December 3, 2020

A Priest Who Left the Church for Love


They wanted to marry. But he’d taken a vow of celibacy.




The Spiritual Exercises

The story of a priest who left the Catholic Church for love.

[MUSIC PLAYING] He was Jewish, and she was Roman Catholic, but we were brought up totally Roman Catholic. The whole family went to Mass on Sunday, including my father. But I took to it right from the beginning, and being an altar boy, it just came naturally. I was also always, even as a little boy, interested in art. But I wasn’t at all interested in becoming a priest until my last year at Georgetown Prep. And more and more, it became clear to me that I belonged in the Jesuits. Did you foresee the sacrifice that it would involve? Enough to know that it would take sacrifice, but sacrifice had already become a value to me. People make sacrifices all the time for love, and to do it for God was not — it was not extraordinary for me to think that way. What does Bernstein say? (SINGING) “When love comes along, there is no right or wrong. Da, da, da.” Voilà. [TRAFFIC NOISE] I, pretty much, was not looking for a partner. I was not sure I even wanted to be married. I always felt like I didn’t fit in because why didn’t I want the same things that everybody else wanted? I just was different, and I didn’t know why I was different except, I think, I really was trying to live a spiritual life. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but I was looking for something deeper, richer, with more meaning. [FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL] [CAMERA CLICK] Ten years after I entered the Jesuits, they sent me to Austria to the University of Innsbruck. On the faculty at that time was the leading Catholic theologian, I think, of the 20th century. Karl Rahner was his name. He awakened me from my dogmatic slumber, and I began to see everything in a different light. It had nothing to do with my faith, the deep faith, that I have. But one of the things that was clear as a bell, even then, is that there was no reason not to have a married priesthood. [AIRPLANE NOISE] And when I came back, the American Catholic church seemed to me to be getting more and more conservative, so I immediately felt some change in myself. It’s also observed — And this year the Vatican has asked priests to renew their vows of celibacy and the — And our group is going to see that optional celibacy becomes a fact. Because we’re here, we’re going to stay and fight and change that law. Better to have married priests than no priest at all. Do you remember the first time you met him? I was introduced to him on the grounds of Georgetown University. He was my brother’s philosophy teacher. My brother had a great friendship with him and had spoken about him frequently at home about this outstanding mind. [SUBWAY DOORS CLOSING] I studied Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard after I studied theology. And Hegel, he puts art, religion and philosophy above science, even. He defined art — and I remember the day I read this, it still rings in my head as true — art is nature reborn through the free consciousness of the human spirit. So that every artist creates a world. So, after 15 years, I went in to the provincial, and I said, “Since the Jesuits teach philosophy and theology and science and math and everything else, I’d like to teach art, so I’d like to get a degree in art.” He gave me permission, and I went to George Washington University. At the end of an M.F.A. program, you have to do a thesis. So I did a series of paintings on “The Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius. [MUSIC PLAYING] I remember walking into that exhibit and just being stunned by what I saw on the walls. And I fell in love with the one of the suffering Christ. Oh, I immediately asked his brother Billy, “Billy, how much is this painting?” I offered to put a down payment and pay it off on time, and he wouldn’t let me. I became famous overnight. [MUSIC PLAYING] [CAMERA CLICKING] I went to Fordham and accepted my professorship there, and they took me very seriously as an artist. I looked for a loft, and I found it in a furniture factory. But the very day that I rented that studio, I went down to Fifth Avenue and met my brother Bill. I’m standing there just, you know, waiting for the light to change. My brother Bill said, “Look who’s there.” I started to smile, and then they had the recognition, they saw me. So we were just in the middle of the street saying, “Oh, what are you doing here?” So I said, “Therese, how are you?” “I’m wonderful, and how’s Tony?” We went to the sidewalk, and he told me that he had a loft and that he was going to have services there, and I might like to come some time. We chatted amiably, and I said, “Where are you?” And I said I had just accepted a job at Lincoln Center at the Metropolitan Opera. So I said, “What are you doing at the opera?” She said, “I’m Rudolf Bing’s personal assistant.” Sir Rudolf Bing was the impresario of the time. Every Monday — it was a ritual — he’d say, “How did you spend your weekend?” And I would always say, “Oh, I went to this extraordinary Mass at Father Netter’s.” And finally, he said, “Who is this Father Netter?” She called me up. “Why don’t you invite him to the opera?” She said, “I’ve got two tickets at the box for ‘La Bohème’ this afternoon, can you come?” And I said, “Well, I’m not dressed, but I’ll put on a black overcoat and no one will know the difference.” [OPERA SINGING] It’s a simple love story between a poet and a young woman who embroiders, lives a simple life in a loft, but who also has a terminal disease. [OPERA SINGING] In the beginning, Rodolfo introduces himself, right, and then Mimi says, “You shouldn’t be interested in me because I’m nobody.” Basically, what she says, you know, I just embroider things. And he says — I’m getting emotional — “That’s not why I love you, because what you do,” or something, “it’s who you are.” So it’s very beautiful. [OPERA SINGING] The music etches this story of devotion and a deepening love between two people that are ultimately going to face tragedy. In any case, I … took Therese’s hand. He took my hand, and I thought, hmm. But it wasn’t putting a move on her, or anything. It was a felt appreciation of the beauty of this art. Did you have any romantic feelings at that moment? No, I think I had fear. I had fear. What is this about? Yeah. Fear because he was a Jesuit priest? Of course, of course. He was a priest and he was Father Netter to me. I knew I felt something for her right