Some months ago, Roman billboards were plastered with playbills announcing the release of a new B movie entitled Papà Dice la Messa (“Dad Says Mass”). Such rinky-dink productions poking fun at Italy's largest and most visible institution, the Catholic Church, come a dime a dozen in this paradoxical country. Without wasting 7000 liras to view this short-lived film, I could readily infer from advertisements that it was meant to be an embarrassing (to the Church) comedy involving a priest with children, with all the religious pratfalls that can be derived from such a situation.
This inconsequential movie advertisement would have quickly been erased from my mid-term memory, were it not for a recent article I stumbled upon in The Tablet, Britain's progressive Catholic weekly. “My Father the Priest” is the title of the essay penned by Fiorella Sultana, daughter of a Catholic priest who, years ago, fell in love with a woman and left his priesthood to marry her. Though the article is meant to be a poignant plea for lifting the Church's priestly celibacy rule (“I wonder how long I will have to watch other married priests who were former Anglicans saying Mass while my father is forbidden to do so”), the author touches a far more interesting and important point along the way.
In describing her father's decision to abandon the active priesthood to marry, Miss Sultana considers two possible explanations. The first, frequently offered by “well-meaning friends,” runs like this: “Well, I dare say his ordination was all a big mistake.” Not so, retorts Sultana. Those who think this way are “entirely missing the point.” She then jumps to what she sees as the only plausible reason: her father was indeed called both to be a priest and to get married. This is the story of a man, insists Sultana, “whose vocation to the priesthood was very real indeed, but whose vocation to love a woman was as great a reality.” Hence the appeal for married priests.
While sympathizing with Miss Sultana's delicate situation (had her father remained celibate, she would never have existed), I would humbly suggest that she has overlooked a third possible rationale to account for the present irregular state of affairs. Maybe, just maybe, leaving the priesthood was a mistake. Maybe Sultana's father should have acted against his feelings for the woman he felt drawn toward, in order to remain faithful to his vow of celibacy. In a society accustomed to regarding feelings as an infallible guide to right action, such a suggestion may jar our sensibilities. Yet it is not without foundation.
Let us consider a parallel case: that of a married man who falls in love with his secretary. What should he do? Few women would recommend that the man “follow his feelings” and dump his present bride, so as to marry the new flame. Fewer still would sustain that his vocation to marry his wife was “very real indeed,” but his vocation to marry his secretary is “as great a reality.” Most would rather affirm that the only honorable course of action is for the man to remain faithful to his wife. Why would we judge priestly fidelity differently?
Actually in both scenarios two questions come into play: first, falling in love when one is already committed to another (or Another, with a capital A), and secondly, what to do should the first situation occur. The reason I separate the two is because, ideally, one should strive to assure that situation one never happens. Of course it can and sometimes does happen. Priests are not immune to human affection and, left unchecked, such affection easily becomes strong feelings, attachment, and so on.
But there are plenty of measures both priests and faithful can employ to uphold a priest's commitment to celibacy. Here the most solid counsel continues to be Our Lord's injunction to “watch and pray so as not to fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). Daily prayer keeps a priest's love for Christ fresh and alive, and in it he finds strength to be faithful. Indeed, when Pope Paul VI was asked why so many men abandoned their priesthood after the Council, he responded: “Pregavano poco, pregavano poco” (“They prayed little”).
Watchfulness, in turn, complements prayer. Knowing the tendencies of human nature, priests and faithful alike must guard against situations that jeopardize priestly celibacy. Just as a married man who spends an undue amount of time alone with another woman may be asking for trouble, so too a priest must avoid situations that compromise his consecration to Christ. The faithful, too, should support priests in this endeavor, so that their mutual dealings may always be characterized by honesty and respect.
In the Gospel, Christ speaks of a pearl of great price, for which it is worth selling all. The priesthood is such a pearl. Once purchased, this treasure must be guarded and defended. It is a blessing not only for the one who receives it, but for the whole Church.
Father Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legion-aries of Christ in Rome.