RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
DR. THOMAS GROOME: It was the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life, by far, to leave priesthood. It was painful. It was excruciating. I remember saying to an old spiritual director. I said, Father, if I put as much effort into charity as I have to put into celibacy, I would be a saint. And he said, well, maybe it's taking too much effort to remain celibate. So, for other priests it may be a source of holiness and a source of growth. But for me it was not.
MARTIN: That's the voice of Thomas Groome. He is now a professor of religious education and pastoral ministry at Boston College, married with a 12-year-old son. But more than 40 years ago, he was ordained as a Catholic priest, committed to a life of celibacy. The Vatican, under Pope Francis, has recently said priestly celibacy is not a religious requirement and is therefore up for debate. It's a discussion former priest Thomas Groome says has been a long time coming. Thomas Groome is our Sunday Conversation.
GROOME: There are already many married priests in the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Catholic Church has, of course, never required celibacy of their priests. And increasingly, we've had a number of married priests in the Catholic Church - priests coming in from the Anglican tradition, the Episcopalian Church, some Lutherans and so on. They're all welcome with their wives and children. So, we already have in a sense a married priesthood emerging. The issue is should it remain mandatory for those of us who grew up in the tradition? I think it would bring a tremendous influx of very fine priests into the church. I've worked at Boston College for 37 years, and I couldn't count the number of young men across the years - I would literally say hundreds - who have said to me that they'd love to be a priest but they don't want to accept the celibacy requirement. They want to get married, have a family, which is a perfectly natural desire, built into us by almighty God. And to be turning away such high-quality young people or to be sending away some of our finest priests because they want to marry seems, at least, problematic.
MARTIN: You yourself were a priest for 17 years. When you were first going into the priesthood, how did you think about celibacy?
GROOME: I was in an old Irish seminary back in the late '60s, early '70s. At that time, we thought everything was going to change. They changed the Mass. And if you can change the Mass, we thought you could change everything. You know, I remember very vividly an instance in my seminary when one of my colleagues put up his hand and asked our professor, Father Larry Ryan, who went on to become the bishop of Kildare and Leighlin - has since gone home to God - and this student asked him, Father, will the celibacy thing ever become optional? And I never forgot his answer. He said, yes, within five years. But the next 35, 40 years of pontificates, with John Paul II and Benedict and so on, were simply unwilling to discuss this issue, even though lots of parts of the world - in Africa, in South America and other places - the celibacy thing has never been a cultural success. It has never had appeal. So, there's many parts of the world, even more so than the United States, where the celibacy has been a very ill fit. So, I think honestly facing it now and with the help of God, Francis will have that kind of sentiment. I think it's a conversation we should have had 50 years ago but I'd certainly welcome it now.
MARTIN: It must have been complicated for you though, having made what is to be a lifelong commitment to this life, but you were privately hoping for this rule to change.
GROOME: Yes. You know, and I remember a great question my spiritual director used to ask me was - is it helping you to live your baptism better to remain celibate? And I had to gradually begin to say for me, no, it is not. And that was a hugely painful realization and then how do I tell my family? How do I tell my village? All of this was very painful. I never wanted to leave priesthood. I'd love to have stayed in priesthood. And, of course, I was blessed in many ways. I could continue to do a good deal of what a priest does. I continue to teach the faith in ways that are life-giving and faith-filled. But it was a huge, painful decision. And, as I said, by far the most difficult of my life.
MARTIN: How did you friends and family respond?
GROOME: In varied ways. They were respectful and my family love me and were accepting of it. And yet I know many of them were bewildered by it, disappointed in it. They understand a little better now, especially in light of some of the debunking of the pedestalized myth that had surrounded priesthood, tragically in many ways, with the dreadful scandals and cover-ups and all the rest of it. But I think most Catholic laity now understand why celibacy would be a terribly difficult life to live, especially for the diocesan priests. So much of it is a very lonely life. And so I think family have realized that it wasn't a loss of faith on my part. It was simply that I - the lifestyle in which I found myself simply was not nurturing and life-giving. In fact, it probably was becoming destructive of me. And I think that's one of the dangers of obligatory celibacy, that it can lead to self-destructive and outer-destructive behavior.
MARTIN: Was there a moment, was there a specific event when that loneliness came into relief?
GROOME: I think the moment of decision came for me during a 30-day retreat. And I had gone on the retreat quite unsuspecting. About the 18th day, I began to realize that I was fooling myself and trying to fool my director, who was a wise, old Jesuit priest and wasn't easily fooled, which is why he kept bringing me back to the question: is your celibacy a source of holiness and a source of wholeness and joy in your life? And I kept saying, well, no, it's not, but I really want to be a priest. I love being a priest. I'm committed to being a priest. I think I'm a fairly decent priest. And so I'll put up with it. It's, you know, an irksome and difficult and lonely but I'll soldier on. But then by about the 18th day, my house of cards collapsed and I had to face into realizing that this wasn't true. And then I gradually made the decision - I didn't rush out and get married the next day. I took a leave of absence from priesthood. And during that year, spent time in a Trappist monastery, considered at one point and had some conversation with becoming a Jesuit possibly. 'Cause my attitude was, well, if I'm going to try, if I'm going to live this celibacy then let me live it in community, because part of my difficulty was the loneliness of it. And so I thought, well, maybe I'd do better in a good avowed religious community where at least I'd have some community support. But as I said, in the midst of that year, I met this wonderful woman and fell in love and she was open to falling in love with me and marrying me. And so, indeed, that's precisely what we did about two years later. I applied to Rome for dispensation and got it, received it, and then eventually we moved on into marriage together.
MARTIN: Has being a husband and a father affected your faith at all, introduced a new dimension to it?
GROOME: Oh, yes. Oh, my goodness. Indeed, enriched it enormously. I've often said I'd love to go back and re-preach some of the sermons I gave on marriage now that I know a little bit more about it. I wouldn't be nearly as self-righteous and as advising either, because I know the challenges of it. And in many ways my marriage has become a tremendous call to holiness for me. So, I think priests would be - their lives would be enormously enriched by being married.
MARTIN: Would you go back if the celibacy requirement disappeared?
GROOME: Let me say, Rachel, that I would certainly sit down with my wife and have a long conversation about it. And with my little boy, with my son. But certainly I'd be very excited about the possibilities.
MARTIN: Former priest Thomas Groome chairs the department of religious education at Boston College.
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