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'Forty years on, only 4 of our 10 still serve as priests'

Former Catholic priest Val Rogers talks about leaving the Church after falling in love with a nun.

Val Rogers

I’M THE ONLY one in my group to be married and serve as a priest at the same time.

Pope Paul VI on a bad day once called those of us who left our celibate beds ‘Judases’.

Tonight RTÉ will air a documentary about us ageing villains, the handful of former Columban priests who left the church. The programme is called ‘The Judas Iscariot Lunch’.

Resolved to be a priest

I so admired the priests and nuns in my family, so I resolved to become a priest. I was going to be a brave foreign missionary. I was going to leave my genitals behind in Ireland if possible, and neatly sidestep Ireland itself with its challenges, pains, and confusions.

Thus I became a student of English, philosophy, logic and politics in UCD in 1964, aged 16. I was a precocious, lost and pious child, marking time ’til I was 17 and could begin in the Columban seminary, Dalgan Park near Navan.

After the first year, I was sent to resume my degree studies in UCD. We’d arrive down to Earlsfort Terrace on our plain black bikes, wind-blown from Templeogue in our black suits and hats with white shirts and big black rain capes.

We’d troop through the main concourse having “no intercourse with civilians”, as the seminary’s Latin rulebook enjoined, and move promptly to our lockers – an example for staff and students of a dying, fascinating subculture.

Then I went back to Dalgan for four years of scripture, theology, and a smattering of pastoral and inter-cultural studies. I was beginning in achingly tiny ways to grow up, though I still needed protection from too much reality. Dalgan gave me that, for which I am forever grateful, but it’s a dubious honour.

I recall Doc Ganly asking as we approached ordination whether dogmatic and scriptural ‘demythologisers’ had rocked our faith in any way. Most of us hadn’t even heard of such creatures, and he certainly wasn’t about to introduce us to them.

Thirty-six of us began that Probation Year. After seven years I was one of 10 who were made priests on Easter Sunday 1972 in Navan. Johnny McEvoy and I were appointed to Fiji; one to Peru; six to the Philippines; and one to further study in Rome.

The Missions

Many in the ‘Judas Iscariot’ documentary worked for decades in developing countries whereas my noble missionary career lasted only 17 months. I went to Suva and Nausori first to study Hindi, then to the bush of Labasa on Vanua Levu island.

There were no roads, no electricity, no Europeans or Fijians: only Indians. I had a bed in a cubby-hole at the back of the wooden church, used if you weren’t out and about in the people’s homes. Christians, Hindus or Muslims would house you readily.

There was no refrigeration, of course, so the curries were especially savage. The large jug of water was no help. Your face and body would go up in flames and run with rivers of sweat, all at the same time. My glasses would fog up till I was hopeless and helpless, and slide down my nose so I could see nothing. Then the violent hiccups. The curry ran through me like lava.

One night I jumped through the window in Labasa while asleep. That’s what made it crystal clear that it was time to go; I was far too hand-reared to survive in “the missions”.

I needed to move backwards or sideways to catch my breath and find my footing. I went down to my sister Kate and her husband Tom in Sydney to put on a bit of weight so that I wouldn’t frighten my mother.

I fell for the country and the people and stayed for 35 years. I first worked in the Catholic Diocese of Sydney.

Josie

I loved Josie, a nun, from the end of 1980. My cousin Breda rejoiced that for the first time in my life my body came into the room at the same time as my head. There was both joy and fright together about whether Josie and I would be accepted.

We married in late 1985. A priest friend was suspended for giving us a Catholic ceremonial without rescript from Rome.

A Maltese priest pal cracked that weekend. He “read us out from the altar” at all masses for letting down Christ and church. Bad enough for a priest to desert his post, but to marry a nun!

Dehli, Nov 2012 Delhi in November 2012

My oldest brother attended with love from Taiwan. Alyse, Jo’s mother, turned up despite herself, determined to be miserable but couldn’t quite carry it off. My priest brother struggled with me at the time, but in time came through like a champion.

My dear priest uncle, after whom I’m named, vanished into the wallpaper when next we met but became my easy friend again as his mind failed and he forgot what the fuss was about.

Leaving the Church

I left the Catholic Church to become an Anglican parish minister in Melbourne. There were no theological flip-flops as I’d had the best of the Reformation in me since my late teens.

There was no great drama, beyond 18 months of low grade grieving at taking down the passionately-loved old sign and putting up the new; and being uncomfortable with Anglican foibles, having been used to our own.

Being a priest is who I am, where simplicity and truth and love and joy best happen in me. Asking to become a lay person would only encourage the blighters in their taboo on the marriage of priests and priesting of the married.

Those ordained with me? Forty years on, only four of our 10 still serve as priests. Six of us left our official appointments, and all of us married.

I love and revere them all. I’m proud of those who left, and I’m proud of those who stayed.

Life is short. We can’t live holding our breaths, always waiting for permissions. Al McBride’s mischief may apply: “Forgiveness is easier to get than permission, so go ahead and do it.”

Act, with simplicity, affection, and joy. God is good, and the Divil could be worse.

Val Rogers returned to Ireland in late 2009. He serves as Rector for a group of Church of Ireland parishes in West Mayo and lives in Westport.

The documentary, The Judas Iscariot Lunch, will screen on RTE One tonight at 9.35pm.

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