Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Culture Notes: "Femme de prêtre?"

A play about priests' women is being reprised next month in Lausanne, Switzerland. "Femme de prêtre?", written and directed by Jean Chollet, who writes under the name Jean Naguel and has a degree in theology, had its debut last summer at the Avignon Festival.

The play deals with two love stories that come together. Fr. Matthieu (Christophe Gorlier) has been a priest for 20 years in the town of Limoux. Madeleine (Nathalie Pfeiffer), his assistant, helps him with charitable works while they carry on a secret romantic relationship on the side. Into this mix comes a young woman, Chloé (Caroline Guignard), who is supposed to be helping Madeleine put on a concert. Chloé provokes a spiritual crisis by confessing to Fr. Matthieu that she too is in love with a man who professes to be a priest. The play explores the theme of celibacy and secrecy.

In connection with the upcoming production, Bonne Nouvelle, the magazine of the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Canton of Vaud, ran the following article about "Sarah" [a pseudonym], a real life woman involved with a priest. We have translated it into English:

Sarah is 62. For many years, she has loved the same man. One peculiarity: she shares her life clandestinely with him, since he's a priest. She is not alone in this. The association that has been created around this issue has been in contact with 500 women for whom priestly celibacy has caused problems these last twenty years. The situations are quite diverse. The priest was able to leave his work to get married, the relationship broke up or, on the contrary, as in Sarah's case, still lasts. "Many priests have a woman, but they don't talk about it", Sarah avers.

"These love stories, you can't control them," she says. "When you discover that your lover is a priest, you're idealistic and you imagine that everything will change. But the years pass and you're still in the same place." At the cost of anonymity, the couple might spend some good times together, but the status of woman in the shadows weighs heavy. Sarah says she suffers because she isn't acknowledged by society. She has to be careful not to display more than friendship publicly. Someone might denounce them. "The hardest thing is not being able to live together," laments the woman who has been seeing a priest for a long time.

Does her priest friend feel guilty about living the life of a couple? "No, he can't preach about love without experiencing it himself," Sarah answers. "It has never hindered his work. On the contrary, my support helps him." Sarah believes most people are in favor of marriage for priests. "It's just the hierarchy that's blocking it. It's not normal that priests can't marry. Marriage doesn't take away from the quality of the work of pastors."

Sarah has never regretted her choice, in spite of the difficulties. "The more I move ahead, the more I think that maybe my mission is to further the debate about mandatory celibacy, to fight to abolish this obligation for priests. It's the women who will make things move. The priests don't dare to talk about it, for fear of losing their job."

"I believe deep down inside me that it's going to change someday, but I don't know if I'll see it. I think about the women who are younger than me, for whom I wish a less tumultuous life. It's already progress that our association can exist. That would have been unimaginable thirty years ago. It's important to feel that we're not alone."

Sarah doesn't have any children but says that she knows women in her situation who do. "If they don't create a scandal and remain discrete, they leave them alone," she says. "There's such a shortage of priests..."

The future? "I live from day to day. It's going to stay that way. Maybe it will be better when my friend retires. But he has to wait until he's 75, quite a few years yet..." Sarah doesn't hide her resentment towards her friend's hierarchy. "They know we exist but they won't acknowledge us. That's what's hardest to take. In the end, it's the priests' women who are the victims of the situation," she says.

NOTE: Organizations that support women involved with priests with which the producer of this play is collaborating include the Swiss group ZöFra and the French group Plein Jour.

Photos: Poster and a scene from the play with Fr. Matthieu and Chloe.

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