Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 12, 2002; Page A12

Mexican Parishioners Accept Priests Who Spurn Celibacy
Some Clerics Marry, Risking Wrath of Church Hierarchy

By Mary Jordan

SAN BARTOLO COYOTEPEC, Mexico -- When the Rev. Manuel Marinero announced in 1997 that he had fallen in love
with a female parishioner, the Roman Catholic Church immediately ended his 24-year career as a priest. But his village rallied
around him.

When Marinero walks the jacaranda-lined streets here, everyone still calls him "padre." Grocers call it out from their stores,
while children on bikes and passing taxi drivers wave cheerfully as he strolls with his wife and their two children.

The local bishop, who took away Marinero's parish and said he was no longer officially recognized by the church, asked him to
move out of the house where the parish priest lives. But the village owns the house, and residents voted to ask Marinero to

"We gave him the house for as long as he is alive," said Adelina Sosa Bautista, 57, who lives in this village of 750 families on the
outskirts of Oaxaca city. "The bishop told us, 'San Bartolo has no priest.' " Well, she said, he was wrong.

Young couples still ask Marinero to say their wedding Masses, even though those vows are no longer officially recognized by
the church. Every day, people show up at his doorstep asking him to bless their new home or say prayers over the dying.

Even though he is no longer permitted to use the local church, he still says Mass with Communion every Sunday in the
courtyard of a local school. A store owner cleared space out back where Marinero now keeps an office. From there, he
continues to minister to a steady stream of villagers who want advice about everything from relationships to alcoholism.

"What he did was honest. He let us know that he had married," Bautista said. "Many priests do it, but they hide it. He told the
truth and he was punished by the bishops for that. It's not fair."

Two dozen priests and church scholars interviewed recently agreed with Bautista that an unknown but significant number of
priests in Mexico have girlfriends, live-in companions or wives. They said Marinero's case was unusual only because it is so

Having a consensual adult sexual relationship is far different from the pedophilia cases that are battering the U.S. Catholic
church. But the recent focus on the sexual behavior of priests has prompted a renewed public debate in many parts of the
world over the church's requirement that priests take a vow of celibacy.

Pope John Paul II is scheduled to visit Mexico and Guatemala in July. Church reformers say they hope the pope's trip will draw
attention to the practice in Latin America, particularly in the countryside, of some priests living with women with the silent
acceptance of their parishioners.

"Many people don't see any problem with it," said Jose Renteria Perez, an official of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of
Oaxaca. He said numerous Mexican priests have had girlfriends and that parishioners, particularly in small communities, have
"little resistance" to the idea.

"The church needs, sooner or later, to assume the challenge, to reflect on and face this reality," said Renteria, a church deacon.
"When people dedicate their lives to serving the church, some can do it -- or need to do it -- with a partner. Others can do it

In Mexico, many priests live in church or community housing with extended families, which makes it easy to call a female
companion a "cousin" or a child a "nephew."

Several Mexican priests living with women said they did not want to talk about their own circumstances but referred questions
to Marinero, who is becoming a spokesman, if not a hero, for some of them.

"The church is not open to married priests. It tolerates them, but it hides them," said Marinero, 55. "I didn't want to hide."

The Rev. Daniel Quiroga, spokesman for Oaxaca Archbishop Hector Gonzalez Martinez, said he had no information about
how many priests have female companions, but said that a priest must choose between family and the priesthood.

"If they're honest, they notify the bishop, saying, 'I'm getting married, you need to find another priest to take over my parish.' "

Villagers said Gonzalez warned them about being "fooled" by Marinero. Quiroga confirmed they had been told that any
sacraments he administered were "invalid."

Bishop Guillermo Ortiz Mondragon, spokesman for the influential Mexican Bishops' Conference, said he had heard that some
priests have female companions, but that, "as far as I know, it doesn't happen in large measure. It does happen, but it is not

But the Rev. Antonio Roqueñi said more official recognition of the personal problems that result from celibacy would be
healthy. He said that in two decades as an official in the Mexico City diocese he counseled many priests about their
relationships with women.

"It's anguish for a lot of these men. They live double lives," Roqueñi said.

Marinero entered a Catholic seminary at age 12 and was ordained at 26. "My vocation is in my bones," he said. "I am not like
a singer who won't sing if there's no audience, no fee." Thin and wiry, with a bearded face wrinkled by the hot Oaxaca sun, he
was content with his life as a priest. He liked the informal life of his village 300 miles south of Mexico City, where priests don't
wear collars, favoring instead the loose white shirts and straw hats worn by local farmers and the artisans who make the
village's trademark black pottery.

Marinero said he believes that people can sense that his faith is real, whether or not the church sanctions him.

"Why should you need a parish to be a priest? All you need is to be in the streets, to be in life. You don't need Rome's
permission," he said.

Tania Melchior Gomez, 30, said she attends Marinero's Masses because "he's real. I always understand what he's talking
about." She said her grandmother was "disillusioned" when she heard he had married, but now "she accepts him."

Marinero said he never expected to be a revolutionary. His life took an unexpected turn, he said, when he went on a week-long
religious retreat in 1995. There he met Alma Patricia Ramirez, a psychologist with a bright smile. "I fell in love," he said.

They began dating immediately, but kept it quiet until he announced their marriage from the pulpit one Sunday.

Ramirez, 33, recalled that "there was a very strong attraction" right from the beginning. She said her family rejected her and has
only recently come to accept her life with Marinero.

"My colleagues at work, mostly doctors and nurses, did not reject me, but responded well," she said. "Some people have
reservations when they learn my husband is a priest. Not everyone will agree, and we have to respect that."

She said four women who are secretly dating or living with priests have sought her out. "Some of them even came with their
children. They were very sad, angry and frustrated because they have to live in hiding, because they are made to pass as
cousins or sisters."

Sitting with Marinero in their home, with their 6-month-old son squirming in her lap, Ramirez laughed. She said she never
imagined that one day she would bring her two children to watch their father say Mass.

Ramirez said she is grateful that she is not one of those in hiding. "My son knows well who his father is," she said. "He tells
people on the bus that his dad offers Mass, that he can say a prayer for them so they'll feel better."

Marinero said that while going public with his relationship has cost him a lot, he is luckier than other priests. He said many
others have told him that they fear acknowledging their secret lives. He said they don't want to lose their place in the church --
including, not insignificantly, their church income.

Marinero's family lives comfortably on Ramirez's income from the state hospital where she works, and from the help the village
has given them with the house and donations.

"The important thing about loving God is not that you're celibate," he said. "The important thing is that you dedicate your life to
God, whether you have 10 kids or you are celibate."

He thinks it will be parishioners, not church officials, who begin questioning the celibacy rules. "Revolutions don't come from the
top," he said.