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Can We Have Priests And Laity, Please?


Jesus With Us
No Answer Here?
Eucharist is Key

Why do we have priests? It seems a question too obvious for a Catholic to ask. But we have a problem. Perhaps, a generation after Vatican II, we are moving into a new era for the Church, entering an “age of the laity.” Our bishops’ new guidelines on lay ecclesial ministry, “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” a sign of that.

Yet a critical shortage of priests is upon us, even as, in this country at least, we are not declining in number of parishes. Consider recent reports by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and the Gallup Poll.

There were 16,751 Catholic parishes in our country in 1965. By 2005 that number had grown to 18,891. On the other hand, there were only 549 parishes without a resident priest in 1965. By 2005 the number of U.S. priestless parishes had grown by nearly six times to 3,251.

There has been a steady decrease in Mass attendance since the 1960s, say both polling organizations. That tells us that, though we are experiencing a change in the big picture, the scandals during recent years of priestly sex abuse and mismanagement of the cases haven’t caused any large exodus of the faithful.

Gallup notes that the yearly average percentage of U.S. adult Catholics who say they attended Mass in the last seven days (not necessarily every week) decreased from 67 percent in 1965 to 45 percent in 2004. Yet CARA found that regular weekly Mass attendance declined only slightly from 2000 to 2005, from 34 percent to 33 percent.

So, 40 years after Vatican II, we find ourselves with more parishes, six times more priestless parishes, and smaller but apparently stable Mass attendance.


Jesus With Us

It’s a thorny problem. In an era of identity quest, it seems that our Church is struggling to understand why it has priests. Otherwise, wouldn’t the seminaries be bursting with candidates?

One theory might be that Catholics don’t like priests. But go to most any parish and you’ll see otherwise. Most of us Catholics love our priests. At the mid-November bishops’ meeting, there was a 40-second standing ovation for priests. Why?

Personalities and Church politics aside, Catholics love the Eucharist, the promise of Jesus to be with us for all time, especially in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And the priest’s most fundamental role is to lead the celebration of that great sacrament, as our theology says, in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.”

Now Jesus left us with seven sacraments, and our priests are intimately tied, in various ways, to the other six as well. But the Church from its earliest days has recognized what Vatican Council II declared again 40 years ago: “The Eucharist is the ‘source and summit’ of the life and mission of the Catholic Church.”

Fundamentally, we have priests because Jesus gave us the Eucharist. And fundamentally, we have the Eucharist because Jesus is alive and with us, loving us, shaping us, calling us to grow and to conform to his Way of Love.

No Answer Here?

That’s why Pope John Paul II called for a Year of the Eucharist, concluded last October under the new Pope Benedict XVI’s leadership, by a World Synod on the Eucharist.

At that synod, representatives of the world’s bishops gathered for three weeks to pray together and to share views on the Eucharist. Many Catholics wondered if, at that gathering, under the guidance of a new pope, the bishops might consider the worldwide shortage of priests and look toward allowing married men to become ordained in the Latin Church, as they are in Eastern Catholic Churches.

Those who hoped for anything new were disappointed. Frankly, the bishops didn’t realistically face the gravity of our priest shortage.

“Very few would have called for a married clergy,” said USCCB President Bishop William Skylstad, though the bishops wished and prayed for better liturgies and stronger preaching.

Yet Bishop Denis Browne of Hamilton, New Zealand, president Oceania’s bishops’ conferences federation, told the synod: “We, as Church, need to be continually open to finding ways in which the Eucharist can become easily available to all our faithful people,” and stated that isolated rural people, too, have a right to the Eucharist.

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, O.F.M., of Sao Paulo, Brazil, decried his inability to counter evangelization by Pentecostal Churches, with their multiplicity of married ministers, without more priests: “We wonder with anxiety, how long will Brazil be a Catholic country?”

How long, indeed, will our Church insist there isn’t a real possibility that the Holy Spirit is calling us toward ordaining married men? In addition to Eastern married priests, the Roman Catholic Church even allows married priests in the cases of married ministers who convert to Catholicism. The sky hasn’t fallen yet!

Eucharist is Key

We’re living in an in-between moment. We’re in between what the Spirit called our Church to become at Vatican II and our realization of what that really means.

While our priesthood languishes we are developing a new understanding of what it means to be lay Catholics. But we trust also that the Spirit is calling us toward a strong priesthood to maintain our eucharistic spirituality. Let’s pray for a win-win.—J.F.

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