Thursday, January 16, 2020

Celibacy and Holy Orders II

2. Celibacy and Latin Rite Catholic priests: 
      an exception for the Amazon?
Why permanent deacons probably aren’t enough?

Before proceeding to more reflections on the celibate deacon, I'd like to share some thoughts on clerical celibacy in general.

Celibacy for priests is a discipline of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church that dates back several hundred years. It is not a doctrine.

Catholics of the Eastern Rites generally do not insist on celibacy for priests. One exception has been in the United States. When this was enforced, in the late nineteenth century, I believe, it led to an exodus of some Eastern Rite Catholics to the Orthodox Church.

In recent years, under Pope Benedict, married Anglican clergy (and some other Protestant clergy) have been granted permission to be ordained priests after having become Catholics.

Recently, the Synod of the Amazon raised the issue of ordination of married viri probati, men who had proved themselves as worthy candidates for the priesthood. As I see it, this is a specific request to respond to a specific need and not a call for the abolition of celibacy in the Catholic Latin Rite.

The Amazon, as certain other parts of the world, suffers from the lack of priests who can serve the people sacramentally. In these areas there are often lay people and women religious who serve the people. Some of them have the canonical authority to baptize and preside at marriages.

In Honduras we have tens of thousands of Delegates of the Word who preside at Celebrations of the Word in their disparate villages. In Honduras there 298 municipalities (each with their municipal center), 3730 aldeas (villages), and 30,591 caseríos (hamlets). There are about 530 priests in the country, about 60% diocesan priests.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story. In our diocese, according to 2017 statistics, there are about 17,780 Catholics per priest in 48 parishes. In contrast, the archdiocese of Dubuque, according to 2016 statistics, has 202 priests, with about 979 Catholics per priest.

But, most of our parishes are rural with very poor roads and many remote villages. For example, our parish, with one priest, covers four municipal centers and about 45 villages and hamlets, most with an organized church community. But some of the villages are over an hour by four-wheel drive vehicle from the town of Dulce Nombre de Copán where the pastor lives. We have one priest, one deacon (me), and this year we will have a seminarian in his pastoral year. There are also four women religious in Dulce Nombre some of whom help out in some parish activities. In our diocese, there are several parishes with over one hundred rural villages; a few of them have two priests.

Almost all the villages have one or more catechists as well as one or more delegates of the Word, who lead Sunday celebrations. We also have about 30 extraordinary ministers of Communion. Their main ministry is to visit the sick. They also assist in the distribution of Communion at Masses and bring communion to rural villages at Celebrations of the Word with Communion. But there twenty-one villages that don’t have a communion minister. I try to visit one of them each Sunday for a Celebration of the Word with Communion.

One of the reasons given for the ordination of married viri probati in the Amazon reason is the lack of access to the Eucharist.

I think it is more complicated than that. I’ll speak from my experience.

Our pastor hardly sits still. He tries to visit every village at least once every two months. At times he has two to three Masses on weekdays. On the weekends, he has Sunday (and Saturday night Masses) in at least six different places throughout the parish. And then there are the funerals, the village feast day celebrations, marriages, confessions, and visits to confess and anoint the sick.

As a deacon I help with some funerals and have had some baptisms and weddings outside of Masses. However, most baptisms and weddings here are during Mass. But there are complications even here. 

To receive a sacrament worthily one should be in the state of grace. Godparents also should be in the state of grace. Thus, god parents at baptisms and the couples seeking the sacrament of matrimony often want to (and should) have access to confession.

But it’s even more complicated here in Honduras.

In some parts of Latin America there have been very strict understandings of the conditions to receive the Eucharist. Some have thought that one must go to confession each time before going to communion or, at least, in the last month or two.

We are trying to do catechesis on this, understanding the obligation to confess mortal sins but helping people to distinguish types of sins as well as reasons for not needing to go to confession each time I receives Communion.

I have had two different experiences that might help throw a different light on the possibility of married priests in places like the Amazon. Deacons are not enough.

A few years ago I went to bring Communion to the mother of one of the delegates of a remote village. His parents live far from the village center. The first time I went, I took Communion to them on horseback on Good Friday after the Celebration of the Passion.

In addition, the day after my ordination, I took them communion walking quite a distance with their son, Juan Ángel, who was a delegate and was in formation to become an extraordinary minister of communion. (He died a few months later of pneumonia. I wrote about him here.)

The mother had serious complications from surgery and couldn’t walk very far, not even to the church to go to confession when the priest came. We visited and then began to pray.

I asked if she wanted to receive communion. She said she hadn’t been to confession for a long time, since before her surgery a few years before. I asked her if she had killed someone. No, she said. I then asked if she had slept with anyone except her husband. Of course not. Then, the clincher: I asked her if she had denied God. A definitive no! Then she told how she prayed each morning and asked God for forgiveness. I then explained a bit about sin, confession, and communion. I told her that we would go on with the prayer and when it was time for communion, she could let me know what she wanted to do.

When the time came, she received communion. I feel humbled before such faith and such devotion to the Eucharist.

She eventually got better and was able to get to confession. But I didn’t want to deny her the encounter with the Eucharistic Lord because she couldn’t get to confession and probably had not committed a mortal sin.

A few years before, the pastor was out of town, visiting his family for a week. I got a call from a different distant village to visit a young woman who was dying. No priest was available and so I went and prayed with her. She had an infant, about six months old, and was living with the father.

What to do? We prayed. She was very attentive. I didn’t feel that I could give her the Eucharist but I place the pyx with the Eucharist on her chest and we prayed. She died a few days later and I went for the funeral. I believe that she was reconciled with God and I felt that she was not comforted and strengthened by the reception of the Eucharist.

Deacons, religious sisters and brothers, and extraordinary ministers of Communion can bring the Eucharist to the sick and dying, but many also want the grace of the sacrament of Reconciliation. I continually come upon these situations and the pastor will often make a trip to confess and anoint the sick and dying.

The opportunity to receive the grace of the sacrament of Reconciliation is therefore another question to consider.

Thus I am very sympathetic to the proposal of the Synod of the Amazon to ordain viri probati. This should not undermine the ministry of women religious, lay pastoral workers, and deacons, but could enhance the life of faith of people who live at the margins of society. It would not be a change of church law but a response to serious pastoral needs in many parts of the world of the poor.

I am not sure that it would make sense to extend this to the whole church, not even to Central America, but I think it should be carefully considered.

I have many more thoughts on celibacy and holy orders, but since the proposal from the Synod of the Amazon is a current issue, I thought it important to begin here.

My thoughts on priestly celibacy in general are more complicated and I need time and prayerful discernment before I write anything more. But I hope to write more soon on the spirituality of the celibate permanent deacon.

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