Lessons that can be learned from the love story of a priest and his wife
Hierarchy needs to take a decision on the problem of disappearing priests
Priests in the Orthodox tradition can be married. Do they love their wives? Do they have time for their ministry? Photograph: Frank Miller
Can a priest love someone in particular and also be at the service of others? Is the love a priest has for his wife exclusive or can it be inclusive? These were some of the thoughts that went through my head 30 years ago when I took the decision to marry Marta.
I remember well that evening in Glendalough standing alone by the lake. With arms wide open I cried to Heaven: “My God what do you want of me?”
I felt a deep peace come down upon me and knew in my heart that I wanted to marry her. Looking back on these 30 years of married life, I know I did the right thing. I have been able to raise a family, have a secular job and do pastoral work. The sacrament of Matrimony has not been an impediment to my work as a priest.
To recall our 30 years, Marta and I have written a book: I Only Want You to be Happy: The Love Story of a Priest and a Nun. It is a simple story of how two people from different backgrounds and nationalities were drawn together until they discovered that they wanted to continue their lives together.
It talks about our families, about my arrival in Brazil as a Holy Ghost missionary priest, how we gradually became closer to each other, about my return to Ireland to pray and to come to a decision. It describes our wedding, tells stories about our two children. It talks about my pastoral work and shows the good working relationship I have with parish priests and how the people accept this.
It is a love story of a priest and his wife. Do I hear voices in the background saying, “But a priest can’t love just one person, his love is for everyone.” Do you think St Peter loved his wife? Of course he did. Did she accompany him on his missionary journeys? St Paul in Corinthians, chapter 9 v 5-6 says: “Don’t I have the right to follow the example of the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Peter, by taking a Christian wife with me on my journeys?”
Priests in the Orthodox church are married. Do they love their wives? Have they time for ministry? Likewise the Anglican priests received with their wives into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Here in Brazil, people accept me as a married priest. They know who my wife is so there is nothing hidden. I do everything I did as a celibate priest except that I no longer have a parish. I always answer, and will always answer the call of the people to serve them.
I’m called to go to the cemetery, to administer the Sacrament of the Sick, to give Bible courses, to train lay missionaries, to give retreats, to organise prayer groups in apartments. Do I say Mass? Yes, in my own home, for the important occasions of our family.
I do not say public Masses. I respect canon law, although I don’t agree with it. Here there are many communities deprived of the Eucharist. I could be called to celebrate for them. The hierarchy needs to take a pastoral decision about this grave problem, which is not just confined to Brazil. In Disappearing Priests, Fr Brendan Hoban asks: “Who will break the bread for us?” He is talking about the shortage of priests in Ireland. Without priests we have no Mass. Without Mass we have no church.
When we pray for vocations we should be thinking of other forms of ministry and not just that confined to a celibate priesthood. When Marta and I got married, we took on secular jobs to live and support our children.
One of the arguments against a married priesthood is that the church won’t be able to sustain a priest with a family. But a parish could be divided up into communities. In these communities, a married priest could have his job, give spiritual assistance to the people, celebrate the Eucharist. I know what it is to have a family, have a job and find time to serve the community: it’s not easy but it is possible.
When I got married, I lost the position I had in society as a parish priest. I don’t miss that. My wife has helped me keep alive the flame of my priesthood. If anything, she is the one who has preserved and nurtured this vocation.
Our book may help priests who are in a relationship come to a peaceful decision. If they marry, may they choose well, as I did, a companion who can help them reflect on their ministry, someone who has experience of church work.
Brian Eyre lives at Recife in Brazil; firstname.lastname@example.org