then, but it was more like friendship, or something, than romance. But I felt something, yes. Did you say anything to each other afterwards? No, neither, nothing. I went home, she went home. I guess it was an odd opera to invite him to, but there it is. (LAUGHS) [MUSIC PLAYING] Jesuits live in the world but not of it, so I wasn’t a monk, and I was a professor at Fordham. I had other women that were also interested in me, many of them, as a matter of fact. But I wasn’t interested in them, you know, I didn’t — I wasn’t breaking my vow. One of them, she bought two paintings and tried to buy me with them. And I got very angry at her. I mean, I was yelling at her. I kicked her out. When I was yelling at her, I kept thinking of Therese because Therese has a very, very quiet voice. He called me, and he sounded terribly upset. And it gave me peace from the beginning whenever I was in her presence. And he said, “I really need to talk to you. Do you think you could meet me?” We went to a little bar near my loft called Joey Archer’s Bar. She understood why it upset me so much. I guess I was upset with myself. He did most of the talking because he was really upset. And she was so sympathetic, so — And then, he blurted it out. It just came out. I said, “You know, Therese, I think I’m falling in love with you.” That kind of broke this spell of tragedy because I started to laugh. And she said, “That’s funny. I called my mother today, and I said, ‘I’m not going to see Father Netter anymore. I think I’m falling in love with him.’” He said, “Well, what are we going to do about it?” I said, “There’s absolutely nothing we can do about it except to acknowledge that we have been given this wonderful moment of grace and love, and I think we just have to accept it and offer it up.” So you both accepted the fact — We did. — that you wouldn’t see each other again. Yes, we did. The next day, I came home from work. When I opened the door to my apartment, he had hung the painting that I had wanted to buy in the apartment, and he gave me a note that asked me to remember him. That was it. That was it. After the school year was over, I went out to East Hampton, and I went on retreat myself. [MUSIC PLAYING] The last meditation in “The Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius is “the Contemplation for Obtaining Love.” St. Ignatius said, when you make the right decision you feel something he calls consolation. I made a decision, and I felt peaceful. I called her up and asked her if she’d meet me at a place called the Swordfish. We sat down, we had a drink. And he told me he was going to be leaving the Jesuits. I am in love with you, and love is from God. He hoped that priests would be allowed to marry eventually in the Catholic church, and he wanted to know if I would marry him and share that journey with him. I became very emotional with joy, and said, “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea, and yes, of course. I would love to walk that journey with you.” Yes, I said yes. All the Jesuits were happy for me — not one was unhappy — and delighted that I’d chosen her. [MUSIC PLAYING] If you talk to the next 10 Jesuits you meet and ask them, or the next 100, or the General, do they think priests should be allowed to marry, they’ll all tell you yes. On Sunday, Pope Paul VI tried flatly and finally to end all discussion among the clergy of abolishing the church rule on celibacy. He said, absolutely the rule would not be changed, and that there should not be any more talk about it. Our case is on record in Rome. They use this word, which I think say so much. They “reduced” me to the state of the laity, which kind of says, well, from a high state to a low state, which says what they think about laity. When we didn’t get the permission that we were hoping to receive from Rome, when it ultimately was received, it was conditional. So in order for us to be married within the Catholic church, which is what we had said we wanted and that we wanted to work with the church, not against it, he had to resign from Fordham, which was a very sad day. And then these are just pictures from our other four months. This is really just a scrapbook of memories. There was a lot more pain than I foresaw. But did some of the reaction hurt? Oh, yes. Oh, yes, of course, yeah. Very much so. But here we are 50 years later. We lost our first son; he was stillborn. And then, the second major tragedy, of course, was that our second son was born and died. There were some people who thought that that was God’s way of telling us that we were evil people. This is me, that’s Terence. That’s the baby. There’s Pop Netter and Terence and Dylan. And Dylan is our third son. One of the things that keeps people together is to love somebody as other, not as an extension of yourself. It’s a beautiful show. It’s a beautiful show. [LAUGHTER] I just finished it yesterday. Oh, did you? [MUSIC PLAYING] What did you think, Therese? I just said, I thought it was beautiful. Has it met your expectations? Oh, marriage? Holy smokes! (LAUGHS) It’s given me what I was looking for. It’s given me a true sense of meaning, and that’s what I was looking for, a meaningful life. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think for all great love stories, no one can predict them. They’re all improbable, when you meet the right person or you don’t. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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The story of a priest who left the Catholic Church for love.CreditCredit…Lloyd Kramer and Scott Chestnut

By Lloyd Kramer and

Mr. Kramer and Mr. Chestnut are filmmakers.

Terence Netter and Therese Franzese fell in love in New York City in the 1960s. She was an assistant to Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. He was an accomplished painter and Jesuit priest. They sought to marry and dreamed the Catholic Church would embrace a married priesthood.

There was reason for them to be hopeful. At the time there was a robust dialogue happening around optional celibacy for priests. And so they were deeply disappointed when in 1967, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the rule of celibacy for priesthood. Netter left the ministry, and the couple built a life together. In the short documentary above, we see their love story unfold as they grew their faith in each other and in God.

Lloyd Kramer is a Directors Guild of America-nominated filmmaker. Scott Chestnut is a filmmaker, editor and cinematographer.

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