Fr. Emmet Farrell*

 There is much concern and talk, especially in clerical circles, about the ongoing shortage of priests. The narrative is distinctly negative in tone. Some of the phrases most heard are shortage, loss of youth, shrinking of the number of parishioners, linking or closure of parishes that we are unable to serve due to the crisis of vocations. This approach starts with phrases like we are lacking, it’s not being discussed or it was better in the past.

Is it possible to change the narrative, to accentuate the positive? Is it time to see the moment as a challenge or even an opportunity? Can we create a new vision, a new era, a resurgence, a new way of using all of our people’s time talent and treasure to forge a renewed and younger, vibrant, growing and thriving church through new or expanded ministries in our parish communities and local churches? We might change the narrative by asking: Is there a lack of vocations to serve God and his church or just a lack of male celibate vocations to fulfill the sacramental mission of the church? Or is the real challenge of our church a vocation crisis or the lack of a plan to use existing lay or deacon vocations?

Is this narrative possible? If we could hear the voice of the people in the pews, the voice of women and youth we would probably hear “we can, let’s do it!” When can we begin discussing it? The voice of our first and only Catholic president John Fitzgerald Kennedy rings in my ears when he announced a new beginning saying: “Ask NOT what your country can do for you, ASK what you can do for your country”. This resulted in the beginning of the Peace Corp. For us in the church it could mean the beginning of a Ministry Corp.

A new narrative might cause us to ask: Is God not calling women and men to serve him in our church?  We could ask every baptized member: What ministry can you do for your church? I once visited a so called mega church to see why they attracted so many people, including not a few Catholics, and raised so much enthusiasm. What impressed me was not the preaching, nor the music but the response I got about the great multitude of plaques on the walls of their huge arena when I asked what the plaques mean. I was told they represent the ministries of the church. Each member belongs to a ministry. Each ministry meets every week and performs its ministry for the good of the whole community. That was an impressive experience.

Twenty-five years ago in Chicago I participated in meetings with Cardinal Bernadin, the six auxiliary bishops and all the leaders of the six vicariates of the archdiocese. Even then the archdiocese was planning how to deal with the shortage of priests. I do not recall hearing the option of married deacons or married laymen being ordained as a response to the shrinking number of priests. The shortage, then and now, is of ordained celibate males to preside at Eucharistic liturgies. That is still the core of our crisis. Priesthood is reserved to male celibates of which, yes, there is a shortage. We cannot afford to sacrifice the Eucharist for celibacy.

One striking example of our present shortage is in the country of Brazil, one of the Catholic Church’s largest concentration of baptized members. Brazil has one hundred and forty million Catholics. It is estimated that they would need one hundred thousand priests to adequately serve that population. They currently have eighteen hundred. I spoke with a professor in one of Brazil’s seminaries. He did not give importance to the crisis. He said the crisis exists mainly in some vast, distant and remote areas.

Another country with a severe crisis of vocations is Ireland. It has three thousand priests. The average age is seventy. Many eighty-year old and some ninety-year old priests are still serving as pastors of parishes. Vocations to the existing priesthood have been dropping there consistently for a number of years.

A third example is the rural diocese of Sioux City, Iowa. There they are closing or linking forty five percent of their parishes this year, due to the shortage of priests. These communities have built their churches, produced their ministers and have a real sense of belonging to a communal family. They have an impressive caliber of the married men and women serving as ministers in these communities.

Is it time to consider new models of ministry to meet the actual needs of our people?

Is it time for the Catholic Church to expand its dialogue and research into how to meet our present need for more ordained priests? Calling upon married men to help meet our church’s need is in no way meant to disparage the great and generous work of so many celibate clergy for so long a time in our church’s tradition. There will always be a place in our church for celibate priests and a continual appreciation by the faithful for their sacrifice and service. But as times and conditions change so do our manners of responding.

The real challenge and opportunity for our church today is for our leadership and our membership to join in a new dialogue. If we operate by the principle that change comes from the bottom, then we are all encouraged and challenged to accept the responsibility for our church’s future and to help develop what Pope Francis called “courageous and concrete solutions”. He has shown an openness to dialogue with participation by all concerned. He has given us an example at the recent Synod on Marriage and Family Life of being a good listener and not starting with a negative or closed approach to difficult challenges within the church.

In our dialogue, we are not starting from scratch. The Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII to bring the church into a better relationship with the modern world and to bring about self-renewal. One of the reforms that I consider the greatest blessing of the twentieth century has been the development of a host of lay ministers in our liturgies and other pastoral roles, as well as the ordination of married men to the permanent deaconate. Now may be a good time to expand and improve on that development. The AUSCP (Association of United States Catholic Priests) has a proposed Pastoral Plan that calls for this type of expansion with an organized and structured plan for the spiritual, theological and pastoral formation of new parish pastoral ministers. Maybe our church can learn from the operating principle of one mega church. They ask every member to belong to a ministry. Every ministry meets each week and does something for the good of their community. The Catholic Church has been called a “sleeping giant”. It is time for us to awaken this giant.

