Dorothy Cummings McLean reports for LifeSiteNews – A community of devout Catholic priests in Wales is coming under mainstream media pressure over the celebration of a wedding during the COVID-19 lockdown, sparking fears that their work could be in jeopardy.
On June 8 Wales Online published a story about a wedding that took place at St. Alban-on-the-Moors Catholic Church on Tuesday, May 12. It identified the celebrant as Oratorian Father Sebastian Jones. The digital newspaper was alerted to the story by photographs posted on Facebook. Both Wales Online and the BBC neglected to mention that the family who requested the wedding belonged to the devoutly Catholic―and famously marriage-minded―Traveller community.
Father Sebastian, who regularly ministers to the ostracized Irish Traveller (aka “Irish Gypsy”) community, believes that he had good pastoral reasons to perform the ceremony.
“In seeking to be a pastoral priest to the specific pressing needs of the Travelling community during the indefinite uncertainties arising from the lockdown, I only ever hoped to protect individuals and families from grave consequences that are particular to them,” Fr. Sebastian stated in an email to his superior.
“I am a Catholic priest, not a civil servant.”
LifeSiteNews has subsequently learned that Catholic priests in Cardiff have celebrated infant baptisms and at least one other Traveller wedding despite civil regulations currently forbidding both sacraments.
A source close to Fr. Sebastian added that although Archbishop George Stack was initially “fairly supportive” of the Oratorian Father, he is experiencing a lot of pressure from outside forces. There are fears that Fr. Sebastian will be removed as the parish priest of St. Alban-on-the-Moors Church and that the new Oratory itself will be suppressed.
The Archbishop of Cardiff, the Right Reverend George Stack, told the media that Fr. Sebastian felt compelled to perform the ceremony.
“The parents of the family insisted that it take place immediately,” the archbishop explained to Wales Online.
“They went to the priest and he caved in,” he continued.
“When I say he was pressured, he felt pressured. He was concerned. Worried about the girl’s health and safety.”
Stack added that he thought performing the marriage was “not the right thing to do.”
But according to Canon Law, all Catholics have a right to the sacrament of marriage unless there is an impediment, such as one or both the parties being underage, one or both being already married, or the parties being too closely related.
Marriage as a guarantee of chastity in the Traveller community
At the same time, the Irish Traveller community is known to be “almost unique” among Catholic groups in strictly observing pre-marital chastity, LifeSiteNews has learned. Irish Travellers marry young and are “almost oppressively” chaperoned beforehand. To prevent occasion for sin, engagements are short, and priests are not given much notice. Traveller girls have committed suicide after being ostracized by their community for perceived unchastity arising from delayed marriage.
The importance of marriage to Travellers was exploited in Britain by the makers of the controversial “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” television series.
LifeSiteNews has obtained a copy of a letter from Fr. Sebastian to his superior Father Ignatius Harrison, the provost of the Birmingham Oratory, explaining why he has been witnessing marriages and performing baptisms for the Travellers.
“In seeking to be a pastoral priest to the specific pressing needs of the Travelling community during the indefinite uncertainties arising from the lockdown I only ever hoped to protect individuals and families from grave consequences that are particular to them,” Fr. Sebastian wrote.
“Those who minister to this community know what I am referring to. It was the urgency and persistence of the requests and their expectations that the Church could resolve a spiritual crisis in their lives that was my only motivation,” he continued.
“At no time did I overlook the gravity of their circumstances nor even the possible consequences for me personally in the celebration of a Sacrament in their lives and the disturbing effects of lockdown.”
Fr. Sebastian added that he lacked the “steeliness of heart” to refuse baptism, during a pandemic, to babies belonging to families who had already buried children.
“I am a Catholic priest, not a civil servant,” he stated.
“I appreciate that for those without Faith or experience of this particular Ministry my pastoral decisions are incomprehensible. However, as a priest, I must put the salvation of souls above every other consideration, even my own peace of mind and risk from infection.”
Fr. Sebastian also underscored in his letter the freedom of the Church to dispense the sacraments independently of the wishes of the secular state.
