I was ordained in Middlesbrough Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral on June 11th 1960.
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 till a parishioner stopped me in the street, told me off for using such an unbecoming means of transport and gave me £20 to buy a new bicycle.
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, Dr Jack Blackburn, at the mental hospital where I was chaplain. 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. 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 self centeredness which I seemed to observe 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 wouldn’t it?
So God wanted a split human race, males and females. To males he gave penises, to females vaginas and to both sexual desires. And just in case we could be so stupid as not to realize 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 to me that there were a lot of things which needed discussing. The sixties were a time of open discussions in the Catholic Church. Pope John XXlll had summoned a council of all the three thousand Catholic bishops of the world.
They debated and deliberated over several 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. They had just published a book entitled, The Experience of Marriage which, as a celibate I found, revealing of the reality of marriage for devout, Catholic couples.
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, on the eve of my departure to work as a priest in South America, 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.
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 bookshop 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 open discussion! Where I had failed Pope Paul Vl 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 returned briefly to spent a week in Fleet Street being interviewed about 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 knew where…” A young lady picked up her bag, left quietly and caught the next train to York.
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? 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, it was 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 Argos.
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 in the York Argos article. They each had their own slant.
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, but that is a story for another day.
Five years in Peru 1967 – 1972
As soon as I arrived back in the presbytery from the airport I knew that something was amiss. The senior curate had gone back to his native Ireland several months earlier after six years service in Peru. I missed him. The PP and I, while not bosom pals, had lived together 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 Brest feeding 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.
Now some background information: 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 Brest feeding 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 good byes 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 head of the Centre House in Lima
I was moved, together with two other curates to Andahuaylas, capital of the Apurimac 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, 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. Having had a miniscule training in car maintenance, I got the job of ensuring the parish vehicle was road ready at all times. I started Quechua lessons right away.
A 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.
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 mid term 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.
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.”
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.
The second thing 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.
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 – 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. I describe that process in more detail in a later chapter of this book.