Thursday, February 09, 2006

"At the end of a long day a priest is totally alone'

by Sarah McInerney
Sunday Times of Ireland

FATHER James Dempsey was never too keen on the Catholic church's rule on celibacy. Even at the tender age of 18, as he walked towards the seminary, it niggled at him. Went against his nature and instincts.

But he fiercely wanted to be a priest, wanted more than anything to serve God and help people. He thought that wish would be enough. He thought he would learn to accept the vow of celibacy.
He was wrong.

Pottering around his little pub in Cadamstown in Co Offaly, Dempsey makes tea and gets quickly passionate about his subject. "Do you not think it's strange, " he says.

"That the church preaches about intimacy and the importance of married life and family life, and yet it denies all this to the priests?"

There's a minor explosion in the corner, interrupting all conversation. Two tiny people hurtle into the room, followed at a more leisurely pace by a woman wearing an apologetic smile. Dempsey's face breaks into a grin of delighted fascination as he watches his two daughters, Bridget and Norah, fill every second of silence with noise.

His wife, Lila, settles into a seat with an equally content expression. The couple's third child, a baby girl, is sleeping.

"Three children in five years, " Dempsey says proudly.

"Making up for lost time." He pats his wife's knee affectionately, and they share a smile.

James met Lila in Canada in 1998. At that time, having worked as a priest for 20 years, James was desperately struggling with the celibacy rule. " I was finding it very hard, " he says. "The loneliness and the isolation, and as you get older it gets worse, not better, " he pauses, and his voice pleads for understanding.

"We all need to be hugged, " he says. "We all need to be held and cared for, and have a companion in our lives. At the end of every long day, a priest is totally alone. Who is the pastor's pastor?"

It was to resolve these issues within himself that Dempsey had taken a sabbatical in 1996/97. He returned to Ireland, and spent some time running the family pub in Cadamstown before returning to his parish in Canada.

"I went back but I was still very uneasy, " he says. "Not about the priesthood, I loved what the priesthood was all about. But I was just getting more isolated and disillusioned. I think most people want to find their significant other and have a relationship. And I wanted that. I craved it."

It was in this frame of mind that James met Lila, who was instantly drawn to him.

"I walked into my sister's kitchen, and saw this guy in a Van Morrison t-shirt and shorts and sandals, and he introduced himself to me as 'Fr Jimmy', " she says, grinning broadly at the memory.

"We hit it off straight away, and I remember thinking, 'There's someone I'd like to meet again.'

"But it never once occurred to me that he was a potential boyfriend. I mean, he was a priest."

The pair became fast friends, phoning each other, meeting each other, occasionally going out together.

Their relationship was intense, but platonic. Then James decided to move back to Ireland. "I missed him so much, " says Lila, her hand straying unconciously to her heart. "When I realised how much it hurt to have him leave, I knew I must be in love with him."

They talked on the phone for hours. They admitted their feelings for each other.
And then they made a decision.

In 2000, James wrote his letter of resignation to the Bishop, and Lila broke the news to her staunchly Catholic family. The couple were married immediately in a tiny ceremony in Canada by another 'ex-cleric' who had left the priesthood to marry a nun.

"My mother told me it was the biggest disappointment of her life, " says Lila, her voice trembling a little. "Everyone in my family told me that she was never going to accept this.

"I remember when I told her I was pregnant with my first child and she said, 'That's the worst news I've ever heard.'" Lila pauses, her eyes filling quickly with tears as if she's just hurt herself unexpectedly. Five years later, the shock and pain are still fresh.

In Ireland, the couple were given a warmer welcome.

James's mother was initially distraught, but has since accepted the marriage. For the residents of Cadamstown, a married priest posed no problems.

"The people who celebrated my ordination here in 1982 celebrated my marriage with me in 2000, " says James. "I think if I was to say mass in the morning, the vast majority of people would just be happy to have a priest. At the moment, we have only one priest in this parish. One priest, and four churches.

