I was ordained in Middlesbrough Catholic Cathedral on June 11th 1960. I left the seminary with a profound desire to serve the Christian community in a life of simplicity.
That was easy to achieve on an annual salary of £60$87. My transport was a rickety wreck of a bicycle till a parishioner stopped me in the street and gave me £20$30 to buy a new one.
I enjoyed my work. It brought me into contact with some wonderful people. I was astonished at the generosity of sprit which so many people showed, streets ahead of us in the seminary.
Two of my particular heroes were the local Anglican Vicar, Rev Derek Hall and the agnostic senior consultant at the mental hospital where I was Chaplain Mr Jack Blackburn. Their open mindedness and service to their congregation/ patients was an inspiration to me. I envied the support they received from their wives.
In the seminary we had been taught, and I fully accepted, that celibacy was a higher way of serving God and our people, a total dedication. The dedication of my Anglican and agnostic friends didn’t seem to suffer one jot from being married.
I had always been uncomfortable with the expression, the vocation of celibacy. Vocation of priesthood yes I understood that and embraced it but celibacy was a rule and you can’t create a vocation by imposing a rule.
If a rule can’t create a vocation, could that mean that some Catholic priests might be living a celibate life without a vocation to it. And if they were would that explain the life of comfortable, self centred bachelorhood which I observed in some?
As one elderly priest put it to me, “We never chose celibacy, Brian. We chose the priesthood and celibacy was the rule we had to accept to get what we wanted, the priesthood.”
But there was more. Christians regard God as the ultimate origin of everything including evolution, the Ultimate Designer as Thomas Aquinas described in one of his nine ways leading to a belief in God. That would mean that humans are as God meant them to be.
So God wanted a split human race, males and females. To males He gave penises, to females vaginas and to both sexual desires. And just in case we could be so stupid as not to realise His intention He gave an instruction, ‘Go forth and multiply and fill the earth.’
When a group of humans declare that they have found a higher way of worshiping and serving God than that designed and commanded by God Himself, wouldn’t that be blasphemy, creatures telling God they know better?
Notice, I’m not saying celibacy is blasphemy. I’m suggesting that teaching that it is a higher way of worship and service might be. And when a man decides to resign from the active priesthood what are we to think of the expression which says he has been reduced to the lay state.
It seemed obvious that there were a lot of things which needed discussing. The sixties were a time of open discussions in the Catholic Church. Pope John 23rd had summoned a council of all the three thousand Catholic bishops of the world.
They debated and deliberated over a five year period and produced a series of documents designed to create a more open and collegiate church.
In this atmosphere of open debate I wrote to John Todd of Darton, Longman and Todd and asked him to edit a book to be called The Experience of Priesthood. Imagine my astonishment when he invited me to be the editor and promised his help.
It took two years to complete the task. As I handed over my final typescript to John I felt a sense of satisfaction that I had done what I could to promote a healthy discussion of topics which needed an airing. How naïve I was.
The first that the public knew of the book’s existence was Cardinal Heenan’s review in which he condemned the book in intemperate and at times inaccurate language and ordered that it must not be sold in Catholic bookshops.
The day after the Cardinal’s review appeared the Vicar general of the Middlesbrough diocese visited the Catholic bookshop next to his Cathedral and warned the owner that he would buy all his books in Smith’s bookshop if he heard that she had sold one copy of my book. “He often buys five books at once,” she told me.
So much for open discussion! Where I had failed, Pope Paul 6th was about to launch a tsunami of discussion on the world. He banned the use of the contraceptive pill as a means of birth control for Catholics. What did that have to do with me? I had spent a week in Fleet Street being interviewed about my book.
A meeting of journalists took place in London, the topic: Does anybody know a priest who will give an interview. One journalist said, “I interviewed a priest recently about a book he had published. I never had such direct answers to questions. His name is Passman.
A young lady picked up her bag, left quietly and caught the next train to York.
TO BE CONTINUED