by Noemi Ciollaro (English translation by Rebel Girl)
They question the Catholic Church hierarchy, demand a place for women in the structure that not only forbids them from the priesthood but also from any other possibility to influence decision-making and, above all, they call for celibacy to no longer be mandatory for nuns and priests. These four women, two Argentinians, a Brazilian and a Mexican, are married -- civilly in one case, blessed privately by another priest in the others -- to priests and belong to a movement that, they state, is more and more numerous and represents many of the concerns of the majority of Catholics. But, they say resignedly, change will not happen as long as Benedict XVI is pope. Nevertheless, they and their husbands continue to demand a place in the same Church that denigrates and marginalizes them.
The priests' wives receive us in the old house on Calle Gaona, in the Caballito neighborhood, where the meeting of the Latin American delegates of the Movimiento de Sacerdotes Casados y sus Esposas (Movement of Married Priests and Their Wives) took place.
In the library of the home that Bishop Jerónimo Podestá, who died in 2000, and his wife Clelia (85) shared for years, between religious carvings and secular craftwork, photos and books, some of the priests who participated in the conclave are reading.
Our chat takes place around the table in the big kitchen that evokes the past, huge families, meetings of wise women used to weaving the fabric of their lives with dignity and rebellion, ritually cultivating boldness and freedom.
They are women who have had to leap over barriers and move boulders aside, bear slurs and face their choices about love, as intrepid as they might seem.
"Saint Paul said clearly that the apostle has the right to bring a wife with him; those are his words, not mine. And Jesus picked the apostles who accompanied him from among married men. In the Church today we are experiencing a time of darkness, but we have also had times of great light such as Medellín and Puebla," says Clelia, the founder and president for life of the movement that promotes optional celibacy for priests and nuns.
With her at the meeting are Aglesia Gonzaga, a Brazilian woman married 37 years to Gilberto Gonzaga, Adriana Di Tomaso, an Argentinian married for 30 years to José Farías, and Teresa De la Torre, a Mexican woman who has been married 8 years to Lauro Masías. Their husbands are still priests, even though they're married because "once ordained, you're a priest until death," they explain.
At the meeting of the Movimiento, couples from Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Aregentina, with membership in Colombia and Guatemala, analyzed the situation of their churches and alternatives in the economic, social, political, and human rights areas. And they discussed the situation of married priests and their spouses, at the same time as they reitereated their commitment to the poor, the oppressed and the people, stressing their willingness to dialogue with the Church and the bishops on these subjects.
"During these days, we reviewed our position within the Church, which none of us has quit. We would like to be in a different place within the Church, not in the exclusion we are experiencing today," Adriana stressed.
It has been estimated that there are about 150,000 married priests worldwide, although it's known that is many countries these situations don't come to light because of fear of reprisals and media scandals. The number of nuns who have left religious life to get married is unknown and hushed up by the Church, and since they aren't "in the ministry" (women can't perform marriages, baptize, or officiate at Mass), they pass unnoticed.
Dispensation from celibacy
When a priest or a nun wants to get married or leave the religious life for other reasons, they have to solicit what is known as a "dispensation" from church auhtorities. It isn't always granted.
The dispensation keeps the priest from ministering in public. He can do so privately, but never in a church or a parish.
"They can continue to minister in the base communities. In Spain, for example, there are priests who celebrate Mass and the bishops don't say anything," Clelia explains.
Aglesia stresses that in Brazil her husband, Gilberto, "performs baptisms, weddings, and celebrates (Mass) too. Not in church, but in homes, halls, and meeting places."
Many married priests continue to minister this way in poor neighborhoods and communities with the support of a priest who registers the weddings and baptisms that require the signature of a parish priest.
Clelia and Jerónimo Podestá's house was the scene of countless weddings, baptisms, and blessings. The issue is that celebrating isn't prohibited; what's prohibited is doing it in parishes or public places.
