I am growing more aware of the lonely lives some priests lead

I have just read two thought-provoking books: “Married to a Catholic Priest” and “Catholic Priest and Husband”, by Mary Vincent Dally, published by Second Spring Press. Peter Dally was an Episcopalian priest in the US, similar to a High Church Anglican priest over here. Under what were called the Pastoral Provisions of 1880, convert married Episcopalian priest in the US were allowed to train to become Catholic priests. This is what Peter Dally, with the loving cooperation of his convert wife, proceeded to do.

It was a long and arduous journey, not least because it was an unusual provision for a relatively small group of men and not widely known or understood by Catholic clergy – including bishops. Given the rudeness he had to endure from some members of the hierarchy in his 5-year progress towards ordination in 1985, (Fr) Peter Dally was a model of forgiveness, patience and humility in this account by his loyal wife. She sometimes found it harder to forgive when she saw her husband being snubbed and slighted by other priests.

Some of this behaviour is understandable. As Bishop Beltran of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who did welcome the Dallys into his diocese, told them, “You have no idea how unusual this is.” What lay behind the attitude was the settled and deep-rooted conviction of Catholics lay and ordained, that “priests do not marry.” Yet, given that Peter Dally had a genuine vocation to the Catholic priesthood and, when he was allowed to, ministered with great love and pastoral effectiveness to his parishes in the Tulsa area, I was a little taken aback by the behaviour of some priests and religious as described in the books. Some were generous, open-hearted and welcoming; others shunned the Dallys and made them feel they would never fit in.

An article on priestly celibacy by Kristina Johannes in The Catholic Thing has provided further food for thought. In a reference to St John Paul II’s series of talks on the Theology of the Body she remarks that “If you don’t understand or appreciate continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, you aren’t going to appreciate or understand the nature of the Sacrament of marriage.” It is obvious from Mary Dally’s story that some priests felt threatened by a married priest – someone seeming to have their cake and eat it; others had settled into a “bachelor” lifestyle and simply couldn’t accommodate the Dally’s joint vocation – his to priesthood and hers to be the supportive wife of a Catholic priest. Inevitably, some women religious were annoyed about the all-male priesthood and could not understand Mary Dally’s contented acceptance of it.

Having read the two books I am more aware of the lonely lives that some priests lead. A few admitted to the Dallys that without the emotional support of their own birth families they would not have coped in isolated parishes, far from fellow priests. I have no doubt it is the same over here. And I also wonder how priests of the Ordinariate who are married have been welcomed by the Catholic laity and other priests.

Johannes’ articles points out, “It is the mutual gift of self that is imaged in conjugal love. Without denigrating the noble vocation of marriage, it can rightly be said that the couple undertaking marriage can find no better guide to understanding the essential nature of the gift of self than the celibate priest who has emptied himself in imitation of Christ.” When lived out properly the married vocation and the priestly one are meant to magnificently complement each other. Sometimes, as Mary Dally’s book indicates, human weakness means the reality on the ground is a little different.