by François Chaussat (English translation by Rebel Girl)
October 9, 2008
They said "I do". On Saturday, in front of the mayor of Vic-en-Bigorre, Léon, 57, married Marga, 58. Their friends gathered at a large reception. Only two years ago, Léon was celebrating weddings in Asson (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) -- he was the parish priest.
In 2005, he let Marga, his companion for twenty-two years, move into the rectory. And suddenly the diocese trembled. On April 23, 2007, Léon Laclau was relieved of his duties. "I made the mistake of transgressing on my commitment. At the beginning I felt tremendously guilty. Then as I looked at us -- me and the woman I love -- I asked myself: But how could the Lord find this wrong?"
In the village, a roar of revolt. The villagers held a Mass strike. Signs and banners cried out: "What has Father Léon done wrong?" "This support made me understand that I had not cheated the people." Since then, Father Léon has become Mr. Laclau. He has gotten to know the ANPE [employment agency] and job interviews, and has found a position in the archives of Vic-en-Bigorre.
"I felt empty, useless. The hypocrisy of the Church disgusted me."
Across the Alps, a replay of this story took place in Italy where Father Sante Sguotti, indubitably the father of a little boy, was dismissed in October 2007. There again, the parishioners took his side. On August 24, Don Sante transformed his last service into a tribute, stating that: "The fruit of fecundity should bring joy."
Joy is far from Father Jean-Marie. He is frightened. "Terrorized", said the person who arranged our contact with him. He refused to meet near his parish and demanded anonymity. She also came only on the condition that nothing would be written that would allow her to be identified. "Our situation is very difficult. To reveal myself even a little bit would be to be condemned." For eight years now, Father Jean-Marie has been living clandestinely with his mistress.
They met in a Christian environment. "I reeled when I realized he was flirting with me", she said. He smiled, one of the few smiles in this interview. "I was immediately under his spell." Who took the first step? "Both of us", they asserted together. "It happened of its own accord, very naturally. I had had two love relationships before my ordination. Nothing since." Since then, they have met in secret, knowing the sadness of hotel rooms, never leaving together. Each meeting is a conquest. The Church is a jealous spouse. A very jealous one. "Few people know. I don't know how my parishioners would take it. But I would not be able to stay in my position."
How long will they be able to stand this life? Her eyes cloud over. "As it is, not very long. And what if we wanted to have a child?" He looks at her, torn, says nothing at first, and then timidly tosses out: "We will have to make choices." Which ones? Risk a scandal? Leave the Church? "I can't consider it yet." She says nothing.
"What a waste"
It's not just today that the "priests' housekeepers" have other functions than maintenance of the sacristy. What is new on the other hand is the favorable public reaction to these love transgressions. Pierre Molères, the bishop of Bayonne, received many letters from parishioners after the dismissal of Léon Laclau. He put an article on the front page of the diocesan bulletin about the impossibility of holding two positions. "We believe that human feelings are respectable. But we also believe that they should be purified and mastered. If sincerity is important in human relationships, equally so are the sworn word and fidelity." The Church hierarchy stands firm. "The real danger is the loss of meaning of the mission of the priest, who reflects Christ's complete giving of Himself to man", explains Father Jean Quris, the assistant secretary general of the French Bishops' Conference.
However, the price of this denial is heavy -- 31 of the 1168 priests ordained between 1996 and 2005 have left their ministry, over half for a woman. At the seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux, this imposed celibacy is the obstacle the novices most talk about. "Some believe that ordination will solve everything. I tell them clearly: the next day, your testosterone level is going to be the same as it was the day before", says Eric Broult, 48, who knows perfectly well what he is giving up. "Society talks a whole lot about sex. We have to exclude ourselves from that. When female friends come to see me, they say: 'What a waste!'", Benoît Ricaux, 25, says.
At the end of the journey of the "failed", there is often a break. Philippe Brand chose marriage. Born in 1941, ordained a priest in 1966, married in 1972..."When I got out of seminary I discovered that what we had been taught was a far cry from real life. I asked to be a worker priest. They refused. I then felt that I was capable of being open to a relationship with a woman I already knew." He had to steel himself; the rejection of his confrères was total. "I ended up becoming indifferent to what my hierarchy thought." Thirty years later, he has come back to Haute-Savoie and lives 200 meters from his former church. There, he has gathered the testimony of other married priests for a book, "Des prêtres épousent leur humanité" ("Priests wed their humanity", L'Harmattan, 2007).
On their side, the wives and companions of priests gathered together for a while in an association, Claire Voie. "Claire Voie's merit was that it made visible and common a widespread situation," says Odette Desfonds, wife of a priest. But the tide that carried them forward, ebbed.*
In 1971, a cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger wrote: "Faced with the scarcity of priests, we will not be able to avoid calmly examining the question of ordaining married men." (which should not be confused with allowing priests to marry). Nothing in Benedict XVI's pontificate shows any sign of change in this regard. "However, among the Christian people, there would not be great opposition to ordaining married men", Jean Quris admits. But vox populi isn't always vox dei.
*Web Editor/Translator's Note: Claire Voie has been replaced by Plein Jour, about which we blogged last month.