“I have lectured and written for nearly twenty years on the Church’s constant teaching that in matters of the Sacraments the Church is not subject to the State,” he wrote.
Fr. Sebastian noted that the Church herself asserts her freedom in such matters and that the ceremonies he performed did not bring about “civil effects,” as they were not recorded by the government.
“Ultimately these Sacraments are a question of competence,” he reminded his superior.
“The Catholic Church alone and not the State has competence in these spiritual matters. The present confusion arises from the notion that every institution is subject to the State. The Church has always vehemently rejected such a violation of her liberty.”
‘A devoted and reliable pastor’
LifeSiteNews has learned that Fr. Sebastian has ministered to the Traveller community in the Diocese of Cardiff, the largest in the U.K., since August of last year. According to Fr. John Chadwick, who wrote to Archbishop Stack in support of the priest, Fr. Sebastian “routinely” visits Traveller sites outside Cardiff City and is “widely known as a devoted and reliable pastor.”
“I can confirm that some of the pastoral interventions made by Fr Sebastian have been so timely that he may well have saved lives as a consequence,” Chadwick wrote.
“Travellers requesting marriage always, and perhaps uniquely, present acute pastoral need.”
The Margaret Clitheroe Trust, which advocates for marginalized communities like the Travellers, has written to Archbishop Stack on behalf of Fr. Sebastian, saying that he is a “shining example” of leadership.
“He is a shining example of a leader who works to proactively overcome the barriers that Travellers face within society,” wrote Samuel Bowden, the Chair of Trustees.
“I think everyone can agree that Father Sebastian’s actions in reference to the [May 12] ceremony were … simply motivated by compassion,” he continued.
“In particular, this compassion was towards a group that is considered to be least in society. I cannot help but feel this work is in the greatest traditions of Christ, spending time on the margins to love those who are left behind or judged by others.”
Bowden asked the archbishop to be aware that delayed marriage has led to female suicide in the Traveller community.
“This may seem hyperbolic, but it is simply the reality within the context of a culture and community of which there is so little understanding,” he said.
“Service to such a unique and marginalised group, with such a unique set of needs, is never going to be straightforward.”
Wales may not be the only place in the locked down United Kingdom where Catholics priests are discreetly administering the sacraments to laypeople who ask for them. LifeSiteNews has been made aware of unsubstantiated rumours of clandestine Masses being celebrated in other nations in the union. Public masses have been forbidden in England and Wales since March 20, and in Scotland since March 19.
Many of the British laity have communicated their longing for the sacraments to their bishops, and one group of Catholics produced a video asking merely that the churches be reopened for private prayer. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the Westminster Archdiocese told Catholics last month that it would be a “scandal” to reopen. However, churches in England and Wales are expected to open for private prayer next Monday.
Earlier this week blogger priest Father John Zuhlsdorf brought attention to the suffering of priests who are forbidden by their bishops to minister to the laity. He called this “moral injury.”
“One writer defines moral injury as resulting from a betrayal of what is morally right by someone who holds legitimate authority and in a high stakes situation,” Zuhlsdorf wrote.
“For example, priests who really believe in the cura animarum, and who are ordered, bullied, threatened by authority above them to go against what they believe is right and good for themselves and their people. Application: being virtually forbidden to provide the sacraments to the faithful during the COVID-1984 lockdown.”
Not all clergy performing weddings have been pilloried in the press. At least two Church of England marriages have been celebrated since the U.K.-wide lockdown and marriage moratorium were imposed in late March. One involved a young man dying in hospital who wished to marry the mother of his child, his fiancée of 15 years. This ceremony, which could not be civilly recorded, was performed by a hospital chaplain. A second Anglican wedding ceremony, this one joining a doctor and nurse in marriage was performed in a hospital chapel in May.
LifeSiteNews has reached out to the Provost of the Birmingham Oratory and to the Archbishop of Cardiff for comment. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Cardiff has assured LifeSiteNews that he will communicate with us tomorrow.
To respectfully make your opinion known to Archbishop Stack, please contact:
The Rt. Rev. George Stack
Archbishop of Cardiff
43 Cathedral Road
Tel: 44 (0) 29 2022 0411
Email: [here ]