February 26, 2020

My ‘Date’ With a Priest

In 1962, I was 20, beautiful (so I was told) and, most of all, curious.

After sailing across the ocean from New York to London, I joined a bus tour that would take me to six countries. Even though my passport was up to date, I was a little nervous when we crossed a border, especially into Germany. In 1962, the world still was in the shadow of World War II. Being a Jew, I especially was uneasy; the guards who boarded our bus — no-nonsense men of few words — didn’t assuage those feelings.

But when we got to Italy, it was a whole different experience. These guards were smiling, friendly, welcoming. It was almost as if they were saying, “You have a passport? You don’t have a passport? Whatever. Come on in and enjoy yourself.”

I was in a constant state of excitement during this trip, but in the deep recesses of my mind, I heard my father’s voice whispering to me, “Trust no one. Especially a man.” I didn’t want to listen to that. I wanted to believe people in general were good.

We traveled a few hours and then, suddenly, there it was: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’d heard about it, thought about it, read about it, but nothing is as exhilarating as seeing history with your own eyes. The same went for seeing the Sistine Chapel in Rome. After the tour I found myself at the confessionals in the Vatican. I had no experience with the confessional, and I wondered what it would be like to be inside one.

I gave it a moment’s thought, then entered one. The priest asked what I was there for. “I’m not here for confession, Father,” I said. “I’m Jewish. I just wondered what it would feel like to be in here.”

We made small talk until he asked me if I’d like to go to the church bar. The Vatican had a bar? I said yes.

We stepped outside the confessional. My breath caught. The priest was tall, handsome and fair-haired. He told me to call him Peter. I followed him to the bar, a large, comfortable room filled with priests who were smoking and drinking. I had put Vatican priests on such a pedestal in my head, I was surprised to see them having drinks and cigarettes like the rest of us.

It had been a memorable encounter and added such pleasure and fun to my time in Rome.

When we were ready to leave, Peter asked me if I’d like him to show me around the Roman Colosseum the next day. I said yes.

Fleetingly, it crossed my mind why he was being so nice to me. I was sure, as a priest in the Vatican, that he had a lot of responsibilities. I quickly reassured myself that it would be during the day, and there would be a lot of people around. Again, I heard my father’s warnings in my head, but I was determined not to pay attention to them.

When I returned to the hotel, I told everyone about it. They were excited for me because I was excited. The next day, I met Peter in front of the Colosseum. Peter gave me a phenomenal education and he was so nice to be with. He spoke six languages, so English was no problem for him. He was very personable. At times, I would swear he was flirting with me.

At the end of our time at the Colosseum, he asked me if I would like to meet him for a drink later. A date with a priest? A Vatican priest? Was my father right, or did I need to worry about something else entirely? Something my father never thought of: I might be responsible for causing Peter — by my very presence — to break his vows. I know it sounds incredibly egotistical now, but at the time I was young and heady, and we already had spent two days together. Then I thought, “How silly.” I told him I’d have to check with my tour mates.

I talked to my tour mates. I didn’t know whether to go or not. What if he tried to kiss me? Did I mention Peter was very attractive? The idea didn’t sound so bad until I remembered he was a priest. I was confused.

The entire tour group thought I should go. So I went. I hailed a taxi and had the driver take me to the bar. Peter and I had a drink. I asked him questions about the Vatican and he asked about my life in the States. Peter hadn’t touched me yet, but the evening was still young. We finished our drinks and he ordered another round.

My father was wrong. Contrary to his philosophy, some people are exactly who they present themselves to be. 

Time flew by. The waiter brought the check and we stood up to leave.

Would it happen now?

But nothing happened. Peter was a complete gentleman. He waited until I got a taxi, and we said our goodbyes. In the end, I was relieved. I would have felt terrible (and, I suppose, extremely flattered) if he found me sexually desirable. On the other hand, I didn’t need to feel any guilt about what really happened. 

My father was wrong. Contrary to his philosophy, some people are exactly who they present themselves to be. My faith in my fellow man was affirmed. Peter and I wrote to each other for about a year. It had been a memorable encounter and added such pleasure and fun to my time in Rome.

I think of Peter every now and then; wonder how he’s doing; wonder if he’s still with the Vatican. I’ve heard about priests who have committed transgressions. I’m glad Peter wasn’t one of them.

Lynn Brown Rosenberg is the author of the memoir “My Sexual Awakening at 70.”