A Catholic priest based in Brazil had an article in the Irish Times last Thursday. My interest was aroused when I saw the name of the contributor. For Brian Eyre was a close friend of mine way back in the early sixties when we had both taken the decision to enter a seminary and train for the missionary priesthood.
Within the space of a few short years our paths were to diverge and while I found myself back in the lay state, taking my first tentative steps in a secular career, Brian was already a fully ordained Catholic priest posted to take up parish work in far off Brazil.
For me it was the prospect of leaving behind family, friends and country that made me baulk at the last moment and opt to stay and work in Ireland. I was very much then, and still am, a home bird. In those days the prospect of travelling to another hemisphere was a daunting one, for missionaries usually would not see home again for many years.
At any rate we lost touch with each other and the next I heard of Brian was many years later when I saw a television programme featuring himself and his wife working among the poor in Brazil. The point of that documentary was that while Brian had been dispensed from his priestly vow of celibacy in order to marry, he was forbidden by his superiors to publicly say mass or exercise many of the functions of the Catholic priest.
He has since collaborated with his wife Marta in the writing of a book, I Only Want You to be Happy, the Love Story of a Priest and Nun. It’s a moving account of how they first met, of the problems they faced within the church and of their subsequent fulfilling life together, dedicated as they both are to bringing the consolations of religion to the most impoverished sections of the Brazilian population.
In last week’s Irish Times article Brian Eyre makes an eloquent plea for the Catholic Church to bite the bullet and move away from its insistence on celibacy for its ministers. In the evangelical churches, he says, pastors can marry, as can priests in the Orthodox Church, so where is the problem in the Latin Rite?
‘I will always be a priest,’ he says. ‘Though I received a dispensation and married, I continue to be a priest because ordination is permanent. The people call me and I will always answer their call.
‘My wife has been a true, loving companion during all these years. In no way has she or our children prevented me from doing pastoral work.’
Here in Ireland I’ve met a number of married priests, no longer allowed to minister publicly, but who quietly carry out their priestly functions for small groups of Christians who are endeavouring to get back to a simpler style Christianity, small communities of believers, coming together to offer the Eucharist in the manner of the early Christians.
My novel The Priest’s Wife features a married priest, although the fictional Finbarr is in no way as exemplary as the men I’ve mentioned above. Still, the novel gives a compelling insight into the difficulties faced by priests who, for whatever reason, want to take a wife to share their lives.