The shortage of priests

As the synod of Bishops was discussing clerical celibacy and the shortage of priests, the international Catholic magazine weekly The Tablet published an editorial on October 15 stating that "it would be contrary to common sense for the Church to insist that clerical celibacy was such a priority that whole communities should be deprived of the Sacraments, as well as the benefits of a resident priest, as the price of it".

The editorial was written against the background of a three-pronged policy followed by several dioceses in the UK to deal with the shortage of priests. First, that some parishes will have to become outposts of neighbouring parishes; second, that there will be a number of itinerant Mass-sayers; and lastly, that churches simply have to close down.

It was to be expected that the shortage of priests in the Catholic Church would became one of the central issues aired by Synod Fathers. You cannot discuss the Eucharist without mentioning the person without whom there is no Eucharist: the ordained priest. A good number of Synod participants expressed their growing concern that the Church is struggling with a global shortage of priests.

Some statistics were bandied about. The ratio of priests worldwide has fallen from one priest for every 1,797 Catholics in 1978 to one for every 2,677 Catholics in 2003. Vatican statistics also revealed that while there was an increase of 42 per cent in Catholics worldwide, the number of priests had grown by just two per cent.

A fuller demographic picture of the priest population would have been helpful. Some countries face a more severe shortage than others. Bishop Roberto Camilleri Azzopardo of Comayaga, in Honduras, mentioned that in his diocese there is one priest for every 16,000 Catholics.

The chasm between rhetoric and reality was vividly witnessed in a well publicised exchange between two Synod participants. When Cardinal Angelo Scola, Patriarch of Venice, asked the question "How can we say in absolute terms if there are enough or not enough priests?", he was promptly answered by Bishop Luis Antonio G. Tagle of Imus in the Philippines: "In the absence of the priest, there is no Eucharist. We should face squarely the issue of shortage of priests." This is the same bishop who wondered what canon lawyers would say when they hear of priests saying nine Masses on a Sunday in his diocese!

Cardinal Scola stressed that the priesthood is a gift and by implication so is the Eucharist. However, as we are a Church sustained by the Eucharist, no amount of clever theological talk about whether the Eucharist is a gift or not is going to sustain whole communities in Central and South America, and increasingly in parts of Europe and elsewhere.

Indeed, one of the propositions agreed on by the Synod states that "the faithful have the right to receive abundantly from their holy pastors the spiritual goods of the Church" and that the Church has "a duty to make every effort not to impede access to the Eucharist". Cardinal Scola's stance that there were profound theological motives for not allowing a married priesthood was put down by Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham, who argued that if there were theological foundations to celibacy, the Eastern Church would not have married priests.

Some bishops were determined to make the most of a unique opportunity they had to air their views on the subject. Bishop Dennis George Brown of Hamilton, New Zealand, said: "We, as Church, need to be continually open to finding ways in which the Eucharist can become easily available to all our faithful people. Why are former married priests of the Anglican communion being ordained as Catholic priests while former Catholic priests who have been dispensed from the vow of celibacy are unable to function in any pastoral way?"

Both Cardinal Scola and others, and indeed one of the propositions agreed by the Synod, speak about a better distribution of priests. But this solution is not as straightforward as it sounds.

There are language and cultural difficulties, and most of all the aging profile of the priestly population should be taken into account. Some projections are bewildering. According to the Index of Catholic Indicators in the United States, by 2020 there will be 31,000 priests but only 15,000 will be under 70 years of age. Right now there are more priests aged 80 to 84 than there are in the 30 to 34 bracket.

Much is being made about the seminaries being full to bursting in some parts of India and Africa. And it has become very common for priests from these countries to be sent to serve in Europe. But surely if the priest is the main agent of evangelisation, no amount of priests should be enough for the Asian and African continents. Sometimes one gets the feeling that the Church, by rightly concentrating on the celebration of the Eucharist, has relegated the mandate to preach the gospel to second place.

Another problem which is swept under the carpet is that of the training for the priesthood in some Asian and African countries, which is being used as a means to acquire an education and status. A throwback to medieval Europe. The present Pope himself made some oblique references to this problem. One other problem is the large number of defections from the priesthood in Africa in the very few years after ordination.

The proposition about the shortage of priests agreed by the Synod Fathers puts a great emphasis on the promotion of vocations among the young and on sensitising the family about the need for vocations. How these aims can be achieved when the shortage of priests is resulting in more and more youngsters and families not to have any contact with priests remain to be seen. While the ordination of well tested married men will not solve the whole problem of the shortage of priests, they would at least provide support to present communities, albeit aged ones, to continue to receive the Sacraments, and they will release younger members of the clergy to meaningfully engage with the young and families alike.

And then, of course, the proposition of the Synod Fathers insisted on praying for vocations. Many Catholics have given up praying for vocations because they simply don't know what they are praying for. They believe sincerely that the vocations are there, but the celibate life is preventing many young men from coming forward to serve the Lord and the community.

Others know of former priests who have informed their bishops about their willingness to assume pastoral duties, but they are rejected. Indeed not a few of these former Catholic priests are now serving in the Anglican church. There is also a haemorrhage of Catholics both in Europe and Latin America to Protestant churches and sects. Other Catholics believe that women should be ordained to the priesthood.

While the Catholic Church continues to hang on to its own traditional version of the priesthood, whole communities will carry on being deprived of the Eucharist. That is the stark reality.

Next Sunday: The way forward.


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