The Pope's children

The Pope's children

macnally_liamy_thumbLiamy MacNally

This year is the five hundredth anniversary of the building of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. The current structure replaced the old Constantinian building. It took one hundred years of uninterrupted work to complete, spanning 18 Popes and  12 architects. Pope Julius 11 started the work in April 1506. The cupola, or dome, was designed by Michelangelo, who wanted the structure to be seen by all in Rome. After his death the façade was constructed, partially hiding his impressive masterpiece. The new Basilica was dedicated on November 18, 1626. The outer colonnade, symbolically rendering the maternal embrace of the Church towards her faithful, was added years later. The main altar in the Basilica is directly over St Peter’s Tomb.

During a recent visit to St Peter’s one pilgrim asked: “Where is St Peter’s wife buried?” The wife of a Pontiff is not something we grew up with. Many popes were married men with families. History records that some of the sons took over from their fathers in the Chair of Peter. St Peter, we know from the Gospels, was a married fisherman from Galilee. Today the Pope is obliged to be celibate. He takes a vow not to marry. If celibacy were introduced in the early Church, ecclesiastical history would be very much different today. 

The topic of celibacy is explored under several headings in a new book called ‘Freeing Celibacy’ (Liturgical Press) by Donald Cozzens, priest, writer and lecturer. He cites an interesting list of popes. Pope Sixtus (c116-125) was the son of a priest. “Moreover, saints who were popes begot sons who became popes and saints. Pope St Anastasius 1 (399-401) was succeeded by his son, Pope St Innocent (401-417). A century later, Pope St Hormisdas (514-523) fathered a son who became Pope St Silverius (536-537). The feast days of these married saints linked by the highest Church office and family ties remain off the General Roman Calendar. Is the reason behind this omission fear that the public recognition of their saintly, married lives might further the cause of optional celibacy? The great pope and doctor of the Church of the late sixth century, Gregory 1, was the great-grandson of Pope Felix 111 and a great-great-grandson of Pope Felix 11. Gregory, it should be noted, proposed that celibacy, replacing martyrdom, was the great witness to Christ and the Gospel. Approximately a dozen popes in the first millennium were sons of priests.” 
Pope Adrian 11 (867-872) was the last married pope. There were numerous married priests and bishops in the first millennium of church history – all men called to ordained ministry and marriage. Today, that call is not recognised in the church, where a call to ministry through priesthood is deemed to be a call to be celibate.        

Celibacy as a Church discipline was introduced at the Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139. Up the twelfth century celibacy was not mandatory. Celibacy was a feature of Church life from the beginning with many men choosing to remain single. Celibacy has a home in most of the main world religions. Today, as it has been for hundreds of years of church history, it often appears that there is a battle between the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of celibacy. Unfortunately for many people, the battleground is the ministerial priesthood.
Even with the introduction of mandatory celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church there are rites in full communion with Rome today where married priesthood is the norm, eg, Byzantine, Coptic and Maronite churches.  
Today, another irony is that in the Roman Catholic Church, there are many married priests. These are the men who converted to Catholicism from the Anglican/Episcopal Church when these churches introduced the ordination of women. Rome has never released the exact number of these ordained married men, who were ordained priests after undergoing a period of study after they converted. (The Catholic Church does not accept the ‘ordination’ of Anglican ministers, preferring to see them as an ‘ecclesial community’.) 
Within the Church, celibacy is seen as a ‘gift’. The Church then surrounds this gift with ‘law’. Linking ‘gift’ and ‘law’ in mandatory celibacy is like grand prix driving while taking the scenic route. There is an element of contradiction here. Yet, within the history of the Church’s ministerial priesthood there have been (and are) numerous examples of heroic celibate men, whose lives were examples of holiness and selflessness. Some of us are blessed enough to know some of these saintly, kingly men.

There are many arguments for the introduction of celibacy. Constantine, on his conversion in the fourth century, deemed Christianity the faith of the empire. This meant there were no more state persecutions, which in turn meant that there were less martyrs. The Church grew wealthier in its various guises, often with lands and buildings. Sometimes, following the death of the local priest, the lands were passed on to the eldest son, often not a priest, and the Church lost possession of property. With the introduction of celibacy in the twelfth century, several birds were killed with the one stone. Succession rights remained with the Church and celibacy, known as white martyrdom, became the new witness within the church.

It is claimed by many that the discussion of celibacy is not on the Church agenda. The administrative Church might have difficulties with discussion but the people of God, as the church, have no such inhibitions. How else does the Holy Spirit work but through the people of God? Some people do not want to acknowledge the married priest issue just like those who ignore the fact that Jesus was a Jew. What are the meanings of those lovely Irish names McTaggart, McNabb and McEaspaig but son of the priest, son of the abbot and son of the bishop. There is no history of an Irish Pope, hence, no name like MacPápa. Not yet anyway.