Who the Heck is Brian Passman
I was ordained in Middlesbrough Catholic Cathedral on June 11th 1960
Fr David Hines Bishop George Brunner Fr Brian Passman
The Cathedral Church of Our Lady Of Perpetual Succour was built from 1876 and was opened on 21 August 1878.
I left the seminary with a profound desire to serve the Christian community in a life of simplicity.
That was easy to achieve on an annual salary of £60. My transport was a rickety wreck of a bicycle until a parishioner stopped me in the street and gave me £20 to buy a new one.
I enjoyed my work. It brought me into contact with some wonderful people. I was astonished at the generosity of spirit which so many people showed, streets ahead of us in the seminary.
Two of my particular heroes were the local Anglican Vicar, Rev Derek Hall and the agnostic senior consultant at the mental hospital where I was chaplain, Dr Jack Blackburn. Their open-mindedness and service to their congregation/patients was an inspiration to me. I envied the support they received from their wives.
In the seminary, we had been taught, and I fully accepted, that celibacy was a higher way of serving God and our people, a total dedication. The dedication of my Anglican and agnostic friends didn’t seem to suffer one jot from being married.
I had always been uncomfortable with the expression, the vocation of celibacy. The vocation of priesthood yes I understood that and embraced it but celibacy was a rule and you can’t create a vocation by imposing a rule, can you?
If a rule can’t create a vocation, could that mean that some Catholic priests might be living a celibate life without a vocation to it? And if they were would that explain the life of comfortable, self-centred bachelorhood which I observed in some?
As one elderly priest put it to me, “We never chose celibacy, Brian. We chose the priesthood and celibacy was the rule we had to accept to get what we wanted, the priesthood.”
But there was more. Christians regard God as the ultimate origin of everything including evolution, the Ultimate Designer as Thomas Aquinas described in one of his nine ways leading to a belief in God. That would mean that humans are as God meant them to be.
So God wanted a split human race, males and females. To males, he gave penises, to females vaginas and both sexual desires. And just in case we could be so stupid as not to realise his intention he gave an instruction, ‘Go forth and multiply and fill the earth.’
When a group of humans declare that they have found a higher way of worshipping and serving God than that designed and commanded by God Himself, wouldn’t that be blasphemy, creatures telling God they know better?
Notice, I’m not saying celibacy is blasphemy. I’m suggesting that teaching that it is a higher way of worship and service might be. And when a man decides to resign from the active priesthood what are we to think of the expression which says he has been reduced to the lay state.
It seemed obvious that there were a lot of things which needed discussing. The sixties were a time of open discussions in the Catholic Church. Pope John 23rd had summoned a council of all the three thousand Catholic bishops of the world.
They debated and deliberated over five years and produced a series of documents designed to create a more open and collegiate church.
In this atmosphere of open debate, I wrote to John Todd of Darton, Longman and Todd and asked him to edit a book to be called The Experience of Priesthood. He had just edited a book called ‘The Experience of Marriage’ which I, a celibate, found illuminating.
Imagine my astonishment when he invited me to be the editor and promised his help. It took two years to complete the task. As I handed over my final typescript to John I felt a sense of satisfaction that I had done what I could to promote a healthy discussion of topics which needed an airing. How naïve I was.
The first that the public knew of the book’s existence was Cardinal Heenan’s review in which he condemned the book in intemperate and at times inaccurate language and ordered that it must not be sold in Catholic bookshops.
One contributor recorded that he had received psychiatric treatment. ‘Let’s call him the mad monk’ said Heenan thus revealing that he knew the priest belonged to a religious order.
He ridiculed priests who said that working with groups of Young Christian Workers had profoundly influenced them. But the weekly meditation and discussion of reading from the Gospel were precisely one of the two main influences which formed me as a priest.
The day after the Cardinal’s review appeared the Vicar general of the Middlesbrough diocese visited the Catholic bookshop next to his Cathedral and warned the owner that he would buy all his books in Smith’s if he heard that she had sold one copy of my book. “He often buys five books at once,” she told me.
So much for an open discussion! Where I had failed Pope Paul 6th was about to launch a tsunami of discussion on the world. He banned the use of the contraceptive pill as a means of birth control for Catholics. What did that have to do with me? I had spent a week in Fleet Street being interviewed about my book, The Experience of Priesthood.
A meeting of journalists took place in London, the topic: Does anybody know a priest who will give an interview. One journalist said, “I interviewed a priest recently about a book he had published. I never had such direct answers to questions. His name is Passman. If anybody knows… A young lady picked up her bag, left quietly and caught the next train to York.