"We respect celibacy and celibate priests who fulfill what they set for themselves. Our husbands were celibate; being against celibacy was never our thing. What we want, and what we'll get some day, is optional celibacy, and voices are being raised in many countries; there are petitions worldwide. But with this Pope it's difficult. If celibacy were optional, the seminaries would be fuller, because young people no longer agree with mandatory celibacy. We don't lose hope. The movement is prophetic; it denounces and announces. And this is something that also has to do with human rights, because it's a prohibition of the human right to love one another and be a couple," they point out.
Clelia and Jeronimo
They met in 1966. After ten years of marriage and pregnant with the youngest of her six daughters, Clelia left Salta where she had practiced preventive medicine among the native people and developed her Christian service vocation. She separated and came to Buenos Aires where she met Jerónimo Podestá at a meeting with the Brazilian bishop Helder Cámara. He was bishop of Avellaneda and his questions about the Church, his involvement with the worker priests, and his popularity contributed to the rise of the Movimiento de Sacerdotes del Tercer Mundo (Movement of Third World Priests). So an intense friendship began. At the time, she started to work as Podestá's secretary and the love grew that led him to leave the diocese among intense arguments and sanctions from the Church leadership, to get married in 1972. Podestá thus became the only married bishop in the world, and Clelia, his wife. There was a major media scandal and, rather than hiding, they decided to fight and promote optional celibacy.
"Well, obviously it was a hectic life, since in the middle of the dictatorship in '67, Jerónimo was declared an enemy by Onganía. Ultimately they asked for his resignation because of his theological and political stands. And thus began a life of struggle, persecution, threats from Triple A [an Argentinian right wing paramilitary group in those days], poverty, and exile in Rome, Mexico, and Peru. I was always struggling, Jerónimo in Peru and me with my daughters here. And Jerónimo and Clelia were always a couple. He was 'the bishop' and I was Clelia, but... we always lived publicly as a couple. In those days it was huge, but nowdays it's normal and people are now asking for priests to get married. We're in a different cultural situation. We love each other deeply, and he is still present in this house, in my life, in this kitchen itself among us...Unfortunately, Jerónimo is gone. He died at a very sad and dark time for the country, in 2000. He was never able to experience the political resurgence of today, or the Latin American union. He was a patriot and a prophet; we always struggled. The country and the Church caused us suffering. Pepe Sacristán once said to us ‘but they strike you and you stay in the Church’, and I asked him 'and you, why do you stay in the Communist Party?' 'Because I want to change it,' he told me. 'Well, we want to change the Church too,' I answered. That's why I go on today with the hope that some day, not too far off, when this Pope finishes his term, a big change will come. Our movement is prophetic. It's prophetic because it denounces and announces what is to come, an open and renewed Church, because the world is changing and the younger generations don't accept medieval issues," she concludes.
They both had to bear strong pressure from the Church leadership and the Vatican where she was taken by Jerónimo and argued in person with the authorities who were determined to separate the couple. Deprived of her name, she came to be known in the media and in public opinion as "that woman" or "that lady". Jerónimo in turn shouted that his relationship with her was "a grace, not a sin."
It has been many years since then, however Catholicism keeps the obligation of celibacy for priests and nuns, grounded in "the Platonic idea that the soul is a prisoner of the body and the body is bad," the Brazilian representatives said during the meeting, mentioning the economic issue. "The Church never considered the possibility of maintaining a priest with his wife and children." In fact, those who get married remain priests for life, but they're excluded from any compensation or work that depends on the ecclesiastical structure.
Adriana and Jose
Adriana entered the novitiate at 17 and was over 30 when she met José, who was a priest in Córdoba too.
“I was working in vocational ministry in my religious life, and he was working with a group of young people. We met there and it was a whole complex process to resolve our respective vocations. I had worked with the neediest since I was very young, I had devoted my life to that. Well, we fell in love and said why not have a life together...", she says, serene and unhurried.
