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"It was innocent at first, but I gradually fell in love with him"

For the love of God

Woman’s forbidden love with priest has her living in sin — and, often, loneliness

By Barbie Latza Nadeau on April 6, 2015

For many, the Easter holiday is a time for gathering with loved ones, but for hundreds of women in Italy, being close with the men they love is nearly impossible as the most important day on the Catholic Church’s calendar comes and goes. And forget about any sort of romantic closeness out in public or in the company of extended family at any other time of year. Their love is the forbidden kind, confined to the shadows because the men they are in love with are their parish priests.

One such woman is Maria, who lives in Florence. Maria asked that her last name and details about her boyfriend-priest not be published to protect the priest she is in love with. Maria, is in her 50s and has a 24-year-old daughter, and she says she fell in love with a priest when she sought out spiritual healing after her husband died several years ago.

“It was innocent at first, but I gradually fell in love with him,” she told Women in the World in an interview. “He resisted and I pushed for a relationship.”

The relationship, she says, is secret from her family and friends. Maria and the priest don’t exchange gifts or even glances when they are in public. They do steal away regularly to meet in secret places outside of Florence, but she says sex is not the priority of the relationship.

“Sex complicates our relationship because of the guilt he feels for giving in to his desire,” she says. “I would rather have a celibate love relationship than none at all.”

She found support in the Italian Facebook group Women in Love with Priests which she says has grown dramatically since Pope Francis was elected in 2013. “It is a painful relationship,” she says. “If we are intimate, he is breaking his vows but if we are not it break my heart. We struggle every day to find the balance.”

Maria’s feelings are echoed across the Internet on blogs like Women Who Love Priests, where women are invited to share their stories. In one entry, a woman writing under the name Susan chronicles a painful emotional relationship that was never sexual but was very obviously all-encompassing emotionally.

She describes how after months of what most people would consider courtship, the priest told her that she was “making him question everything.” Then she described her pain. “One day, out of the blue, he said, ‘Don’t you know that if things had been different we would have had a bunch of rug-rats by now?’ Actually, I didn’t know,” she writes. “The question took me by surprise, and I thought it was terribly unfair of him to put a hook in my heart and yank it like that.”

In the two years since Francis was elevated to pope, women from all over the world have banded together on secret Facebook pages and in corners in Rome to support each other in their seemingly hopeless situations. Without exception, the women are devout in their faith and met the priests they are in love with when the priests were acting in their pastoral roles.

Many of the women have written anonymous letters to the pope explaining their special circumstances and asking forgiveness. Last fall, a group of 26 women signed their real names to a letter sent to the pope and leaked to La Stampa newspaper. “We are writing to you to break down the wall of silence and indifference that we are faced with every day,” the women wrote. “Each of us is in, was or would like to start a relationship with a priest we are in love with.”

Celibacy, or Sacerdotalis Caelibatus as it is known in Latin, has been part of the Catholic priesthood for hundreds of years, but it is not a doctrine or dogma, meaning it would take only a papal bull to lift it. This is why the women who love priests desperately cling to hope that change may come.

The Vatican describes celibacy as a “brilliant jewel” that helps support a priest “in his exclusive, definitive and total choice of the unique and supreme love of Christ.” Church fathers argue that, “it should uphold him in the entire dedication of himself to the public worship of God and to the service of the Church” and that celibacy “should distinguish his state of life both among the faithful and in the world at large.”

In theory lifting celibacy might take a simple and swift decree, but in reality it would prove to be a massive logistical problem for the Church and its many dioceses all over the world if priests suddenly became family men.

Because premarital sex is forbidden for Catholics, the non-celibate men would almost certainly have to marry to take advantage of the new sexual freedom. One huge problem is that priests simply don’t earn enough money to support families, meaning married priests would need a substantial raise in pay.

Then, there is also the matter of where to live. Many priests live in rectories, communal living situations on Church grounds, which simply do not accommodate family housing. “Married priests is much more than just an issue of celibacy,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters at a press conference. “The infrastructure just isn’t in place to make such a drastic change.”

Most women who find themselves in love with priests say they could make it work, and that they would be happy to share their men with God. The Vatican says lifting celibacy is not likely a reality in the near future, but Francis has not ruled it out.

In an interview with La Repubblica newspaper last summer, he said the Church should explore its options, especially given that some of the Eastern Churches under the Vatican’s rule do allow priests to marry. “There definitely is a problem, but it is not a major one,” Francis said. “This needs time but there are solutions and I will find them.”

There are already some exceptions to the celibacy rule, dating back to the first pope, Peter, who, along with his apostles were almost all married men. According to, an encyclopedic website on Catholicism, the Eastern Churches have a peculiar and complex set of rules. Married men may become priests, but unmarried priests may not marry, and married priests, if widowed, may not remarry. Plus, none of the bishops can be drawn from the pool of married priests.

There are also exceptions within the Roman Catholic Church when married men are called to join the priesthood. Jonathan Duncan is a father of three who joined the priesthood when his youngest son was a toddler. Writing in the Boston Globe’s Crux website, he argues the Catholic Church should not lift the vow of celibacy.

“People are always surprised, then, to hear me defend celibacy, and I always tell them that if they want a full-throated defense of priestly celibacy, they should just talk to my wife, Elizabeth, who puts up with my busy schedule.”

Duncan, who was an Anglican priest before converting to Catholicism, credits the Catholic Church for accepting him. “Speaking for myself, I’m simply a man, trying to be faithful to two all-consuming vocations,” he says. “Some nights we lay our heads down knowing we’ve been more faithful to one of those vocations than the other, and most nights we know we could have been more faithful to both.”

Maria and other women like her would like the same chance to have a legitimate relationship with the men they love. “Pope Francis has given so many other people hope,” she says. “Maybe he will help us, too.”

In an interview with his old friend from Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Francis says he personally wouldn’t marry, even if he were allowed to. “For now, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all the pros and cons that go with it, because in 10 centuries there have been more positive experiences than errors,” the pope said.

“But it is a question of discipline, not faith. It can be changed.”