The entire congregation of the Cathedral was “decanted” to the suburbs, the Cathedral stood alone in a desert of Industrial buildings. The Church authorities wanted to demolish the Cathedral, the Council said it was a building of historical value. The Church Authorities locked it up and walked away. Vandals broke in and burned it to the ground In May 2000.
The day of my ordination was a day of joy and sadness for all of us but especially for my Mother. My Father had been killed in a road accident eighteen months earlier, six months before he was due to retire, he died on Christmas Day.
Immediately after my ordination I took my Mother to have this portrait style picture taken to commemorate my ordination It stood on her mantlepiece till she died in 1984 just short of her 90th birthday.
FATE COMES CALLING
The incessant ringing of the doorbell pitched me out of my slumbers. It would go away. But it didn’t. Could it be an emergency? The family had gone to work and school. I was alone in the house. I grabbed a dressing gown, tumbled down the stairs, opened the door and blinked into the blinding sunlight which framed a young lady. Yes?
“You won’t remember me, Father Passman, I interviewed you before you went to South America.” Oh yes? “I wondered if you would answer some questions for me about the Pope’s encyclical.”
Now I was wide awake, standing on the edge of a precipice. For years I had been advising Catholics that not only was using the pill not a sin, but it was also a very responsible way of managing one’s family. Never in my wildest nightmares had I ever imagined I would be asked to say it publicly.
I knew exactly what would happen to me. I would be summoned by my bishop and suspended, unable to function as a priest. I would also be required to retract what I had said publicly and if I refused I would be reduced to the lay state.
But that was not the worst. The worst was that in Peru I had found a form of Christianity in practice, based on Liberation Theology, to which I could give my commitment body, mind, heart and soul. Answer this lady’s questions and I would never get back to that.
Refuse to answer her questions and how would I live with myself for such a betrayal of the truth as I believed it to be. I pondered for a long moment then said.” Come in; let’s make a cup of tea.” I desperately needed time.
When I put the two cups of tea down in front of us in the lounge I said. “I will answer your questions on one condition.” “And that is?” she asked. “That when we are finished you will read back to me your notes and if I decide that I cannot make that statement publicly you will tear them up and it will be as though we have never spoken.”
Now it was her turn to ponder which she did at length. Finally, she looked up, fixed me with her gaze and said, “Yes, I will make you that promise”. We talked for almost an hour.
When she read back to me her shorthand notes I was astonished to find that she had everything I had said verbatim. Before she finished her reading I knew what my answer had to be. I also knew the consequences. I said, “Go ahead and publish.” The interview appeared that evening in the York evening newspaper.
THE TELEPHONE GOES CRAZY
The next day the bells were ringing again but this time it was the telephone. Newspapers, radio and television stations all wanted an interview. No use telling them that I had said all that needed saying the night before. They each had their slant on the story.
I gave a total of thirteen interviews over the remaining three weeks of my holiday ending up with Robin day on Panorama. I took the view that having put my head in the noose, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. Perhaps that is what saved me.
I spent my time visiting family and friends. I figured that if I kept moving around it would make it more difficult for my bishop to locate me and if I could manage to get back to South America well who knows… I would then be the responsibility of the local bishop who happened to be Cardinal Juan Landazuri Ricketts, a believer in Liberation Theology.
In my travels, I attended a function at which, to my surprise, a Catholic bishop was present. I knew him only by reputation. His priests held him in high regard. Nevertheless, I did everything possible to stay out of his way. But at lunch, the summons came: A tap on the shoulder and “The bishop would like to speak to you.”
I sought him out for my telling off. He greeted me warmly and said, “Brian I just wanted to tell you that I agreed with much of what you said on television the other evening, but I couldn’t possibly say those things, could I?” The rest of our chat was equally warm and positive.
I admired his honesty and courage in speaking to me the way he did. But it also made me sad. I had always believed that we were ordained to bear witness to the truth. Apparently, that was not possible, even for a good man, if he were a bishop. The consequences were just too high.
As the days ticked by, I began to suspect that my bishop had decided to ignore me. He had made no attempt to get in touch. I suspected that he realised that I would soon be on my way back to Peru to complete the remaining four years of my contract. There I would be another bishop’s responsibility.
Some of my friends were not so lucky. Most stayed safe simply by remaining silent. One was removed from his post and appointed as chaplain to a convent of contemplative nuns.