The Second Vatican Council spoke of the common priesthood of the baptized members of our church. From our baptismal character, all of us women, men, clerical and lay are equally members. It is true that the lay ministers differ in essence from the ordained clerical minister as is noted in the Code of Canon Law. We all have the right to receive spiritual nourishment and support through the Word of God and the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the heart and core of the Catholic faith and the principal sustenance of our Catholic identity and spirituality. In many areas lay members of our church are looking to solve their spiritual needs in evangelical or pentecostal churches which might be able to give more personalized attention to their needs and opportunities for their evangelization.

A further step in the development of ministers that could provide a partial solution to our priest shortage could be the ordination of some of our married deacons or men as priests to celebrate the Eucharist. Married men who are ordained to the permanent deaconate are no longer part of the laity but are now part of the clerical ministry. The Eastern Churches include married priests in their Code of Canon Law. Studies commissioned by the Vatican on several occasions have not come up with any legal or traditional arguments that would make ordaining married men impossible or invalid.  Given the dire shortage of priests, the history of married priests in the early church, the studies already done and the long experience of the Eastern church with both a celibate and a married clergy, should the Roman Catholic Church adapt its current Code of Canon Law and move forward toward a future of both celibate and married clergy?  

There are around eighteen thousand married permanent deacons in the United States. If one in ten were ordained a priest that would provide eighteen hundred new priests to those already ordained. There are 25,000 married priests in the U. S. If one in 25 returned, that could mean one thousand more active priests. Ordaining married deacons or lay men with proper screening and preparation remains as a distinct possibility. In our offices for preparation of permanent deacons and our diocesan institutes for formation of our laity we already have programs functioning that could help provide proper screening and formation. These services could be amplified according to the needs of the diocese and the direction of the local ordinary. We may be aware that there are historical precedents of married priests, including most of the apostles, many bishops and even popes in the first three centuries and to this day the Eastern Rite and Orthodox Catholic Churches have married and celibate priests. There are some married priests from the Anglican Church functioning as priests in our Roman Catholic Church today.

The bishops of Brazil, faced with their extreme shortage of ordained celibate priests, have put forth a proposal for communities that are without the celebration of the Eucharist, or only sporadically, to respond to this shortage. Their proposal appeared on August 6, 2016 in the Digital Religious Media source by Rafael Marcaccia. In 2014 when Pope Francis was appraised of the dire situation of priest shortage in Brazil he called a proposal presented a “courageous and concrete solution”.  That proposal presented the possibility of a new category of priests called “Local Ordained Ministers” for Brazil. The NCCB, National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, is studying that proposal.

The proposal asks the local community to nominate their best men for screening and preparation. The ordination of married men would be of “viri probati” or “proven men” and following several criteria: They would be men of proven faith and virtue and they would be competent and respected in the community. If they are not employed they would be supported by the community much in the style of priests in many areas of the world who now receive a salary. This proposal was thought to be a good solution because it would build on elements already existing and functioning in the community.

A second report came from the Western People media source of Ireland on January 6, 2017 by Brendan Hoban. In this report from the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, Pope Francis approved of married priests in Brazil returning to active ministry. There are thousands of married priests in the U. S. Many of these priests belong to an organization called CORPUS and would be interested in returning to active ministry as priests. For Pope Francis the issue of married priests is open to dialogue. The ordination of women deacons is under study by the Vatican and would be one step in creating equality for women in the church.

In this article, we have tried to state briefly the crisis of the shortage of ordained priests in our church and have pointed out several approaches toward at least a partial solution. Maybe more important than one solution is a new and vitalized approach based on our church’s traditions and opening a dialogue to get as many of our church leadership and our membership to working together with a new vision and spirit. We recognize that the Holy Spirit is still with us and motivating our thoughts and actions. Should we of the clergy and the laity be asking our bishops to consider the option of a married clergy and of opening that option for young men interested in the priesthood, much as the Eastern Rites and Orthodox churches offer it?

We have suggested that our current crisis is at the same time a challenge and an opportunity for a spiritual renewal and resurgence in our church. We want to “put new wine into new wineskins”. The voice of president Kennedy suggests that we might ask what can I do for my church, and given the spirit of openness of Pope Francis, we need not fear dialogue but can join our voices and offer our prayers and talents for the present and future good of our church.                                                 

*  Emmet Farrel is a priest of the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa and a veteran of 16 years with the St. James Foreign Missionary Society (Peru). He is now retired after 3 years working in Houston with Central American refugees, 8 years of service as an Hispanic Coordinator in a Chicago Vicariate and 15 years of ministry in Spanish speaking parishes in San Diego. He continues working as an adjunct to the San Diego Office of Social Ministry establishing Creation Care Teams in conjunction with the USCCB and the Catholic Climate Covenant.