By Juliette Demey
From La Baule to Pornichet, they have called him "Rémi" for a long time. From now on, it will be the only name that Fr. Rémi Bouriaud will be allowed to use. On September 4, this 70 year-old priest was suspended a divinis by Msgr. Jean-Paul James, bishop of Nantes. He isn't allowed to celebrate Mass or perform any sacrament. His mistake? Having chosen to "live with a woman companion" for 11 years, putting into question "the commitment to celibacy he made when he asked for and received ordination," the diocese said in a communique on Thursday.
Father Rémi Bouriaud, who was ordained in 1967, has always wondered about "women's place in the world, in the Church, and in his life." He had already had a five year relationship with a woman when, in 2000, at almost 60, he met Michèle. "We gambled on trying to live together while knowing the Roman Catholic Church's position on celibacy for priests," he told the Presse Océan. Though not showing off, he never really hid this relationship. In the parishes of La Baule and Pornichet, where he had ministered since 2006, the faithful knew about his double life. The priest often left at night to join his companion, who lived a couple of dozen kilometers from there. Nobody was really offended. They understood, and they didn't talk about it.
"The Church is ten centuries behind"
Today, they no longer understand. "He's just a man who had a girlfriend. He had informed his peers, even the bishop, and he continued to do his job. We're going to miss him," said one of the faithful in the presbytery. He was a priest who was "friendly, open", "not preachy", "convivial." Father Rémi looked after the high school students. He asked them to call him by his first name and "didn't wear a Roman collar." A modern priest, "like they all should be," a parishioner from La Baule said. "Among the parishioners, there are always some self-righteous folk. They preach morality, but they know nothing about charity."
This nonconformist priest, who confessed to RTL that he had always had "a need for affection, for physical touching, for solidarity with the feminine world", ended up in trouble. Why today, when he asserts that he informed his hierarchy years ago? It was an anonymous letter, sent this summer to the bishop of Nantes, that stirred up the hornets' nest. "I think it's because I was always frank that I'm being punished," he said. Both disappointed and relieved, Rémi is still heavy-hearted: "There were married priests pretty much everywhere until 1450. The Church is ten centuries behind on this issue," he complained.
"This relationship makes us happy"
Some hope that his story will relaunch the debate on celibacy for priests. According to the European Federation of Catholic Married Priests, approximately one in four priests has (or has had) a clandestine relationship. "It's time for the Church to think. At least this priest knows what life in a couple is like, like pastors and rabbis do. Enough of the code of silence," said an angry parishioner. To Bernard, a priest who resigned from the priesthood forty years ago, "it's total hypocrisy. When you talk to the bishops, they understand. But if they want to keep their position, they have to keep quiet, exclude, not question the Church." Dominique Venturini, former companion of a priest, who runs the organization Plein Jour, has written a letter to Benedict XVI demanding an end to the celibacy requirement for priests. "Let the Church grant the same freedom, the same human rights to everyone!," she urges.
Rémi Bouriaud doesn't want to become a standard bearer. "It's going to be very hard for him," Bernard sympathizes. "As a human being, having spiritual responsibilities, he must feel destroyed." Bouriaud says he doesn't regret anything. "This relationship makes us happy. We knew that sooner or later this double life might end," he admitted to Presse Océan. At La Baule, the other priests organized a lovely farewell meal for him. At his last Mass on Saturday, he was given a standing ovation by the faithful. A few days ago, he came back to pick up his few belongings from the rectory. He can now live his love affair with Michèle in the open.