One bishop informed his priests that they must give internal assent to the Pope’s teaching, not just external obedience. One of my friends from Seminary days told him he could not do that. The bishop told him he must resign. Thus a congregation lost a good priest, a woman found a good husband and children a good father.
Finally, I was on my way back to Peru. My plane was coming in to land at Lima’s Jorge Chavez airport. I looked down on the appalling poverty of my parish below.
Suddenly a powerful emotion took complete control of me. It was saying “You’re coming home. This is where you belong.” I wept. Little did I realise that my days in that parish were numbered.
TROUBLE AT ‘MILL
As soon as I arrived back in the presbytery from the airport I knew that something was amiss. The senior curate, Fr Gerry Filan, had gone back to Ireland several months earlier after six years service in Peru. I missed him terribly. We talked the dark nights away by candlelight, The PP and I, while not bosom pals, had lived together since he left without any friction that I was aware of.
I went to bed early, tired after my journey. The next morning I was summoned to the PP’s room to receive the most ear blistering lecture of my life which ended with the words, “As far as I’m concerned Brian I am finished with you.”
I went back to my room to digest what I had heard and try to make some sense of it. Throughout the whole lecture, I had uttered not a single word. One thing was immediately clear to me; my days in that parish were over.
What on earth had happened to cause this explosion? During one of the interviews in which I commented on the Pope’s encyclical forbidding Catholics to use the pill as a means of birth control I was asked, “How will this affect your work in Peru?”
I replied, “I don’t know. We do give the pill to women during their period of breastfeeding as a means of assisting nature.” It was naïve of me to assume that these words, spoken in London, could not possibly get back to Peru and Boston. But they did and they got there before I returned.
Before I arrived in Peru in 1967 Cardinal Juan Landazuri Rickets, Archbishop of Lima called his priests together to tell them that his theologian, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez had informed him that since breastfeeding is a natural, but unreliable, sterile period, giving the pill to women during that time would be assisting, not frustrating nature.
Had my interview comment got back only to Lima it might have popped like a damp squib. But it got back to Boston too where Cardinal Cushing was the founder of the St James Society to which my PP and I belonged.
He was also the uncle of my PP! Cardinal Cushing had a reputation for blunt speaking when he was angry! To make matters worse the enterprising journalist who had followed up my remark had found a photograph of my PP standing proudly in front of his birth control clinic.
Within a matter of days the Superior General – that’s how we talked in those days, now he’s just a coordinator – appeared at our door and went into closed-door conference with the PP. When he came out he started saying his goodbyes to me. I told him I needed to speak to him. We went for a stroll.
I told him that I knew he would have to move me though I would have preferred to stay. I told him that if he moved me and left the PP in the parish I would know that there were 1st class and 2nd class citizens in the St James Society. He hit the roof.
I waited till he had finished then said, “I will judge by actions, not by words. If I go and he stays I will know I am 2nd class and I will publish that on both sides of the Atlantic. Later the PP was made the head of the Centre House in Lima
I was moved, together with two other curates to Andahuaylas, capital of the Pamapuria region in southern Peru with an altitude a fraction under 10,000 feet. It was known as Antawaylla in Quechua, copper meadow and Pradera de Los Celajes, the prairie of coloured clouds in Spanish.
Our instructions from the superior in Lima were to establish a shared mission in which we were all equal and would share the work of running the parish by discussions and agreement. I started Quechua lessons right away.
You might be asking what the Parish Priest thought of this proposal. The answer is he had gone back to Australia for a three-month break after five years in Peru and had not been consulted.
At six weeks after our arrival, our newly appointed bishop came to visit us. We explained very openly how we envisioned running the parish and managing our responsibilities.
I think there was probably not a single point of our pastoral theology or practice with which he agreed. At the end of the meeting, he gave each of us one week to get out of his diocese. We were expelled. I later learned that he belonged to Opus Dei.
THE ADVANCED SPANISH COURSE
Back at the Centre House in Lima, I had the good fortune that the advanced Spanish course, which I had always intended joining, was about to begin. It was six weeks of sheer heaven for me studying the advanced grammar, syntax and vocabulary of Peruvian Spanish.
Classes were three students to a teacher. One teacher asked us to think up the most complicated things we might want to say or explain to someone. He would then say: “If you mean this you’d say it this way. If you mean that you’d say it that way.” These close comparisons helped me enormously to improve my Spanish and postponed the need for a new appointment.
