Tuesday 20 August 2019

'We are in limbo' - married priests want to return to the altar as they watch vocations dwindle

Married Catholic priests can't minister in Ireland, much to their own frustration as they watch vocations dwindle. Sarah Mac Donald reports

Married priest, Liamy McNally. Photo by Mark Condren
Married priest, Liamy McNally. Photo by Mark Condren
Pope Francis maintains celibacy is a gift to the Church. Photo: Reuters

Sarah MacDonald

When Liamy McNally walked into a coffee shop in Westport last weekend, a local in his 80s turned around to greet him. Shaking his hand, he told Liamy: “I hope I live to see the day that you are back on the altar.”

It was a show of solidarity for the Catholic priest, who has been unable to celebrate Mass publicly since 1989. That was the year he married his wife Ger, who he met on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, and this September, they celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.

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Despite a major shortage of priests in Ireland, giving rise to parish clusterings and a reduced number of Masses, the Church won’t allow Liamy to minister. There are some who feel little sympathy for his dilemma and reproach him with, “You left.” Liamy quashes such critics by reminding them, “I never left.” He wasn’t laicised. He is still a priest.

So how can a Catholic priest be married? If it were straightforward, we wouldn’t have got ourselves into such a tizzy over the BBC comedy Fleabag and its Hot Priest character.

Celibacy is mandatory for Catholic priests: they are not allowed to marry. But it is more complicated than that elementary rule, which only came into force after 1,000 years of Christianity. Priestly celibacy is not a doctrine, it is a discipline. Most of the early leaders of Christianity, Jesus aside, were married men. The Gospels mention St Peter’s mother-in-law. Having a wife was, therefore, no bar to St Peter becoming the first pope. There is a myriad of other examples, including St Hilary of Poitiers (315–368 AD), a Doctor of the Church, who was a married bishop and had a daughter named Apra. So, if the Apostles were married, when did Catholic priests stop having wives?

It was Pope Gregory VII who spearheaded a slew of reforms, including a decree in 1074 against clerical marriages. Celibacy became the rule in 1139, during the Second Lateran Council.

But, the fact is, there are married Catholic priests in 2019. Eastern-rite churches, those that have practices similar to the Orthodox churches but regard the Pope as their leader, have married priests. There are also estimated to be over 100 married Catholic priests in the US, thanks to a Pastoral Provision approved in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, which enabled married Episcopal priests to become Catholic priests. A similar path was offered in 2011 to Anglicans in Britain who were disenchanted with the prospect of women bishops. They became Catholic priests through Pope Benedict XVI’s Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Since 1994, when the Church of England began ordaining women, almost 400 Anglican priests have been accepted into the Catholic Church, including many with families.

This willingness to allow former Anglican priests who are married to take up ministry in the Catholic Church has resulted in disenchantment amongst Catholic priests who have married and have had to stand back. One of these is former Spiritan missionary Fr Brian Eyre, who served in Recife in Brazil for 50 years, 18 years “as a celibate and 32 as a married priest”.

He is now living with his Brazilian wife Marta in Tralee. His adult daughter is married and settled there too, while his son lives in Galway.

Fr Brian cites the example of the parish of St Thomas More in Coventry, which was served by much-loved priest Fr Philip Gay.

Pope Francis maintains celibacy is a gift to the Church. Photo: Reuters
Pope Francis maintains celibacy is a gift to the Church. Photo: Reuters

After 25 years in the priesthood, he announced in 2014 that he was leaving to get married. He was replaced by Fr Stephen Day, a former Anglican priest, who arrived with his wife and three children.

“It doesn’t make sense to not allow celibate priests to marry and continue in their ministry, and then accept priests who are already married. Why not accept a Catholic priest, who feels the calling to marriage, to also have a shared vocation of husband-priest? This decision to swap a Catholic celibate priest for a married Anglican priest is a slap in the face to those priests who want to marry and continue in the ministry,” Fr Eyre argues.


Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests agrees. Speaking to Review, he said the Catholic Church’s welcome for former Anglican ministers, who are married, as Catholic married priests “has established again that marriage is no bar to ordination”.

He believes Catholic priests, who are out of ministry because they have married, “could easily be reinstated, as there is no need for theological and pastoral training or formation”. In the Co Mayo parish priest’s opinion, it is “an absurd example of doublethink to ignore priests who are available”.

The ACP priest emphasises that celibacy is not of the essence of priesthood. “It’s a Church rule that was introduced and can be changed. Clearly, every effort is being made to prevent this, even to the scandalous extent of depriving people of the Eucharist. It seems the discipline of celibacy is more important than the Eucharist.” According

to Fr Hoban, a significant number of priests, who are out of public ministry because they married, would be prepared to return to ministry. Liamy McNally agrees. “If the option was there, a lot of guys would go back if they were asked. I would love it. But we are in limbo; we still want to exercise priesthood, because we feel that is our response to God’s call within us. It has caused a lot of angst over the years, because on so many levels, we still see ourselves as priests, but we just cannot exercise it publicly.”