The man is run off his feet, and I'm sitting here, aching to serve the church, and not allowed to do so."

"We need to change from within. The church is the people. Not the popes, not the bishops, not the priests.

Change will only come if the people stand up and say, 'No, we're not going to accept this any more.' I believe with all my heart that God called me to be a priest and I refuse to say that my vocation was a mistake."

James stops for a second, just time enough to ask if he would still think of himself as a priest. He bristles slightly.

"Of course, " he says. "I'm not an ex-priest. I'm an excleric. I'm still ordained, I'm still a priest. Some people won't accept that. I remember somone once said I was a 'defrocked priest'. Defrocked, " he laughs. "I never even wore a frock. Not my style."


1st century: St Peter, the first pope, was married, as were most of the apostles.

4th century: In 306, it is decided that a priest should not sleep with his wife the night before mass. In 325, it is decreed that a priest cannot marry after ordination. In 385, Pope Siricius (LEFT) leaves his wife to become pope. It is decreed that priests may no longer sleep with their wives.

5th century: St Augustine writes on the dangers of women - "Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman."

6th century: Pope Gregory says that all sexual desire is sinful.

7th century:
Majority of priests are still married.

11th century: Pope Gregory VII says that anyone to be ordained must first pledge celibacy . . . "priests [must] first escape from the clutches of their wives".

12th century: Pope Calistus II decrees that clerical marriages are invalid.

16th century: Council of Trent states that celibacy and virginity are superior to marriage.

20th century: In 1930 Pope Pius XI says that sex can be good and holy. In 1980 married Anglican/Episcopal pastors are ordained as Catholic priests in the US. In 1994, this trend spreads to Canada and Britain.


jw said...

Hi, Rich.

I did not know that you had this blog. I went back and searched my CITI listserv messages and found that you did mention it last May.

Nice abbreviated history in your post.

Peace to you and Carla.
- Jerry Wightman, Phoenix, Arizona

Linda said...

Having a married "pastoral coordinator" at my parish has shown me that priestly celebacy is NECESSARY - not just because it's a disciplint, but that the discipline is to fulfill the need. A priest is not a "job" - it's a life. To balance a wife and children, and inlaws, and all that that entails with the VOCASTION of priesthood doesn't work. Something has to give. If your wife is away from home - Shopping, visiting a sick relative, having dinner with friends, and the priest/fatehr gets a sick call, what does he do? Deny a dying person the sacraments? leave his children alone? Take "the gang" along, in the middle of the night? What about the women who marry a man who breaks his vows to marry her. How impartant are the vows that he makes to her? I am thankful that the vast majority of our priests are good men, who take their vows seriously.

Bob and Jean said...

Every religion on planet earth (are there other inhabited planets--perhaps the one she is from) has figured out how to have a clergy who has the option of marriiage. Do you mean to tell me that only the Western Rite Roman Catholic Church has not figured out how to have a priest who is ordained first and then marries accepted? We have figured out how to have a priest who is married first and then ordained work out (Episcopals-Luteran imports).

John S said...

There are all kinds of professionals who are married and who dedicate their lives quite effectively, 24 hours a day, in services that are much more critical than ministry. If Linda’s ideas were true, the professional world would fail to work as well as it does. She should turn her ire on the cozy, corrupt and complicit clerics who have taken her in so completely.

Doesn't Linda watch TV or read the newspapers about priestly and Episcopal abuse and unfaithfulness revealed over the past 3 and a half years.

Next to the myth of celibate purity, "Father is busy helping someone else" is probably the next most effective cloaking device the institutional church has for allowing celibate priests to avoid the accountability that every married priest lives on a daily basis.

Kate said...

How much I can truly relate to how their feelings developed and grew. I'm in a very, very similar spot myself right now, only we haven't come out yet and deliberately expressed our feelings for each other. Oh, but I know, they're there, the same as he does. Time will tell. My absolute best to James and Lila, and their young family. Cheers!