Pope Francis has been in office for just over a year and finally he has given us an idea of what he meant when he suggested that Bishop's conferences should share in determining the direction of the Church in their own geographical areas. I am not surprised that a married priesthood is one of the first of these areas. The following is taken from the Tablet and is an excerpt of the article by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt.
Pope says married men could be ordained priests if world's bishops agree on it
10 April 2014 15:23 by Christa Pongratz-LippittA bishop who met with Pope Francis in a rare private audience on 4 April has said in an interview that the two men discussed the issue of the ordination of “proven” married men – viri probati – in a serious and positive way.
Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, spoke to the Pope about Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the environment, and the treatment of indigenous peoples but the desperate shortage of priests in the bishop’s huge diocese came up in the conversation. According to an interview the Austrian-born bishop gave to the daily Salzburger Nachrichten on 5 April, the Pope was open-minded about finding solutions to the problem, saying that bishops’ conferences could have a decisive role.
“I told him that as bishop of Brazil’s largest diocese with 800 church communities and 700,000 faithful I only had 27 priests, which means that our communities can only celebrate the Eucharist twice or three times a year at the most,” Bishop Kräutler said. “The Pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions,” he explained. A bishop should not act alone, the Pope told Kräutler. He indicated that “regional and national bishops’ conferences should seek and find consensus on reform and we should then bring up our suggestions for reform in Rome,” Kräutler said. (Every time I read a comment from a conservative Catholic that implies the priest shortage will be solved by conservative seminaries, I seriously wonder how informed their understanding of this shortage really is. 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics is not a shortage, it's a catastrophe. Bishop Krautler's diocese is far from alone in the global church.)
Asked whether he had raised the question of ordaining married men at the audience, Bishop Kräutler replied: “The ordination of viri probati, that is of proven married men who could be ordained to the priesthood, came up when we were discussing the plight of our communities. The Pope himself told me about a diocese in Mexico in which each community had a deacon but many had no priest. There were 300 deacons there who naturally could not celebrate the Eucharist. The question was how things could continue in such a situation. (The better question is why things have been allowed to get to this point.)
"It was up to the bishops to make suggestions, the Pope said again.”
Bishop Kräutler was then asked whether it now depended on bishops’ conferences, as to whether church reforms proceeded or not. “Yes,” he replied. “After my personal discussion with the Pope I am absolutely convinced of this.”
Last September the Vatican Secretary of State, then-Archbishop Pietro Parolin – who was then Apostolic Nuncio to Venezuela – answered a question put to him by El Universal newspaper by stating that priestly celibacy “is not part of church dogma and the issue is open to discussion because it is an ecclesiastical tradition”. “Modifications can be made, but these must always favour unity and God’s will,” he said. “God speaks to us in many different ways. We need to pay attention to this voice that points us towards causes and solutions, for example the clergy shortage.”.......(And this is just a nicer way of saying the solution will not include women.)
For those who don't know, Latin American bishops brought up the question of married priests during Vatican II. Pope Paul VI killed that notion. This was over 50 years ago. Since then the priest shortage has gone critical all across the global Church. If American Catholics think it's bad in the States, in South America and Africa it's much worse, and it doesn't help these areas that Bishops in the West are filling their depleted ranks with priests imported from the developing world. Demographic trends with in the priesthood project an even deeper crisis as the greater majority of today's priests reach retirement age in ten to fifteen years. But the truth is, in many dioceses there really isn't any such thing as a priest fully retiring as long as they can still walk and talk.
The issue that has really mystified me is why the Vatican has allowed this situation to develop. The trends were available to see back in the late 60's and 70's. Paul VI's insistence on maintaining celibacy only accelerated the trends and while the Vatican lists about 69,000 priests as having asked for dispensation from the priesthood from 1965-2000, estimates which include those who left without asking for dispensation top 100,000. As ominous as those figures are, the real clincher was the 90% drop in seminarians from the unusual levels in the 50's and this drop has resulted in the closure of 2/3rds of seminaries in the US alone.
It is beyond me, that knowing all these figures, there hasn't been a collective demand for changes to the discipline in the priesthood from our bishops. It is perhaps this issue that gives a real idea of the kind of 'yes sir, no sir' bishops bequeathed to us by the last two papacies. Apparently the current zeitgeist in the collective clerical Church is that it is much better to lose the flock than advocate for any change in the priesthood. I'm not sure there is a stronger statement about their lack of concern for the souls of the laity unless it is their dismal record with clerical abuse---and that was also motivated in part by the desire to protect the myth of the celibate priesthood.
While there is hope in this latest sign of potential change from Pope Francis, there is also frustration. Ordaining viri probati would certainly help, but there are also tens of thousands of priests who left to get married who could be reinstated if they so desired. Many of them do. And then there is the whole question of ordaining women, but that probably won't happen until the last male priest has taken his last breath and there is no other choice. However, I think long before that happens, the Church will break out into intentional Eucharistic Communities who will not be tied down by mandates from Rome about who can or cannot say Mass. The People of God will find their own solutions long before Rome comes up with anything meaningful and maybe that's the answer as to why the Vatican has refused to act for so long. The answers don't reside in the Vatican. They reside in the hearts of the People of God where in resides the Holy Spirit.