This is a translation of "Madres e hijos, la otra cara del celibato" by Mariela Rosero from El Comercio (Ecuador), 5/16/2009.
He greets Maria Cristina with a kiss on the mouth and strokes her hand from time to time. It has been more than 50 years since Father Alonso Pérez stopped paying attention to the lessons he learned in seminary…
“They taught us to walk with our eyes to the ground and not look at a woman, because she was the devil and temptation,” this loquacious 83-year old man remembers.
A black jacket, waistcoat and wool sweater give him the appearance of a priest like any other. The calm tone of voice and the wrinkles that crease the skin of his face also make one see him as a holy man.
But he does not want to project that image. Until January 2007, when the Ecuadoran Bishops’ Conference retired him, he celebrated religious services in his parish, La Ferroviaria, in Tungurahua. And until last November he presided at secret Masses in San Diego in the capital.
He never left the priesthood nor did he experience a crisis in faith, since he got ordained in order to influence humble people. He was convinced that the Church could help the poor. He was happy in front of youth groups.
However, Pérez was not just another Catholic priest. In the country there are 1,728, about one for every 8,000 inhabitants.
Until 2007 he led a double life. Even though his catechists, his people, and the Church hierarchy have known that for the last 30 years he has also been father of a family.
Cristian, his oldest son, is 30 years old and studies at the University of San Francisco in the U.S. He is a doctor in medicine and biology. Loly is the youngest daughter, 18 years old. From the time Maria Cristina, now 53, realized she was pregnant, she suffered a lot.
The dressmaker and teacher of Secap fell in love with a different man – the vicar for ministry of the Tungurahua Diocese, who had recently come from Paris. He didn’t wear a clerical collar, he was rebellious and hard working. A nun, Marieta González accompanied him and she called him a “crazy man.”
According to her, a gringa in the Peace Corps offered to maintain a sex life with him. He was afraid to accept, thinking she could blackmail him. He believed in the ideal of dedicating himself to a community as to a girlfriend or a family. He was celibate for 29 years.
“He had no marriage plans, he was enthralled with working with people," Maria Cristina recalls. Their relationship was kept at a distance. She gave birth in Quito after spending five of her nine months of pregnancy in Venezuela. They saw each other from time to time, making dates in restaurants or to play tennis, prudently. He visited them on Mondays or Tuesdays.
“My daughter, I love you very much, but I can’t leave my position; it’s a very serious commitment," Alonso confessed to her. She accepted it and confronted her mother-in-law, Serafina, who almost beat her furiously. She screamed: “I didn’t make you marry this girl, but the Virgin Mary.”
When they had their second little girl, one of Alonso’s sisters told bishop Vicente Cisneros about him. “My brother has two children.” The bishop talked to him about the fact and the priest assured him that interest in his heritage weighed on him and everything ended there.
”The celibacy vow nurtures hypocrisy. Over 80% of priests have poor women at their sides. A rich woman would denounce them. They are cooks, housekeepers and catechists. I have baptized the children of several brother priests, their ‘nephews’.”
Alonso Peréz is a member of the Asociación de Sacerdotes Casados del Ecuador Yahuarcocha, founded in 1992. Seven years earlier, in 1985, the International Federation of Married Catholic Priests and their Wives began in Ariccia, Italy.
In 1990 the Federación Latinoamericana para la Renovación de los Ministerios was formed, supported by Argentinian bishop Jerónimo Podesta and his wife Clelia Luro.
Its president is Mario Mullo, a 66-year old Ecuadorian, who left the priesthood after 10 years of service. Thirty-five years ago he married Rosa Leiva, now 58.
The couple have three children: Daniela, 30, Fernanda, 28 and Mario, 22. The girls are married, and the oldest will give birth to Mullo’s first grandchild in one month.
Mullo calculates that there are 150,000 to 400,000 priests who have left the priesthood for love. The Yahuarcocha organization believes that it is time to reopen the debate on optional celibacy.
This, after learning of the existence of a child by Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, ex-bishop of San Pedro. In his country, they even composed a cumbia for him: “Lugaucho tiene corazón, pero no usó el condón”. Then Father Alberto Cutié was photographed with a beautiful woman on the beach in Miami.
Rosa is still disturbed when she remembers what they suffered, when her current husband bid farewell to his parishioners from the pulpit at Calacalí. He confessed to them that he had fallen in love.
“Small town, huge hell, everybody talked about it. I could only come back after three years," Rosa said. Father Mario told his mother-in-law Luz about his intent to marry, after a three-year engagement. It was terrible.
Rosa came back from her job in Quito. She could hear the screams of her mother Luz from the corner. She was trembling. As soon as she came in the door her mother pulled her hair.
“Miss Sanctimonious. How come your lover is Father Mario? Don’t you know that they are disciples of God? It’s the worst sin in the world!, " she yelled. She warned her that if they got married they should forget about her.
The marriage took place in Quito, in the church of San Isidro de El Inca. Mario’s whole family accompanied them. He had been preparing them by telling them that celibacy wasn’t natural and that he could not live a double life, as his superiors were advising him to do.
In Calacali, after a year, they were still talking about Rosa and Mario. The new pastor prayed for the “souls of the cohabitants”. Her mother didn’t forgive her until her mother-in-law told her: “Not a leaf on the tree moves without God’s permission, we are nobody to judge them.”
Years later, when the family visited the parish, Rosa still felt eyes upon her. “They see me as a strange creature.”
At a party at Mario’s family’s house, an uncle danced with Rosa and spat at her: “He should not have gotten married, you must have suggested it to him, you are the devil.” She cried.
Mario finished his Sociology studies at the Central University of Quito and started to work for a foundation. Then as a professor. Today he is assistant director of the Architecture School. He also gives classes in epistemology for the Christian University of Latin America.
“As children, we were told that my father left the priesthood because he loved my mother. I didn’t see it as good or bad, I didn’t understand the Church rules,” Daniela, the oldest daughter, remembers.
Mario, the youngest son, admires him today because of his struggle for optional celibacy and women priests. “He knew the world through confessions, he didn’t have to experience so much, if you understand me.”
Dispensations take 3 years
In the Archdiocese of Quito there are about 300 priests. Three of them have asked for dispensation to leave the ministry, according to Father Nicolás Dousdebés, adjunct general secretary of the Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference.
To be ordained one goes through a period of at least six years of academic, spiritual and human training. “It isn’t that nobody knows or that one is forced to live in celibacy.”
If a priest discovers that a human love for a woman is stronger than his calling, he can ask for a dispensation. Through the bishop, it is requested from the Pontifical Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.
The answer can come as late as five years later, in case the priest wants to change his decision. Afterwards, he can marry in the Church like the other faithful.
Dousdebés says that there are many cases of infidelity among married couples, and nobody calls for this sacrament to be eliminated because of this. With optional celibacy, perhaps vocations will increase, at least until the novelty wears off.
“Then they will decrease for economic reasons, because a married priest will have to earn more to maintain the wife and children, or else have two jobs. The faithful don’t contribute a lot.”
Homero Galarza, of the Asociación de Sacerdotes Casados Yahuarcocha, says that the Church doesn’t understand that those who abandon it don’t just do so to get married. “We group together in order to defend ourselves, if an employee is laid off from a company, he has rights.
We are punished for getting married or acknowledging a child. The hierarchy tells us to just let it be, that they will pay the support.”