by David Rice
One night in 1952, a German boy of 19, in the throes of a youthful romance, became overwhelmed with the certainty that God wanted him as a priest. In the following days he felt he could not pray “Thy will be done” if he refused the call.
And yet during those same days he found himself weeping uncontrollably, “shadowed with darkness because, for the sake of the priestly vocation, I had to accept the renunciation of marriage”.
Heinz-Jurgen Vogels stayed with his vocation all the way to ordination, for the call had taken place “with such inner force that it carried me over the threshold of priesthood, yet only to drop me burnt out immediately after that.”
The couple of years that followed Vogels’s 1959 ordination were years of unrelieved depression, inability to function in his priesthood, leading him eventually to the brink of suicide.
“Only years later was I able to recognise that my subconscious, at the ordination, had concluded: ‘Now, finally, the door to marriages has closed; now there is no longer any rescue for my desire to have feelings for the other half of humankind, which is, however, part of my nature.’”
The crisis came in his little Cologne room overlooking the Rhine: “The abandonment in the colourless grey room was felt so greatly that I stopped again and again at the washstand, and took the razor blade to cut open the arteries in my wrist. Only with extreme effort could I return it to the glass plate. The window, the Rhine, the rail tracks, everything attracted me almost irresistibly.”
Vogels was sent to a rest home for a while and then resumed duty, living with an understanding old parish priest in a village in the Eifel mountains.
“It was a time of long conversations in the evenings, seated in comfortable armchairs. Yet it should take another five years before the fog was dispelled.”
It happened after a pilgrimage to Kevelaer: “It may sound strange that during my prayer I found rising in my soul the dear wish: ‘Oh would I be allowed to use sexuality!’”
And then came the revelation in a verse from St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: “Have we perhaps not the right to take a wife along with us, like the other apostles . . ?” (1 Cor 9:5) – the word “mulier” being open to interpretation as “wife” as well as “woman”.
That linked up with the sudden realisation that there were already married priests in the Catholic Church – all the Eastern Catholic churches in union with Rome had their married priests, and even here in the West, Protestant pastors could become Catholic priests and then live openly with their wives and families.
The rest of Vogels’s life has been a one-man crusade to convince the authorities in Rome to abolish compulsory celibacy. This story is told in his extraordinary book, Alone Against the Vatican , now available in English.
Unfortunately the publishers have chosen a less striking title, Catholics and their Right to Married Priests, with the subtitle, Struggles with the Vatican. It’s readily available in paperback from Amazon and is also on Kindle eBooks.
Those struggles make for a fascinating story. The first declaration of his views in a sermon led to such a rumpus that he was diagnosed with “endogenous mania”, church authorities holding that anyone with such views had to be round the bend. But Vogels stayed sane, dangerously so, grew as a theologian and disputant and gradually his crusade developed.
Inevitably came marriage to Renata, plus a challenge to Vatican authorities to declare his marriage invalid, which they declined to do.
All these years later, Vogels is still fighting his case, alone against the Vatican. The kernel of his argument is that the gift of priesthood and the gift of celibacy are separate, and only rarely are bestowed on one person.
Hence the horrors that we see around us here in Ireland, when attempts at staying celibate fail. Vogels even has the support of Vatican II, which declared that celibacy “is not required by the very nature of priesthood”.
This fascinating book is just Vogels’s latest salvo. But what comes out most clearly is the steadfastness, devotion, support, indeed heroism, of Renata. She, indeed, is the best of all arguments for what a helpmate could be for a priest.
David Rice directs the Killaloe Hedge-School of Writing. His books include the best-selling Shattered Vows: Priests Who Leave.