CARDIFF, Wales (ChurchMilitant.com) - A traditionalist priest is living in fear of disciplinary action after he acted in an emergency to solemnize the marriage of a vulnerable nomadic couple during the Wuhan virus lockdown in Wales.
Father Sebastian Jones, parish priest of St. Alban on the Moors in Splott, Cardiff, conducted the wedding of a couple belonging to the Irish Travellers — an ethnic minority group with numbers estimated between 5,000–15,000 souls currently based in his parish.
Local media reported that the wedding took place on May 12 during the lockdown when Welsh regulations permitted locals to leave their home only to shop for basic necessities, for exercise on their own or with family, for a medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person and to travel to and from work where it was necessary and could not be done from home.
In a letter obtained by Church Militant, Fr. Jones explained to his superior, Fr. Ignatius Harrison, that he only wanted to "protect individuals and families from grave consequences that are particular to them" if the wedding was not solemnized.
"As a priest, I must put the salvation of souls above every other consideration, even my own peace of mind and risk from infection," the priest from the traditionalist Cardiff Oratory wrote. "If 'the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls,' then I have broken no law that I can suffer for eternally."
However, archbishop of Cardiff George Stack told local media he regarded it as "a disciplinary matter" and he was "very shocked and upset" because "it was not the right thing to do, to succumb to that pressure" brought about by the families to perform the marriage.
"The priest would put forward his defense, of course," Stack noted, confirming that the matter was being investigated by the church.
Local sources told Church Militant that neither the state nor the police were pressing charges against the priest. They were surprised that the archbishop would even consider disciplinary action against "one of the best and most faithful priests in Cardiff for his saintly heroism."
Meanwhile, national chaplain to the Traveller community Fr. John Chadwick has written to Abp. Stack defending Fr. Jones and explaining the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the sacramental needs of the Travellers.
The Travellers are an itinerant population numbering around 30,000 in 2016. As a community, they tend to marry young, have large families, raise children outside traditional education systems and are plagued with health problems — over half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39 years. By comparison, median life expectancy in Ireland is 81.5 years.
"I would in the strongest terms ask Your Grace to be aware of the history of young women committing suicide where marriage has been delayed. 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," Chadwick wrote in a letter obtained by Church Militant.
Father Chadwick also attached a letter from a staff member of the Traveller pastoral team citing an example "of where this can happen in regard to risks surrounding 'betrothed' couples eloping and then subsequently the women in question committing suicide due to ostracization."
Sources told Church Militant that Fr. Jones was, in fact, dealing with a very similar situation.
"I would add that there are other circumstances where delayed marriage has caused female suicide, including the rape of engaged women, leading them to be cast aside by the grooms' families unless urgent mediation, counseling and marital blessings are forthcoming," Fr. Chadwick added, emphasizing the existence of "deep and complex cultural needs in regard to the religious and sacramental expression of Traveller communities."
Chadwick elaborated how Travellers requesting marriage "uniquely, present an acute pastoral need, which is rarely found within other parts of the Catholic community" and represented "the only surviving yet consistently faithful remnant who explicitly live out the Church's teaching regarding chastity."
"They request weddings with little notice, expressly, to protect the virtue of their youngsters in their effort to avoid 'the occasion of sin,'" he noted.
"Those who minister to this community know what I am referring to," Fr. Jones wrote to his superior. "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."
Father Jones also defended his decision to conduct an emergency baptism for the Traveller community:
In particular, to refuse the request for baptism in families where they have buried infants would require a steeliness of heart that I do not possess. I could not refuse a request to baptize an infant when the parents made an urgent appeal, especially when there is so much fear around. I am a Catholic priest not a civil servant.
"Ultimately, these sacraments are a question of competence. 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," he maintained.
"During the sacraments, every reasonable effort was taken for public health and safety. Numbers were always as few as possible," he emphasized.
Church Militant spoke to students from the Cardiff University Catholic Chaplaincy where Fr. Jones, also an academic with a doctorate, serves as university chaplain.
Former president of Cardiff University's CathSoc (Catholic Society) Sarah Jenkins described Fr. Jones as "an incredibly supportive chaplain who will always make time to listen to students and support them. His pastoral care is excellent and he always puts his students' well-being first, ahead of his own."
"Father Jones' outreach work with marginalized groups such as the homeless and asylum seekers inspires the CathSoc to work harder and implement the teachings of the Church in a practical way," she said.
Annabel Osborn said that as a student she "found the atmosphere and events put on by Fr. Jones so welcoming and engaging that, despite not being Catholic, I regularly attended Mass and spent a great deal of my time studying in the chaplaincy library."
"Fr. Jones was always approachable, interested in the lives of the students, and was greatly loved and respected. After God, his flock were absolutely his primary concern. After several months, he employed me as his secretary and oversaw my eventual reception into the Church," Osborn told Church Militant.
"He and the chaplaincy as he created it are responsible for showing me the beauty of God, and for that I will be eternally grateful. He officiated at our wedding and my eldest son would have received his First Holy Communion from him this weekend if it were not for the current closures," she added.
Church Militant has learned that Abp. Stack is meeting soon with the lay trustees of the diocese to decide on disciplinary action against the priest. However, when contacted, the archbishop's office denied knowledge of any meeting.
We asked the archbishop if he was considering disciplining Fr. Jones, given Pope Francis' commission to his priests to care for the most vulnerable; the understanding that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around; the particular situation of the Traveller community; and the widespread violations of the lockdown by government ministers, officials and now the Black Lives Matter crowds.
The specific questions were not answered. However, the archdiocesan office assured us they would respond to questions on the course of disciplinary action against Fr. Jones.