“ Courage”! “ It is I. Don’t be afraid”
Pope Francis has made a call to the Conference of Bishops to take a courageous step and ordain married men, “vir probati” (proven married men). This call should not be forgotten.
Here we have the supreme representative of Our Lord making a direct request to the Bishops to find a solution to the shortage of priests which is affecting many countries. Pope Francis is a man of vast pastoral experience and would not make a request such as this without measuring its consequences.
There comes a time in life when we have to admit that we are not capable of solving a problem alone and that we need to look for help from others. This fact brings to mind that scene in the Gospel of Saint Luke chapter 5 v. 5 – 8, where the disciples catch so many fish that they are unable alone to bring them in “so they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them”.This was a great act of humility on the part of the disciples. Instead of trying to solve the problem alone they looked for help from other fishermen.
Today, due to the shortage of celibate priests, many communities are being left without the frequent access to the Eucharist. It is becoming humanly impossible due to increasing age for priests to get around to all their communities and celebrate mass. Priests in their 60s and 70s are being asked to take on more and more work, which they do willingly, but this is a dangerous policy as it can lead to exhaustion, burn out and stressed priests.
Some of the greatest men in the world, who carried enormous responsibilities, were married with a wife and family who supported them in their work and who were not a hindrance but a help and comfort to their husbands. There is a popular saying that behind every great man there is a great woman, there is great truth in this. In many professions men and women handle both a job and a family. Think of doctors, surgeons, counselors, teachers, social workers etc., all these have a very demanding life, in most cases though they benefit from the companionship and love of a partner. It is good to remember this for there will be the prophets of doom who will say that if a priest is married he will be divided both as regards his time and dedication.
It is calculated that there are around 150,000 thousand married priests in the world. Some of these are still doing pastoral work and serving the people even in spite of the canonical restrictions placed on them as married priests. However they are not allowed to celebrate public masses. Like the disciples in the Gospel mentioned above, these men could be called to help out. Not all married priests will answer this call but there are many who have never lost the spirit of priestly service.
Statistics are statistics and you can’t deny them. In some countries with the situation of the shortage of celibate priests, which due to old age and death will get worse in the not too far distant future, the celebration of the Eucharist will become a rare event. Surely then the most sensible and pastoral decision is to ordain married men and call back to ministry priests who have married. The image of celibate and married priests working together for the good of the Christian community is very powerful.
We have to ask the question , is it more important to demand that the Eucharist can only be celebrated by celibate priests or that it be made available to people frequently by allowing celibate or married priests celebrate it? The document Lumen Gentium says: “The Eucharist is the fountain and center of Christian life”, and Vatican 11 in its document Presbyterorum Ordinis says: “No Christian community can build itself without having its roots and center in the Eucharistic celebration”.
Some will say that where there is a shortage of priests the Eucharist can be substituted by Celebrations of the Word. These Celebrations of the Word are no doubt grace-filled celebrations. The remark was once said though that these celebrations are “Mass, bar the consecration”. This statement is misleading. A Celebration of the Word is not a mini-mass. If Celebrations of the Word are to become more common in the life of the church both the celebrants and the people will need to be prepared otherwise belief in the uniqueness of the Eucharist can be lost with time.
Let the Bishops take heart and with courage seriously consider ordaining married men and calling back to ministry married priests, if we have faith the church will stand to gain from this.
Brian Eyre, catholic married priest, Recife, Brazil