Wednesday, January 11, 2023

How Benedict became a true pastor to the secret children of the ordained (Contribution)

I remember being in Switzerland in 2017, Geneva to be exact at the Vatican nunciature with Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, then UN nuncio. 

We were discussing the issue of priests’ children; the meeting was informative and cordial.

Then, his excellency slid a piece of paper across the table to me. I read the text, no heading, just numbered points, five in all.

Each point concerned a child, specifically, the child of a priest.

That year, the Irish bishops had released a very similar document concerning the children of priests. 

Initially, I thought this was what I was reading. 

But the document was in fact the Vatican guidelines for the secret children of priests, though the word “secret” does not appear on the page.

I was stunned. 

It was as if this page had suddenly authenticated our existence, it was a birthright of sorts from those that long sought our abolition from human sight – the Vatican.

Now they gave a step-by-step guide on how to care for us. It was remarkable.

It was perhaps two or three years later when I emailed the late Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy in 2009, and he confirmed the composition of said guidelines in 2009 under the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

To compose guidelines may seem futile and hardly worthy of mention to some. I recollect a US journalist saying to me once: “But these are just guidelines, they’re not requirements.”

I understood at the time that said journalist did understand the significance of these guidelines, but wanted me to dig deeper. These structured theological motivations were the first formal recognition of the existence of those who are called “the children of the ordained”.

Prior to that, no mention (that I know of) exists concerning the children of priests and religious, none at all. It happened under Benedict.

Perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth and twenty-first century, it was he, a future doctor of the Church, who reached down from the seat of Peter and extended his mighty hand to the one in the shadows and the dark, cowering from him.

Instantly, he became a figure in persona Christi. His hand became a place of comfort, not a blanket to cloud and cloak us with.

Benedict’s actions approved the germination of a seed of pastoral theology to extend to the children. The Vatican would later admit to me in the presence of the BBC that such children are “inevitable”. What Benedict did was simply priestly, in its truest, most royal sense.

In this, for me, he became the Pope of the children of the ordained, he became the cardinal of the children of priests and the priest and bishop to the marginalised. He did as Christ would have done: he helped the ostracised.

The guidelines he approved never mentioned throwing the priest out of the priesthood, but were kind and subtle and indeed a template for episcopal conferences to apply in their own cultures and contexts.

When Pope Benedict XVI died, for me it was not Pope Emeritus who died, but first and foremost, a priest for us all, especially the secret children of the ordained.

All of history will remember him for many reasons, but for me it will be because the ink of his pen spelled “the children of the ordained”. 

And just as a priest’s ink pen spells a name upon the birth certificate, he formalised that which Christ created.

He is “a priest forever”, and forever a priest for the children of the ordained.

Thank you, your holiness, for your strength and courage. 

I pray God has shown you your eternal reward for being the first Pope to seek out and care for your own priest’s children.

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