Towards the end of the language course, the Superior General appeared again, told me he was going north to Piura to ‘call-in’ one of the favours he had done for the Archbishop. Later he told me I was being appointed to the parish in Pueblo Nuevo de Colan, 80 kilometres across the dessert North East of Piura.
When, during the midterm break in the basic Spanish course, I had travelled north with two companions visiting all the parishes on the coast, we stayed in Pueblo Nuevo. I commented to my friends that if I could choose which Parish to work in it would be Pueblo Nuevo. That’s where I stayed for the rest of my time in Peru.
LIBERATION THEOLOGY IN PRACTICE
Fifty years ago on the 3rd of November 1967 Father Patrick Gavaghan, Father John Keegan and I arrived in Peru. None of us spoke a word of Spanish but we managed to get a taxi to take us the St James language school in Barranco, a suburb of Lima. It was the early hours of the morning. There was no notice on the gates, no bell to ring, no proof that this was what the taxi driver said it was.
There was only one thing for it, I climbed over the high metal gates, entered under an opening into a quadrangle, saw on the far side a glass door, turned the handle, it opened and in I went still not knowing if I was in the right building.
There on the wall was a large portrait of Cardinal Cushing, the founder of the St James Society. I did obeisance to the Cardinal and returned to my friends at the gate. Somehow we all got in and found rooms to sleep in.
The flood of happy memories comes from the next five years 1967 to 1972. One of my priest friends built a road in the mountains which cut the travel time to the next town from 8 hours to 3. Why and how did he do that? Because the people had been conned more than once by engineers who didn’t do the essential research and the first time the rains came the new road was wiped out.
The priest made sure the essential research was done before work started. It took many years but the road is still working and the priest is dead and gone. The people of the parish would canonise him if they had the power.
In the first Parish, I worked we had a birth control clinic. Cardinal Juan Landazury Rickets, Archbishop of Lima was a strong supporter of Liberation Theology, as is Pope Francis. He asked his theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez if there was a theological argument to justify women taking the pill. His theologian told him that the period of lactation was a natural period of sterility but unreliable for various reasons. Therefore giving a woman the pill during lactation was assisting nature not frustrating it.
When I was leaving Peru in 1972 I revisited my first parish and asked if the birth control clinic was still functioning. I was told it was and that there were 13 other such clinics in parishes in Lima. Later, however, the then Pope began appointing Opus Dei bishops and all the clinics were closed.
We had an evening primary school for children who worked in the fields all day.
In another parish a priest got some of the ladies to shop in the local market and provide a cooked breakfast for all the school children of the parish.
The Parish Priest before me, Fr Pat Lohan, at the request of the people, took charge of the Cotton Grower’s Cooperative and negotiated loans from the banks for them.
Most parishes were running a mini health service. One priest built a hospital which still functions. We had clinics for pregnant women, well-baby clinics, dental clinics, doctors clinics, nurses clinics just by going and asking young professionals: Will you give us a day of your time free of charge. Believe me, those young professionals received a whole education from their experience. What they regarded as normal reality simply didn’t exist for our parishioners.
When I was in my first parish I often celebrated the 6 am Sunday Mass. Once vested I would go to the window to watch the family opposite us. It was a street of houses made out of Estera which is made from splatted cane. This man and his sons had worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. I heard them leaving in the morning and returning in the evening.
On Sundays, they were building a wooden house a foot outside their Estera house. In 1972 when I was leaving Peru I visited my first parish in Pampa de Comas which in my time had no water, sewage, or electricity and 18,000 inhabitants.
When I asked about this man and his sons nobody knew what I was talking about. I went to the window in the sacristy. There before my eyes was an entire street of brick houses, brightly painted. In Latin America, a slum is more often a place on the way up rather than on the way down.
I ran a pig breeding programme using Landrace and Saddle Backs. My boar, whom I called Henry 8th, was two feet taller than I when he stood on his hind legs You can guess the names of his wives. The idea of giving food to a pig horrified my parishioners at first. A pig was an animal who scavenged for himself and when uncle Pedro came to visit you killed the pig and had a nice meal.
When they realised that by feeding a quality pig solely with locally produced food which cost next to nothing it could weigh up to 90 kilos at 3 to 4 months they began to think that maybe this crazy gringo priest might not be totally crazy. I had menus of local produce for sucklings, non-pregnant females, pregnant females, suckling mums.
My knowledge and experience of pigs before arriving in Peru was zero. Now, after golden Labradors, they are my favourite animal, intelligent and clean.