Ordained women also have to seek dispensation when they decide to leave religious life whether to get married or for another reason, and it isn't a simple step "because the Catholic church structure is absolutely vertical and we women don't have a voice or carry any weight. In other faiths like the Lutheran or Anglican ones women are recognized and have an active role. But in the structure of the Church, it's the priests, the pastors, who rule. It's very closed and if a nun leaves, everything happens silently."
The road to the decision wasn't easy because asking for dispensation to some extent means being exposed to the elements in many ways. Adriana and José left their respective orders and "a lot of difficulties came up. Even though José was a pharmacist before becoming a priest, he had to look for work. We were in the interior, in Cordoba, and we came to Buenos Aires. I began to work in teaching and he, as a pharmacist. We didn't know anybody and we got in touch with Jerónimo and Clelia. It was very hard because the Church didn't make even a little bit of room for us, even if it were just to keep sharing what had been so strong for us in faith, in service to others. But this house became a place where we could immerse ourselves little by little in the new life."
Adriana and José have two children and they relied on the support of their families in the most difficult moments of decisionmaking when doubts, uncertainties and fear for the future got mixed in.
“I had problems in the religious community I was in, but some time later I was able to get in contact with some of the women who had been my companions and they told me honestly that we should have had the freedom to choose whether we wanted to be celibate or not. As Clelia says, we are prophetically announcing something that for now, isn't for everyone but which, well, we have experienced. My papa used to say to me 'it took me so long to accept you going into religious life and now you're telling me you're leaving...well, you know I support you.'"
Adriana is a clinical psychologist "in a poor suburban neighborhood, in family strengthening, a lot with women in violence situations. I'm retired from teaching; I taught for 31 years. I'm a teacher of theology and philosophy, so I could cover religious formation in some of the poorer areas, but under these conditions I don't want to. Yes, of course I think that women could be priests, of course. Why not? If Catholicism would accept optional celibacy, women could also get to a different place. That's why our movement is for married priests AND their spouses, for couples, it's in our statute. We have the same rights and responsibilities. But the Church structure is extremely harsh to women. In the area of intellectual production, we have distinguished theologians, doctors, but they are never quoted or consulted. And if they know you left the religious life, you don't participate in anything. It's 'Get out of here', to sum it up," she states.
Aglesia and Gilberto
She is tiny, restless, dynamic and expeditious. He shows up every now and then in the kitchen, smiles, and at one point he comes over and she stands up to give him a kiss or a caress. They have been married for 37 years and are Christian activists with an option for the poor in Brazil.
"When Gilberto and I met, I was a teacher. He went to get therapy in Rio de Janeiro shortly after our relationship began. He needed to know what he really wanted. It's very disturbing for a priest to fall in love when he has planned a life of celibacy, service and dedication to God and religion. Guilt is inevitable," she states.
For the women the choice isn't simple either, especially when they share the religious beliefs and feelings. Celibacy as a taboo weighs heavily.
“The one who gave me the most grief was my father. My mother and father were very pious, very religious, so for them it was a shock when I fell in love with a priest almost forty years ago. However, my father now has Alzheimer's and the only person he recognizes is Gilberto," she says.
Aglesia spins out memories as a mischievous light dances behind her glasses. "Gilberto was one of the most advanced priests, a leader of the New Church. When he finished his therapy and clearly knew what he wanted, it took two months to obtain his dispensation. We do everything together in Brazil. For our people, he is 'Father' and I 'Mother'. We work with a lot of freedom and respect. A very significant number of bishops support us. Gilberto worked three years at the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. They all say 'priests should marry'. It's true that in our country we have better conditions and a degree of freedom in terms of the limitations imposed by the Church."