Due to the 12th-century celibacy rule, anyone who wants to be a priest must have two vocations, according to Liamy. “He has to have a vocation to priesthood, but he also has to have a vocation to celibacy — even though he mightn’t have that vocation.”

He believes the situation of married Catholic priests needs to be regularised, but there seems to be no appetite amongst the Irish bishops to grasp the nettle. “Our situation is not hitting the Episcopal church in the face because no one is shouting from the rooftops about it, so it doesn’t bother them.”

There is a dearth of information about the numbers of priests who have been laicised in order to marry, and the number of men who remain in the priesthood and marry civilly. “There are no statistics about the priests who have left to marry and, even if there were, I doubt if they would be released,” Fr Hoban says.

Sr Liz Murphy, Secretary General of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland (AMRI) told Review that the issue “has not been discussed to date by AMRI”. Likewise, a spokesperson for the bishops said they had not discussed the matter. There is no centralised database on the numbers affected.

Liamy McNally believes every priest in Ireland knows several who have left formal ministry and are married, but haven’t left the priesthood. In his 60s now, he and Ger were married in 1989 in a civil ceremony in London. They also had a religious service in an Anglican Church in Dublin, because priests who are not laicised cannot marry in a Catholic ceremony due to their celibacy vow. He admits Ger had “her own hurt over the whole thing; personal hurt and people saying things”. But, he adds: “She is a strong woman and her family were very supportive from the very beginning.”

Fr Brendan Hoban explains that once a priest leaves or marries civilly, the Church has no more financial responsibility for him. Liamy McNally, who is now in his early 60s, recalls how he approached the newly appointed Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Joseph Cassidy, in 1987 to tell him that he had fallen in love with Ger, someone he had known growing up, as her brother was his best friend. “I found him a gentleman to deal with,” he says.

“He was very supportive to me in the months following that and would contact me regularly.”

The Archbishop gave Liamy, who had been serving as a priest on the Aran Islands, a cheque to tide him over the first couple of months until he got himself a job.

The financial cost of supporting a married priesthood is a factor in the Church’s refusal. Liamy believes the Church will have to look at the possibility of a non-stipendiary priesthood. No salary is paid to these priests, who support themselves through work or a pension. In a recent article for the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Brian Eyre recalled how he had taken up three secular jobs after he married, and he had also continued to do pastoral work.


“My idea is that a married priest can have a secular job and still do church work.”

Living in Westport, Liamy has seen how the shortage of priests is affecting the Mayo town, which used to have four priests and now has two. “People say there is a shortage of priests, but there is no shortage per se — it is just that a lot of the priests are now married. In Westport, there are seven married priests. Only one of them is in active parish ministry and he was a Catholic priest who switched to the Anglican tradition. The rest of us are not in formal ministry.”

Liamy is involved with his parish pastoral council and the parish choir. Asked if he still considers himself a priest, even though he hasn’t ministered publicly for over 30 years, he responds: “Absolutely — without a shadow of a doubt. I haven’t ministered publicly since 1987, but I still minister in my own way as a priest in whatever ways are open to me. I used to have a Bible study group of up to 24 people, which ran for about eight years in my house. We gathered to go through the Sunday scriptures.”

Recently, he was involved in getting the Alpha programme running in Westport, which brought together Christians from several denominations. “Over the last two years, I have even buried the dead because a priest wasn’t available. Families in Westport have no problem with that because they know who I am. If I hadn’t been around that day, who would have done it? We are getting to that stage in Ireland where the gaps are showing up.”

He still says Mass privately, most recently for his parents’ anniversary last Thursday. “My mother died two years ago, so I went down to my dad on Wednesday night. He is coming up to 94. I asked him if he wanted to do anything for the anniversary and he said: ‘I would love to go to Mass; I would love if you said Mass here in the house rather than go into town.’ He lives three miles outside Westport and it would be a big deal to get to the church. So, I said Mass with my dad.”

Last January, Pope Francis ruled out any change in the celibacy rules for Catholic priests. Speaking to reporters on the plane returning from Panama, he commented: “Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church. I am not in agreement [with those who say] optional celibacy should be permitted. My decision is ‘no’ to optional celibacy.” Fr Liamy, who was ordained in 1985, wryly observes: “It is easier to ordain married men than it is to take back the guys who are already ordained, because that would cause friction with some people in the Church — but I think, in its own time, it will come.”

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