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February 10, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 2, No. 37

  Keeping the eucharistic community eucharistic
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

So now for a bit of fresh air about an old problem that is getting older and more serious by the day.

According to Vatican statistics, there are over a billion Catholics in the world. There are at the same time about 450,000 graying ordained ministers, most of them priests, assigned to minister to the other 99.5% of the church. That's one ordained minister for every 2,444 people. Forget home visits, forget parish activities, forget the last sacraments, forget all that ecclesiastical talk about the priest as facilitator of the Christian community. This is circuit-rider sacramentality time. And it is everywhere.

The priest shortage is universal now. Nor is the answer to it as simple as it was when missionary priests poured out of Western seminaries to serve the rest of the world. There are simply not enough priests to minister to the Roman Catholic community anywhere anymore. In all parts of the world, growing congregations outstrip the number of available priests. As a result, in the United States alone, parishes are merging or closing every day. In other parts of the world, Catholic communities haven't seen a priest more than once or twice a year for decades.

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With the fading of the priesthood, however, goes the fading of the eucharistic theology of the church, as well. No use, for instance, telling people who see a priest once a year that daily Mass is the crown of the Christian life. So what to do? This constant repeating of the situation is itself getting to be boring, after all.

Hang on, the fresh air is coming.

In the midst of this continuing trend, married priests from other denominations who convert to Catholicism have, for long years now, been accepted as priests of the Roman Catholic church. Their marriages stay intact. Their priestly ministry goes on. All they have to do is to be accepted by the local bishop, go through a brief theological study program meant to assure their "Catholicity" and get on with being both married and a priest. No women have been abandoned in the process; no marriages have been required to accept celibacy.

Meanwhile, lifelong Catholics who desire both to marry and to become priests are denied the same right.

So the situation is clear: Be a Roman Catholic all your life and you will be required to be celibate if you want to be ordained. Be Anglican all your life, on the other hand, get ordained and married in the Anglican church, and you can later become a married Roman Catholic priest without being required to be celibate.

See the problem? Priesthood doesn't depend on celibacy. It depends on where you start from in order to avoid it.

The situation has been a conundrum for years.

In the first place, it seems relatively clear that once you have even one married priest on the list, practicing as a priest anywhere, you no longer have a celibate priesthood. In a diocese of 400 men, for example, one married priest means that you have a married priesthood with one married man and 399 unmarried ones. The only question is why the imbalance?

In the second place, of the other 20 rites of the Catholic church, only Rome, the Latin Rite, imposes mandatory celibacy.

So why is celibacy exacted of some but not of all? And why, I have always wondered, are priests themselves not asking the question?

But now, it seems, they are. And that's where the fresh air begins to flow through the system.

The National Priests Council of Australia is not only questioning the situation, they are asking their bishops and three cardinals to question it, too. In Rome. At the next Synod of Bishops in October 2005. This one dedicated specifically to "The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church."

They are asking the Synod to face the situation honestly -- which, of course, can't be done as long as bishops accept the notion that this is an undiscussable subject -- or that any subject is undiscussable, in fact. Instead of solutions and encouragement, the priests point out, they are getting "more rubrics or detailed instructions," designed, apparently, to rule out abuses in the saying of the Mass. "We are concerned," the priests go on, "about the increasing number of communities being deprived of weekly Eucharist. We are scandalized when the gnat of abuse is so carefully strained out while the camel of dying communities is being swallowed."

These "Reflections on the Lineamenta" (the preliminary study document on which the Synod of Bishops will be based) by a national association of priests is important for its honesty -- and for its courage. It does a very priestly thing: it speaks for the community it serves. It challenges us all in its willingness to speak out on behalf of the rest of the church. It is a rich theological document.

In stark, clear terms, these priests call the bishops of the world to demonstrate the theology they talk about, not simply in "pious but obscure words" but by calling the church to be Christ for the "poor, wounded and marginalized."

Finally, the Australian priests ask that five recommendations be inserted into the Lineamenta and "earnestly discussed at the Synod" if a eucharistic church is to remain eucharistic.

They call for a discussion of the enculturation of eucharistic practices.

They call for a discussion of the extension of ordination "to single men of good character" who would preside at the Eucharist within their own communities" so that the opportunity to celebrate "is reasonably available."

They call for a discussion of the extension of ordination of married ministers from other Christian traditions "to other married men" -- clearly Roman Catholic ones.

They call the Synod Fathers "to examine honestly the appropriateness of insisting upon a priesthood that is, with very few exceptions, obliged to be celibate. Priesthood is a gift," they say. "Celibacy is a gift: They are not the same gift."

Finally, they call for the "re-instatement of priests who married with the Church's permission and are willing to resume ministry as priests."

And they call for all of this publicly. On a Web site. For the world to see. As Jesus put it: "Israelites in whom there is no guile."

No, they don't say a thing about the ordination of women or about the fact that faced with a choice between Eucharist and maleness, the church is choosing for maleness. Pity. Either their own theology is also lacking or they are better politicians than we think. But such as these seem educable. There is hope that next time they will do better.

In the meantime, from where I stand, these priests themselves and their call for open discussion of real church issues confront us with the best gust of fresh air we have felt in the church for a long, long time. Pray to reap the whirlwind.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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