Posted by Alessandro Speciale
One would be justified to wonder, looking at the recent news coming from Europe: in Austria, over a tenth of the country’s priest have signed an “appeal to disobedience.” In Ireland, the leader of an association that brings together one in three priests in the country has received what amounts to a gag order from Rome: its superior has been summoned by the Vatican doctrinal chief, Cardinal Levada, who ordered him not to speak or write any more on themes such as celibacy and contraception. He has also been sent to a monastery for six weeks for prayer and silence.
The matter has so alarmed Rome that the Pope himself addressed the “appeal to disobedience” in his Holy Thursday homily in St. Peter’s – taking issue not so much with their requests but with their ‘method’, so to say.
The reforms that these ‘rebel priests’ – as the European press has quickly labelled them – in some way or another favor are well known: an end to compulsory celibacy for Latin rite priests, more lenient rules towards divorced and remarried couples, more grassroots participation in the bishop selection process, a more welcoming stance towards committed homosexual couples, sometimes even a request for a more active role for women in Church ministry.
Seen from Asia, where often seminaries are not big enough to contain aspiring priests, and pressing issues have names like hunger, social justice, political freedom and so on, this might seem like a very Western agenda – something like a Church version of a Liberal manifesto.
Still, there is something missing from this picture – and this is an understanding of what the life of a priest has become in much of the Western world. The dramatic fall in vocations has led to many priests overseeing more than one parish at once, scuttling from village to village or neighborhood to neighborhood, to administer sacraments, funerals and masses – and making it all but impossible for them to build a real ‘community’ with their flock.
One has just to read the latest ‘manifesto’ of the ‘rebel’ Austrian priests to understand where their calls for structural reform come from:
“We will say NO when we are asked to take on more and more additional parishes, as otherwise we just become itinerant celebrants and sacrament dispensers… We say NO to presiding at more and more weekend Eucharists as an excess of services and homilies all too often turns them into superficial rituals and routine talks… We say NO to the merging or closure of parishes when no parish priest can be found… We say NO the overburdening of parish priests, who are being pressured into fulfilling numerous duties, whose time and energy for a devotional life are being eroded by administrative duties, and who are expected to carry on working long after retirement age”.
The Church is terrified by this change in the nature of the ‘job’ of a priest – so much so that Europe is actively ‘importing’ priests from continents like Asia and Africa to plug the gaps and keep the local pastors happy. This has clearly not been enough but in some countries, especially the all-important Italy, the influx of foreign priests has managed to keep the situation calm, at least on the surface.
And trying to contain ‘revolt’ in the West has consequences for the rest of the world too: many priests who move to Europe would have been sorely needed for evangelization or social work in their countries. As we recently reported, “in 2004, the ratio of Catholics per priest in the Philippines was 8,500. The figure ballooned to at least 11,500 Catholics per priest in 2010, an indication that the nation’s Catholic population is growing faster than the number of priests.” More than half of the priests of the diocese of Manila are nearing the retirement age.
So, this is a trend that is bound to grow, maybe uncontrollably. Already in Rome, some parish priests have sent an anonymous letter complaining about their bishop – not the Pope but his vicar for the Eternal City, Cardinal Vallini – when he started to introduce some changes in parish administration and put some limits on the use of foreign priests.
Where will this end? How will it affect us in Asia? Please let us know what you think.