Let’s move on from condoms. What the Pope said about the priesthood is more interesting

Priests attend Pope Benedict XVI's Mass celebrated outside the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters)

Given the amount of ink spilled recently over Pope Benedict’s reference to the use of condoms during his interview with journalist Peter Seewald, people might be forgiven for thinking that his book, “Light of the World” is all about sex – in particular, sex in sinful circumstances. Thinking this would be a great pity. The conversation ranged over a large number of topics, to which the Holy Father responded with great frankness and originality. I am thinking especially of his reply to a question raised by Seewald on the need for married priests. This is part of what the Pope said:

“I believe that celibacy becomes a very meaningful sign, and above all possible to live, when priests begin to form communities. It is important for priests not to live off on their own somewhere, in isolation, but to accompany one another in small communities, to support one another, and so to experience, and constantly realise afresh, their communion in service to Christ and in renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.”

The only other place I have seen this idea stated is in a scholarly treatise by Fr Jerome Bertram CO, entitled “Vita Communis” and published by Gracewing. In it the author describes the life of a typical parish priest in Britain today: overworked, isolated, struggling with the paperwork, often juggling a hospital chaplaincy as well as trying to run several Mass centres. Fr Bertram writes, “It would be impossible to think of any model of diocesan priestly life that could be worse than the one we have at present.” He thinks that in this country most parishes are too small to be viable, given the amount of administration required – and that priests are not called to be hermits.

Fr Bertram’s suggestion, which the Pope seems to gesture towards in his reply above, is that seven or eight priests of a particular area might live together in “association” – not a “college” but more than a deanery – and thus parishes could support them more easily. He cites Vatican II for encouragement of this form of a common life, “to deliver priests from the dangers that often arise from loneliness.”
There is no need to cite the obvious dangers arising from isolation; this and its consequent loneliness are quite bad enough in themselves. Even Pope Benedict – who might be described as a kind of ‘prisoner in the Vatican’ – fondly describes his own little “community” within its walls: he, his two secretaries and the four nuns who look after them, share meals, watch DVDs together and join in the celebration of Mass and each other’s birthdays. I am sure this small community helps to make the burdens of his office more endurable and less lonely. Parish priests, no less than the Holy Father, need fellowship, mutual support, the company of their fellows – in short, communities. I have known several cases of priests cracking under the strain of their lives. These were good and conscientious men, struggling to live their vocation. They did not abandon it; they were simply crushed by all the demands made on them.

Fr Bertram, himself an Oratorian and thus living in fraternity with fellow members of the Oxford Oratory, believes that if a more satisfactory model of priestly life could be developed it would mean increased congregations and “the long steady decline [in vocations] since 1964 could at last be reversed.”

Could we move on from the condom issue and talk about this instead?