for priests to live alone in this day and age within a highly sexualised culture? For my own part it makes me all the more grateful not to have to face such challenges alone.
In the afterglow of celebrating a jubilee of priesthood, I am filled with gratitude for the gift put into my frail hands 40 years ago, a gift given to me for the sake of God?s people, and for my own deep human fulfilment as well.
I put it like this to a newly ordained priest: ?Alongside the good times there will inevitably be the bad and indifferent times as well that?s true of any human life, priestly or otherwise. But be sure that the balance will lie heavily towards the good, towards joy. So make the most of it, live your priestly life to the full, and be full, too, of confidence. Just as God?s loving providence has brought you, has brought me, has brought all of us safely through until now, so will that same loving providence go with us on every step of the way through life, and not least within our priestly vocation which, if embraced with generosity, is a sure pathway to joy.?