Long time readers of this blog may remember that we covered Fr. Gumersindo's marriage to María Benetti back in January 2007. We are thrilled to see that this clerical couple are together and happy three years later.
by Silvia R. Pontevedra
Gumersindo Meiriño, born in Cea 44 years ago, entered the seminary at 10, was ordained at 25, then earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Navarre, was pastor of Oseira and Cea, later in A Gudiña, and then went off to the missions. He was in Ecuador and Argentina, and there, in the Diocese of Santo Tomé (Corrientes), he fell in love with Maria Benetti, a lay missionary from Pergamino (Buenos Aires) devoted to the care of patients. At 40, Gumersindo decided to marry her, but he did not leave the priesthood.
He never asked for papal dispensation to return to lay status, so the couple married in the living room of a sports club, in a civil ceremony. And there were many participants (those from A Gudiña even got mad at him because he did not invite them), even though the bishop of Santo Tomé had a letter read in all parishes warning the faithful that whoever went to the wayward priest's wedding would be committing a mortal sin and could no longer take communion. Meanwhile in Ourense, the priest's native diocese, Bishop Quintero asked the faithful to pray that Meiriño, who had already gotten married, would return to the straight path. Now, in Santo Tomé, he does not walk the parishes of the diocese, but he still "feels like a priest" and is still counted in the statistics as a Catholic priest.
Moceop (Movement for optional celibacy), the largest religious group championing the cause in Spain, estimates that of the 27,000 priests in the Spanish diocese over 6,000 are married, though other estimates raise this latter figure to 7,000. It is difficult to be specific, precisely because the Church maintains silence on this issue, but according to these numbers at least 22% of diocesan priests have decided to formalize their relationship with a woman. And some continue to work discretely, with the tacit consent of their bishops. This happens here and in other diocese such as Madrid, also ruled by a Galician, Antonio Maria Rouco Varela.
Twenty-eight seminarians were ordained in Galicia this year. Three or four decades, ago, a single seminary class would have the same number of students. It is logical that diocese are reluctant to give up their soldiers. The lack of vocations and the aging of the clergy are not minor problems for the Church: for each seminarian who is ordained, three priests die. In Galicia, there are 3,863 parish churches (including the 219 belonging to the diocese of Astorga) and only 1,421 priests (28 in Astorga), many of them disabled by age.
When a scandal springs up, as in the recent case of Victorino Pérez, the non-laicized priest from the Diocese of Mondoñedo-Ferrol who continued to concelebrate Masses, the diocese take steps. With support from the Galician priest Manuel Espiña, who just died, Pérez Prieto recently officiated at the collegiate church of A Coruña, considered the second most important church of the Archdiocese of Santiago. Some very Orthodox parishioners had complained about the situation, but the archdiocese did not act until reporters asked about the matter in early March.
An official spokesman denied it at first, but just hours later, the archdiocese released a statement in which it forbade Victorino Pérez Prieto from celebrating or concelebrating Mass in any of the churches in the archdiocese. Three days later, the diocese of Mondoñedo-Ferrol took the same road and announced an investigation.
Victorino Pérez and his wife, Cristina Moreira, have agitated for years for the renewal of the Church, advocating optional celibacy and women priests. This week, Moceop published a statement supporting the couple: "It is sad that the Galician bishops are now jumping on this specific case, when they know that in Galicia, in Spain, in Latin America and in many other parts of the world there are thousands and thousands of priests who are living out a kind of Church in fraternal communities of equals."
In Galicia, there are even cases of priests married to nuns. Celibacy came into the Church three centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth with the Council of Elvira (Iliberis, Granada). "Sooner rather than later," according to Moceop, the bishops and the Pope "will have to realize" that mandatory celibacy is "outdated and obsolete." "Many bishops" (the lates -- the one of Vienna -- last week) have called for [a reconsideration of mandatory celibacy] publicly, and "even John Paul II came to acknowledge to a group of journalists that he knew it would be inevitable." In their public letter, the former priests and married priests warn that "the current pedophilia scandal" could put a change in church law on the fast track.
Until that happens, and more so now, given the favorable treatment towards Anglican pastors integrated into Catholicism, there will still be many leading double lives. "Celibacy is oppressive when it is not a charism," says Antonio Martínez Aneiros, a former worker priest, former mayor of Narón, former Galician parliamentarian and a deep believer. Aneiros, who started the process of laicization after spending two months in jail for having officiated at the burial of two workers from Bazán killed in the 1972 protests, recalls that there are studies that put the percentage of priests who violate the celibacy rule at 70%. Some do not even hide the fact, and their parishioners can come to see it as something normal. In a township east of Santiago everyone knows that there is a priest who has had a relationship with a lady for three decades and no one is shocked. The Church (not divine) celibacy law mainly victimizes women, who have to live in silence and who can't even be listed in a partnership registry.
The process of laicization is "hugely traumatic," says Luciano Pena who, while pastor of Portomouro (Val do Dubra), fell in love with a parishioner. "I was tricked from the beginning and it was humiliating for me," he acknowledges; in the interrogations conducted by the vicar, "they asked me to tell my intimacies and eventually, so that they would approve my laicization, I had to tell lies. My rector in the seminary had to make up that I had some kind of defect." With the Church and its "regression in the recent past," this official of the Brión City Council now feels "disheartened". He goes to Mass, but only "to maintain the link" with his neighbors.
Currently, the laicization process is less harsh and quicker (before, it could take "up to 10 years"), but even recently, according to Andrés Muñoz of Moceop, "almost all the questionnaire was of a sexual nature, and only if one declares onself to be obsessed or if one says one has lost faith, is it granted." Then, once returned to the secular state, "former priests become pariahs, and can not return to their parishes." But the low points, after the young priests come in contact with the world, are inevitable: "In the seminaries we learn that women are a danger, the word "pleasure" is forbidden, and the system of discipline, the cilice and the recitation of the breviary have come back," this married priest explains.
Sometimes the pressure is such that it is better to put some distance between. Ángel Álvarez, from Dena, moved to Argentina and conceived his children there. Most are still believers, but others have even left the faith along the way. Domingo Seivane, from Ferrol, was pastor and missionary in Angola, then traveled to France and read forbidden books: "I learned the story of the Church and became an agnostic," he says. Upon returning, he waited until he found employment (as an insurance inspector), and gave the keys to the parish back to the diocese. Under canon law he remains a priest: "I'm not deleting myself from anything," he jokes, "maybe when I die, I will be named pastor again in Heaven."
Photos: Fr. Gumersindo and Maria; Fr. Victorino