The incessant ringing of the doorbell pitched me out of my slumbers. It would go away. But it didn’t. Could it be an emergency? I grabbed a dressing gown, tumbled down the stairs, opened the door and blinked into the blinding sunlight which framed a young lady. Yes?
“You won’t remember me Father Passman. I interviewed you before you went to South America.” Oh yes? “I wondered if you would answer some questions for me about the Pope’s encyclical.”
Now I was wide awake, standing on the edge of a precipice. For years I had been advising Catholics that not only was using the pill not a sin, it was a very responsible way of managing one’s family. Never in my wildest nightmares had I ever imagined I would be asked to say it publicly.
I knew exactly what would happen to me. I would be summoned by my bishop and suspended, unable to function as a priest. I would also be required to retract what I had said publicly and if I refused I would be reduced to the lay state.
But that was not the worst. The worst was that in Peru I had found a form of Christianity in practice, based on Liberation Theology, to which I could give my commitment body, mind, heart and soul. Answer this lady’s questions and I would never get back to Peru.
Refuse to answer her questions and how would I live with myself for such a betrayal of the truth as I believed it to be. I pondered for a long moment then said.” Come in; let’s make a cup of tea.” I desperately needed time.
When I put the two cups of tea down in front of us in the lounge I said. “I will answer your questions on one condition.” “And that is?” she asked. “That when we are finished you will read back to me your notes and if I decide that I cannot make that statement publicly you will tear them up and it will be as though we have never spoken.”
Now it was her turn to ponder which she did at length. Finally she looked up, fixed me with her gaze and said, “Yes, I will make you that promise”. We talked for almost an hour.
When she read back to me her shorthand notes I was astonished to find that she had everything I had said verbatim. Before she finished her reading I knew what my answer had to be. I also knew the consequences. I said, “Go ahead and publish.” The interview appeared that evening in the York Argos.
The next day the bells were ringing again but this time it was the telephone. Newspapers, radio and television stations all wanted an interview. No use telling them that I had said all that needed saying in the York Argos article. They each had their own slant.
I gave a total of thirteen interviews over the remaining three weeks of my holiday ending up with Robin day on Panorama. I took the view that, having put my head into the noose, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.
I spent my time visiting family and friends. I figured that if I kept moving around it would make it more difficult for my bishop to locate me and if I could manage to get back to South America well who knows… I would then be the responsibility of the local bishop who happened to be Cardinal Landazuri Ricketts, a believer in Liberation Theology.
In my travels I attended a function at which, to my surprise, a Catholic bishop was present. I knew him only by reputation. His priests held him in high regard. Nevertheless I did everything possible to stay out of his way. But at lunch the summons came: “The bishop would like to speak to you.”
I sought him out for my telling off. He greeted me warmly and said, “Brian I just wanted to tell you that I agreed with much of what you said on television the other evening, but I couldn’t possibly say those things, could I?” The rest of our chat was equally warm and positive.
I admired his honesty and courage in speaking to me the way he did. But it also made me sad. I had always believed that we were ordained to bear witness to the truth. Apparently that was not possible, even for a good man, if he were a bishop. The consequences were just too high.
As the days ticked by, I began to suspect that my bishop had decided to ignore me. He had made no attempt to get in touch. I suspected that he realised that I would soon be on my way back to Peru to complete the remaining four years of my contract. There I would be another bishop’s responsibility.
Some of my friends were not so lucky. Most stayed safe simply by remaining silent. One was removed from his post and appointed as chaplain to a convent of contemplative nuns.
One bishop informed his priests that they must give internal assent to the Pope’s teaching not just external obedience. One of my friends from Seminary days told him he could not do that. The bishop told him he must resign. Thus a congregation lost a good priest, a woman found a good husband and children a good father.
Finally I was on my way back to Peru. My plane was coming in to land at Lima’s Jorge Chavez airport. I looked down on the appalling poverty of my parish below.
Suddenly a powerful emotion took me completely by surprise and overwhelmed me: A voice in my head said, “You’re coming home. This is where you belong.” Little did I realise that my days in that parish were numbered, but that is a major story for another day.