She's a social worker. "I have a lot of dedication to people living with HIV, on a voluntary basis. Also in a women's league that fights against cancer. And we're putting an enormous effort into a team of volunteers that we set up in Portobello for individualized work with children with addictions. It's a tourist place of great poverty where the resource is fishing. The boys work on the boats, six months at sea, fishing. They need help and support. Gilberto and I have two sons and a granddaughter. He's also a social volunteer, a group leader. That's how our life is. We aren't rich; we live with what is necessary and our house is always full of people, so we're happy." She smiles brightly.
They both edit a monthly magazine, Rumos ("Directions"), in which the issue of mandatory celibacy is discussed regularly and articles critical of the Vatican's rigid stance are published. Themes such as the need for women in the priesthood, optional celibacy, the importance of revising the training of priests, and the need to reform the hierarchy, are the order of the day, indicating a sidereal difference from the situation in the rest of the Latin American countries, including Argentina.
Teresa and Lauro
"Our story is a little different," this Mexican mix of Maria Felix and Frida Kahlo, with piercing eyes, a sensual figure, and confident statements, announces.
"I began my relationship with Lauro after he celebrated the marriage of one of my daughters. We're both divorced. The year after my daughter got married, I separated and when Lauro, who had gotten divorced, learned that I was separated, we met and began a relationship. It was a little difficult for me to make the decision because I had to break from many of my notions. My divorce from the father of my children was difficult, very painful. My children accept him perfectly, they love him, and if they want advice, they turn to him, not their father. It's sad, but that's how it is. Lauro's children from his previous marriage also look favorably on me. We've been together eight years."
The weight of ancient Mexican religious culture is evident in Teresa's speech, and repression filters out beyond the desire and willingness to keep on breaking the established rules.
"Sadly, in Mexico the movement is a little bit asleep, as if tired because everything is very hard there; the diocese is very closed. Many priests don't even want anybody to know they're married because they could lose their jobs. If the bishop knows that they're teaching in a religious institution, they order the nuns to fire them. Everything is very difficult for us. But we mustn't throw in the towel; we keep on fighting for this. As companions and wives of the priests, we have a dual commitment to stand by them through thick and thin. We are committed to their ministry, we want it to stay alive to work for the Kingdom of God, which is what we're looking for after all," she says.
Teresa draws a very different picture of the work she's developing in Mexico and it's clear that the situation of women is light years behind the Brazilians and even the Argentines. "In Mexico, I do what I can because I'm a merchant and Lauro is director of a school. The task I have proposed is to seek out women, ladies who have relationships with priests, but where they have been relegated, hidden, told 'you shut up if you want me to keep you, you can't say you're my wife, you can't say that our children are mine', given orders. We have also encountered cases of nuns who have been raped by priests. They are very difficult cases and we've tried to integrate them into our group. One of them became pregnant from the abuse, but there was no consideration from the convent or the bishop. They ran her off as if she had been the one guilty of rape. It was awful. There's a lot of chauvinism. Through one of my sisters who's a nun, I know about situations of women who need help. Another brother of mine was in seminary and left because he felt insecure and wanted to try a year away. He went to study at the University of Guadalajara, met a girl and fell in love with her, and said 'I'm not going back to the seminary again unless they tell me they'll accept me as a married man and then, yes, I would get ordained. Otherwise not, because I want to have children'."
Teresa recalls that her father "lost the ability to speak in 2000. His expressions are now gestural, shaking hands, hugging you, and when he sees Lauro, it's clear that he's showing him affection. When I ask him what he thinks of all this, in his own way he makes it clear that it's something from God...My grandmother used to say to him, 'you have to be content because God didn't give you a priest son, but He gave you a priest son-in-law, give thanks to God.' Lauro's mother was distant from him for a while because of his decision, but now she has accepted him. Our children are proud of us because of our love and our courage," she concludes.
To the reiteration of a question which they had avoided answering throughout the interview, they answered demurely that, yes, "at the beginning they felt like sinners, not all of them, but in general there's a period of crisis through which we need to go, each one by themselves and then together."