It started like most love stories do. When he first saw her, he was captivated right away, his curiosity was piqued.
Except for one huge difference.
He was at the altar—the priest—and she was a parishioner. It was 2000, the year he moved from Aklan to California.
Even though she arrived late (parishioners making their way to the pews while a Mass was ongoing had always annoyed him), he wasn’t in the least irritated.
“I first saw her—of all times and of all places—while I was saying Mass. She came in during the readings. Latecomers are pet peeves of every speaker as a general rule, and to come in late for Mass is inexcusable to say the least. But my reaction was different,” says Dr. Alex Meñez in his book, The View from the Pew: A Catholic Priest Falls in Love, published by Aletheia Publishing. The book was released in the US last year and in the Philippines just last week.
Alex is a Doctor of Canon Law from Kalibo, Aklan, where he was ordained in 1970. In 2000 he moved to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California.
In 2011, when he was 64 years old and 40 years a priest, he left the ministry and married Espy de Vega, then 51, after receiving dispensation from celibacy from Pope Benedict XVI in October 2010. Today, the couple lives in Long Beach, California.
Their love story, he tells PhilSTAR L!fe, is a small but important part of his book. “My wish and the reason for the book is to be a voice, small but faint, for a reformist concern for the institutional church and the clerics. There are many ecclesiastics in the country, not counting the sisters and those active in the church, who need to read it.”
Espy de Vega attracted his attention in a positive way, he says. “She captivated my emotions. I looked forward to seeing her again. Every Sunday, I was hoping that she would come for my scheduled Mass.”
I do not love Christ less by falling in love. Jesus knows how much I love him still. Can I not love Jesus as a layperson? And will Jesus love me less when I am no longer a priest?
In June 2000, months after he first saw her, she came to the church office to ask a priest to bless her new car. Alex was the priest on duty.
“What a beautiful coincidence,” he says. “Or was it serendipity or maybe even providential?”
He finally got to know her name—Espy, short for Esperanza. He blessed her car, taking “more time than what the ritual required.” Then he talked to her “longer than what courtesy or duty needed. But she was professionally friendly—meaning, she was a parishioner, and I was a priest.”
Three years later, Espy’s mother died while visiting the US. Alex had met her mother when she was sick and he gave her communion. Espy’s mother and sisters saw him as part of the family. “They are all girls, and they took me in as their elder brother. Invitations to family gatherings were always a joyful expectation.”
The only bachelorette, Espy had four other sisters whose families she was devoted to. When their mother died, Alex was there for the family in their grief. “It took many more years until the acquaintance became familiarity. And the familiarity did not breed contempt. Instead, the friendship grew to a higher level.”
By 2008 or eight years after they first met, Alex was “going through unchartered emotions.” Like anyone in love for the first time, the emotions were “not familiar, but I felt that they were good.”
But he was a priest. He was not supposed to fall in love. And he felt the attraction was one-sided.
“Espy was happy with her life. She was successful in her career. She had her own house, which she bought when she was in her second year in the US.”
Later on, Espy might have felt that his feelings were becoming more than friendship. “She said she felt the same way but was afraid to show it. Now the feeling had become reciprocal. I weighed the options. I felt happier being with her than doing my ministry. I felt that during these unsettling years, I was simply functioning as a priest even if I enjoyed doing the rituals, and I felt fulfilled, and people were happy and impressed with my dedication and devotion.”
By then, the priesthood had become “ritualistic, a task, a duty to perform.” On the other hand, when he was with Espy, “there was joy and peace and fulfillment.’
What about the sexual attraction that couples in love (or even without it) naturally feel? “Honestly, the sexual attraction and impulse were there, and they were overwhelming. But both of us wanted to stay in grace.”
Alex points out that to be celibate and to be chaste are two different realities—the former means not getting married and the latter means to abstain from sexual relations.
“Priests are trained to be celibate. The whole 12 years of seminary formation is geared to this law, besides the academic training. So to be celibate is easy. The hard part and the constant challenge is to be chaste.
“When I fell in love, I had to decide to leave. Precisely because I could not be honest to myself and the people I served, and the God who knows my innermost heart. It was either to get out of the active of the ministry and get married—or to stay and have a clandestine relationship (as some priests do).”
The sexual attraction and impulse were there, and they were overwhelming. But both of us wanted to stay in grace.
Alex was nearing 60 at the time but he felt “like a teenager treading on new but exciting ground. One thing I was sure was that it was unfamiliar yet fulfilling.
“I didn’t want to balance the weights and find out which one was heavier—my priesthood or my love for her. I didn’t want to analyze ‘what went wrong.’ For me, at this time, falling in love was not wrong. What was wrong was that it came rather late in my life.
“Years ago, I had made many analyses about the life of other priests who came to me for advice or direction. I used to be one among those who would analyze and suggest possible causes (no prayer life, no communion with fellow priests or openness with the bishop, burnout or midlife crisis)."
“Now I realize that love is not planned, and it is a crazy thing. I never thought that at my age, love would ever come. All I know is that I do not love Christ less by falling in love. Jesus knows how much I love him still. Can I not love Jesus as a layperson? Can I not love him and be married? And will Jesus love me less when I am no longer a priest?”
Even after 40 years of serving the church as a priest, Alex still had to grapple with how he would be judged. “Words like defection and lack of permanent commitment betray their impression of me. I do not condemn them for their judgment. I can say though that in all sincerity, I had been a committed priest for 40 years, faithful to the law of celibacy and dedicated in loving service to God’s people.”
He was sure of one thing though—his level of commitment to Espy. “I have fallen in love, and I will be committed to her for the rest of the few years of my life. I gave 40 years of dedicated service to God’s people, may I not be allowed to enjoy even some few years or so with her? After all, service to God is open in any state of life.”
When I fell in love, I had to decide to leave. Precisely because I could not be honest to myself and the people I served, and the God who knows my innermost heart.
In August 2008, Alex was granted permission to officially retire from his priestly ministry. He then filed a petition to the Vatican and after nine months, he was granted dispensation from “all obligations arising from sacred orders, including the law of celibacy” by Pope Benedict XVI.
On March 26, 2011, Alex and Espy were married at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Long Beach, California.
Alex says in his book that he is not against celibacy for priests. “Celibacy is a jewel in the Catholic Church. It has enabled me to have a healthy and honest and clean rapport with women who otherwise were desirable. But now I realize that values change, new needs are felt, and priorities become different. The idealism of the youth is gone, and the practicality, or shall we say, the wisdom of old age takes over.”
Last Sunday, on Valentine’s Day, Alex wrote Espy a love letter—the wife of 10 years he had never “given a diamond ring” but he offered her his book.
“My book is the story of my love for you,” he wrote. “It is a story crafted by my personal effort and created from my heart. It is our love story worth sharing because God’s imprint is in it. And it is the story of my life.”