Are we really talking about a revolution?

Posted by Alessandro Speciale

Are the winds of revolt howling in the European Church?

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.



Filed under Alessandro Speciale, Asia, Catholics, Church reform, Pope Benedict, Vatican

  • KLG

    As a priest in a non-European setup, i think that the big problem that the Catholic hierarchy seem unable to see and even less accept is that today’s Catholic church will only stay together and united (and even survive) as long as it is able to include situations so diverse as to suit the social-human reality in Europe, Asia, Africa, America… The idea that one “style” of being Catholic (priest, lay, church…) suits all is dead, and if we try to keep the corpse we will all die together. Rome is trying to impose a corpse as a bride, and the Church (we, the people) are rebelling, and should rebel even in a more stronger way. Faithfulness to the Gospel is asking to stand up and stop the Roman non-sense.

  • TheeElders

    I can relate to the concern by the priests’ statements that their time and energies are being expended to the point that their devotional life is being impaired. I see that in my own parish where I also work as the director of lifelong faith formation. We have one priest who says all five Masses each weekend and all but two during the week. He oversees our school and tries to keep it going despite the fact that to do so requires that we are open to children of all faiths. We now have 35% non-Catholic students. This affects the quality of our religious education as the teachers try to teach the faith while not offending non-Catholic students/parents. Our parish is small — less than 400 — and elderly, yet we are very involved in social justice. We go to every Florida execution as a prayerful presence, and we are one of the charter church members of F.A.I.T.H. (Fighting Against Injustice Toward Harmony). Our priest has no deacon to help him and only one retired priest who is able to celebrate Mass on Mondays and most Tuesdays. Even as staff, we do much with very little. Everyone seems to wear 3 and 4 hats. No one has time to sit and eat lunch. I have only been here a year and have never worked full-time in a church before. I am struggling with my own stress at not having time to pray. It is hard to enter into the Mass when you are directing altar servers, etc. It is difficult to sit at Adoration when your office is only steps away and you have so much work to do. When your faith life and your work life are the same where do you go to be renewed? My spiritual director said “Unfortunately, not here.”

  • Peggy Grace Saunders

    The church is just going to have to heed the “signs of the times” and the “voices of the faithful”. It is going to have to back off on insisting on priestly celebacy. A rule that originated only in the 12th century cannot be infallible. Other Christian churches flourish without it. Arrogant intransigence deifies the Holy Spirit.

  • Mikeiran

    Many very obvious sollutions. Difficult but simple decisions. EQUALITY v Dictatorship v Leadership? Church and Parish – a shared meal with the faithful. Good Leadership, by a Good Shepard who knows their flock, faults and flaws, all inclusive in the temple of God! Jesus was simply clear! What has changed?

  • Dawn_chown

    Perhaps we parishioners must be more like the early faithful and do more for ourselves to help the local priest, e,g the works of Legion of Mary – visitations etc, plus Special Ministers of the Eucharist and teachers helping with our Catholic Education of Children in ‘Little Church’ – ‘Sunday School’. More ‘involvement by parishioners, for parishioners.