All this in addition to a full programme of sacramental life, visiting the sick, taking the Mass to distant parts of the parish, instructing people in preparation for the sacraments supporting parishioners in their fundraising efforts for good causes, and helping with the cost of their prescriptions at the pharmacy etc
I had become aware of two things during my five years in Peru. The first was how much of what we thought of as religion back home was, in fact, the culture and customs of our home country. Every country imports its culture into its religion.
The second was a suspicion that we were all galumphing around in hobnailed boots in somebody else’s culture, unaware of how much offence/damage we were doing as well as a lot of good.
I desperately needed to get a fix on my five years in Peru. After a lot of thought and research, I finally decided on a degree in Social Anthropology at Sussex University.
Back home in Middlesbrough when my bishop had called me to tell me I could go to South America; he said “If you have changed your mind since you volunteered, now is the time to tell me. I told him “No, I have not changed my mind but I would have preferred to go to study in the Catechetical Centre for a year, then go”
“I have already sent two people there,” he told me, “But if you go to South America, when you come back you can advise me on how best I can support the missionary work and you can go where you like and study what you like. Is that OK?” I said, “It certainly is, thank you.”
Accordingly, I wrote to my bishop, told him what I wanted to do and sought his agreement. I wrote three times but no reply came. Finally, I wrote to his secretary, a friend of mine, asked him to put the question verbally to the bishop and tell me his reply.
Within a week I had the answer. “The Bishop says you must come back to the diocese and work in a parish”. The prospect of re-entering the claustrophobic life of a curate in the Middlesbrough diocese – it took 20 years to become a Parish Priest in those days – was more than I could face.
I took a brief holiday and went straight to Sussex for the September term 1972. While at Sussex I applied to Rome for a dispensation from the rule of celibacy, allowing me to marry which was granted, bringing to an end my 14 years as an active priest in the Roman Catholic Church. I explain the process of laicisation in more detail in a later chapter of this book.
JESUS and HIS FOLLOWERS in ST PETERS SQ
Have you ever wondered ‘What would Jesus think if he were suddenly teleported into St Peters Square watching the canonisation of a former Pope?’ Indulge me as I let my imagination meditate on that thought.
Jesus is standing in the Square surrounded by his entire personal following, apostles, disciples and the group of women of who followed him in all his teaching journeys among whom was Mary Magdalen. Just at that moment the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops start processing into the Square.
The disciple standing furthest from Jesus turned to the stranger next to him and tried to see what language they had in common.
He tried Coine Greek without success; Aramaic likewise Latin yes! He set off on a barrage of questions for the stranger.
Who are these people in their expensive robes and pointed headdress? They are the people who control the Roman Catholic Church. What has Rome got to do with it? I believe a Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to this religion in the 4th century. What is this Roman Catholic Church then? It is the biggest of the churches which follow the teachings of Jesus.
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Jewish religious teacher, a carpenter, who was handed over by the Jewish religious authorities to the Romans who executed him. So these people, processing into the Square right now, are in charge of the religion which claims to follow the teachings of the Jewish carpenter? Yes. Thank you.
The disciple now turns those near him and translates what he has just learned. When they fully understand what he is saying they burst into peals of laughter. The next group of disciples want to hear the story; when they do they too burst into laughter. The Pope is about to enter the Square and this rowdy laughter is beginning to become a disturbance.
Mary Magdalen moves from the side of Jesus and walks swiftly to the disciples. ‘Why are you making all this noise?’, she demands. The disciple who spoke to the stranger tells her what he learned. ‘Are you quite sure you understood him correctly?’ she asks. ‘He speaks Latin perfectly, so do I, there is no doubt in my mind that we understood each other perfectly?’. ‘Then stop this noisy laughter’.
She returns to her place beside Jesus and tells him what she has learned. There is a buzz of suggestions and comments. Jesus holds up his hands for silence.
He says, ‘We have to get out of this Square as swiftly and silently as possible. We don’t know what we might be getting involved in. Who are these people? Why are they all men? Are there no women in this church, no married men? Till we answer these a thousand other questions we can’t even start to know who they are. Mary, lead us out by the left-hand side of the Square which we are nearest to.’ And with that, they all filed silently out of the Square.
On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being extremely unlikely and 10 being extremely likely, how would you scale the likelihood of that being an accurate account of what would happen, if Jesus and his followers teleported into St Peter’s Square? Please write your score in the comments section.