One Step at a Time
Chris McDonnell CT October 02. 2020
It is a year since the gathering in Rome of the Amazon Synod, summoned by Francis to consider the problems facing the Church in South America.
The October 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region was a gathering of bishops from the region who met to discuss the pastoral needs of their people. The Amazon basin is beset by social, economic, and environmental challenges and it is within this context that the Church must function.
It was a broad brief for an October journey bringing together those charged with the care of the Church in difficult circumstances.
Querida Amazonia, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, was published in mid-February this year. Translated, the title in English is ‘Beloved Amazon’.
Maybe now some of the dust it raised has settled it is a good time to look at this document again.
It was widely trailed as being likely to give direction on the possibility of the Church in the West accepting, in certain circumstances, the ordination of married men. Pope Francis was criticized in some quarters for his decision not to approve viri probati, despite support for the proposal from the bishops at the synod by a majority of 148 to 41.
The essential purpose of a Synod is to listen rather than legislate. Although Francis didn’t signify his agreement with the Synod’s proposal to support the option of a married priesthood, neither did he reject it.
A proposal to ordain married men in the Amazon region was discussed, and even argued about, but, in the view of Francis, not prayerfully discerned at the 2019 synod of bishops. According to notes from the pope included in an article published recently in the Catholic periodical La Civiltà Cattolica, he is reported as saying, “There was a discussion … a rich discussion … a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something different than just arriving at a good and justified consensus or at a relative majority.”
The pope clarified that synods of bishops should be opportunities for prayerful reflection, not parliamentary lobbying. Pope Francis explained that a synod of bishops is a “spiritual exercise,” a period for discernment of how the Holy Spirit is speaking, and for self-examination regarding the motive beyond positions:
“Walking together means dedicating time to honest listening, capable of making us reveal and unmask (or at least to be sincere) the apparent purity of our positions and to help us discern the wheat that – up to the Parousia – always grows among the weeds.”
There was criticism in some quarters of his decision not to approve viri probati, despite support for the proposal from the bishops at the Synod. Church historian Massimo Faggioli wrote in Commonweal that “what we see with Querida Amazonia might suggest a betrayal of the Amazon Synod at least in terms of what it means for institutional Church reforms to the Church.
“What sense would the synodal assembly have if it were not for listening together to what the Spirit says to the Church?”, Pope Francis asked.
There are many remote places in the region where the Eucharist is not celebrated for long stretches of time because of the lack of a priest. And, as Francis notes, the Eucharist “makes the Church.” So he asks for greater participation of lay people, for example, in “exercising the pastoral care” of parishes and encourages women to contribute their gifts to the church, “in a way that is properly theirs.” He also asks for prayers for more priestly vocations and calls for more missionary priests.
All of this is fine and to be applauded, but it still leaves wider questions unanswered.
The COVID crisis has brought to our notice the rapidly increasing age profile of our priests. What are the consequences for the Western Church if a solution remains on the back burner? We are regularly asked to pray for vocations. Maybe the question we should be asking is what have we done to care for the vocations we have had? Too often, good, pastoral men have had to forsake their ministry through the human circumstance of falling in love, that being seen as inconsistent with their vocation; one man, two vocations is somehow incomprehensible.
Churches are being closed, parishes amalgamated and those asked to celebrate the Eucharist with us are ageing. At some point we have to wake up and smell the coffee.
Maybe we are looking at the issue from the wrong perspective. Rather than ask why marriage is a detriment to priesthood, we should be exploring the added beauty that marriage might bring to ministry. The lived experience of family life, the care and love expressed between two people and their mutual love for their children can only enhance an understanding of both sacraments. We learn how to live from our experience of living; looking in from the outside offers a different perspective.
I sometimes feel it is a pity that we cannot appreciate the perspective of those in the Anglican community who have experienced the joys, and difficulties, of acceptance of a married priesthood, for they have a reality to share that we might all benefit from.
That is particularly true here in England, where many Anglicans who have converted have been ordained priests in spite of being married. They have brought a richness to the Church that has been our blessing to receive. Dialogue on this issue is long overdue and should be considered as an important aspect of prayer for vocations.
Recently, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury was quoted in the Catholic Times (February 21st) as saying, ”Celibate consecration is happily growing today among apostolic lay people and remains the hallmark of the Catholic priesthood”. I fail to see the statistical support for that ‘happy growth,’ nor can I accept it as the hallmark of Catholic priesthood. The priestly vocation is much more than that.
Given the current COVID restrictions on numbers physically present in church for the celebration of the Eucharist, we should be concerned with the findings of a poll by Catholic Voices recently reported in The Tablet. The poll reported that “only 61% of Catholics who were previously regular Mass attenders said they intended to resume that practice when it is possible to do so”. That figure deserves serious attention.
The request from Pope Francis that we should encourage priests to see the Amazon region as an opportunity for missionary activity ignores the very real crisis that is emerging in Europe and North America. Inviting priests from other countries to solve an indigenous need is to deny the increasing need in their home countries. Gone are the days when there was a readily available surplus of priests that could be called upon to serve in distant lands.
That is not to deny the missionary vocation, but it does ask us to examine options that are open to us should we so choose to respond.
Maybe I should finish on an even more contentious note, the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood, a topic that has been declared non-negotiable by Pope John Paul II.
In an interview published on the website of the German News Agency, KNA, one of world’s most influential cardinals recently admitted that he is “open” to the idea of ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood. “I am not saying that women have to become priests; I just don’t know. But I’m open to it,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ in an interview published on September 13. Hollerich is a high-profile cardinal with international stature, due to his position as president of the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). He is also archbishop of his native Luxembourg. So his views matter.
We live in turbulent times. That very turbulence creates an opportunity for considered change. Living is about a willingness to change, to live fully is to have changed often. If that change is informed by our journey in faith, then we should accept it with open arms and prayerful voice.