The desire to have a spouse or be a father does not have to be absent in a young man who wants to be a priest. On the contrary, they are necessary. A priest is married to the Church and he is called a Reverend Father because he is a spiritual father to God’s children. The responsibilities of a priest as a spouse and a father are not totally absent; he lives them out in a fairly different way from the rest of the lay faithful.
In the history of the world, women have come a long way, from being discriminated against to being publicly acclaimed, from being denied education to being fulfilled in careers, from being housewives to workers with many earning a higher salary than their husbands. Women have made a statement in the society and they continue to do so. Their presence is also being felt in the Church.
Priests learned a lot from their mothers when they were young. They still learn from women as they serve the Church. In their interactions with women, they learn from their wisdom and life experiences.
A woman as a person has her dignity equal to that of a man. As members of the Church, men and women are equal and both collaborate with the priest. Jesus had women who ministered to him and this was so with the apostles.
Paul understood the power and the effectiveness of feminine genius. Among the prominent women collaborators of Paul we find Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia. Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2) is mentioned as an active community leader, as diakonos like Paul himself (1 Cor 3:5). He also calls her prostatis, thereby reaffirming her leading role in the Church of Cenchrae. Priscilla was Paul’s generous hostess, during his prolonged stay at Corinth and Ephesus. With the addition of ‘in Christ Jesus’ to her work he wanted to emphasize her participation in the service of the Gospel like her husband even by risking her life. She may be considered the first woman theologian who instructed the learned Alexandrian Appollos. Paul presents Junia (Rom 16:7) as a fellow prisoner more in the sense of ‘being prisoners together for the same cause,’ than being in the same place. She is designated as outstanding among the apostles. She along with her missionary team member (Andronicus) received high praise.1
The interaction and collaboration of a priest and a woman can lead to friendship. Celibacy does not mean that priests will not love women or have friendship with them. Many saints we honour today had women as friends.
Experience of deep love in friendship can help priests to accept themselves, and to discover and develop themselves. Each one of us is a solitude. When a person walks into our life and affirms us it becomes easy for us to accept ourselves. Further, the experience of deep love in friendship can make priests more loving and kind. Finally, the experience of deep human love can make our faith in God’s love more real. This is the religious significance of friendship.
If such a friendship is to be beneficial to a priest he has to take certain concrete steps: First, be honest with yourself: accept the fact that you are getting emotionally very close to the woman. Second, seek guidance. Friends cannot guide each other in the area of their friendship. Their emotional involvement will cloud their perception. Only a person who is open, competent, experienced and courageous can be a good guide. Third, you have to follow your conscience. We are not angels. Our body is necessarily involved in our friendship. What sort of bodily expressions of love are appropriate for you is a decision you have to make in accordance with the dictates of your conscience and in harmony with the local culture. Here it is presumed that your conscience is properly formed. If this is not the case, you are likely to find a sinful disorder where there is none. Or you may not find any sinful disorder where there is actually some. Finally, you have to respect the freedom of your woman friend. If she is a woman religious, she should feel free to attend to her community and her mission.2
The lay man should understand that the priest like him is human and can fall just like him. But the priest and the woman who are socially and emotionally mature can have a relationship that will be beneficial to both without bringing scandal.
- As quoted in Kurien Kunnumpuram, SJ, Called to Serve, 2012, St. Pauls, Mumbai, p. 93.
- Kurien Kunnumpuram, SJ, Called to Serve, 2012, St. Pauls Mumbai, p. 94.