The big picture


If you have reread Mahatma Gandhi’s biography, you will know that at one time, he wanted to be a Catholic.

He always had a relationship with Christ Jesus and, in pursuing that, he went to a church to enquire about instruction.

It was a white church.

The priest told Gandhi he should go to a Catholic church for coloured people.

Gandhi did not do that. He walked away.

If Gandhi had become a Catholic, think what that would have meant for the Church and India.

The effect could have been huge.

The priest who turned away Gandhi was not doing anything wrong, he was being obedient to the status quo.

In that, he missed the big picture.

I believe that now, the Church is missing the big picture in its resistance to the marriage option for priests.

It’s about money, of course. It is always about money. And that invites hypocrisy.

In South American countries, the Philippines, parts of Africa,  priests have de facto wives and families.

That the priest isn’t married within the Church, means the Church doesn’t have to pay for his family. The parish does that.

At a mass in Peru,  a parishioner proudly showed me a woman sitting in the front row with five children.

“La novia del padre!”

This was part of my introduction to the church, which I saw as a realm of love.

I didn’t realise some countries were different.

In New Zealand, Canon Law seems to be carved in stone.

In some countries, it is was the point of negotiation.

For the past 30 years, I’ve been facilitating retreats and days of reflection, an average of 2  a month. Most of these are Catholic.

I cannot reveal what is said in the retreats and companioning sessions. Confidentiality is important, and I take that seriously.

But I can make some general statements about situations I feel to be wrong. All relate to mandatory celibacy for priests.

This is what I see and hear.

Church teaching shaped by celibate men and women has created a culture of sexual ignorance and fear. We still struggle with this.

Mature women who were taught that sex is for procreation, cease sleeping with their husbands when past child-bearing age. This is common.

The second bed is celebrated.

For some priests, sexual development was arrested at age 12 or 13 with entry into minor seminaries. When this age is acted out, good men are labelled paedophiles.

Wanting a family should not be an impediment to diocesan priesthood.  Some priests mourn lack of progeny. Being called Father is not compensation.

Mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests is advertised as being holy, saintly and superior, but this is at best, is an ideal.

It is not the way God made us.

Many of us feel that the advertising is like a shiny icing on an inedible cake.

It also, in a subtle way, denigrates marriage.

It is jokingly said amongst some of the laity, that priests think married couples spend all their time in bed.

Well, the bed is important, but intimacy is only sometimes genial.

Intimacy is about touch, closeness, skin against skin, a warm melting into a feeling of oneness.

It is a knowing of the image of God.

There is a saying in Islam, “When man and woman disappear in each other, God emerges.”

In Judaism, it is said, “When a man cannot pray, he should seek God in the arms of his wife,”

To be sure, the Church would need to support the family of a married priest.

However, if we calculate the financial cost of breakdowns in celibacy, maybe married clergy would not be such a financial burden.

I have a deep love of the Church, both human and divine. I love its beauty, its profound mystery. I even love its messiness.

Now, when I look at the big picture, I see God at work, dismantling the old to make room for the new.

If we cling to man-made rules and do not respond to the invitation to grow, we will, like the priest who spoke to Gandhi, be responsible for profound loss.

And the physical and spiritual cost will continue.

  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.
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