Priests for tomorrow

Fritz Lobinger and Paul Zulehner

The shortage of clergy in the Catholic Church offers opportunities as well as crisis. Two authors suggest a new way forward

THE number of priests who live within the call of their parishioners is in dramatic decline in many parts of Europe. Clergy must travel ever greater distances to reach their parishes, and in some cases, as in France, the deaneries have expanded to the size of dioceses. A number of bishops have seen this emergency situation as a chance to put into practice resolutions of the Second Vatican Council concerning the laity which have been slow to be implemented. The shortage of priests, in other words, is helping the development of collaborative ministry in parish communities. More and more of the tasks which have traditionally been performed by priests are now carried out by deacons or lay people in full-time church employment. At the same time, in step with the decline of clergy, parishes are being enlarged or grouped in clusters.

This "holding" operation - a pragmatic way of dealing with the crisis - is in fact highly questionable. There are two other approaches. Traditionalists, for their part, believe the solution is to intensify prayers for more candidates to come forward for the celibate academically trained priesthood, while importing a supply from countries which have more than they need to countries where there is a shortage. On the other hand, reformists want to make it possible for more people to become eligible for the priesthood by changing the rules of admission (ordaining married men and women, and pioneering new sorts of seminary training).

Let us look closely at the pragmatic solution. Church law allows lay people to perform certain traditional priestly tasks, such as distributing Communion, leading services of the Word, giving sermons and conducting funerals. This list is growing longer all the time. In Switzerland, for example, lay community leaders in full-time church employment are now asked to assist at weddings, to baptise, and even to preside over entire communities. In the German diocese of Speyer, for example, lay persons are given the "entire" but not the "final" responsibility for whole communities: the "final" responsibility is reserved for a moderator somewhere in the background who has to be a priest (note the tortuously nuanced wording).

This could be described theologically as "salutary folly": salutary because it is better that someone should perform those tasks than for them not to be performed at all; but folly because it leads to a ministry that is not ordained. "Unordained lay ministers" belittle not only the original lay professions - pastoral and community assistants - but also devalue the ordained priesthood. In fact, they make the priesthood redundant: most of the tasks until recently linked to the priesthood can now also be performed by lay persons, who in most cases are, moreover, married.

One positive aspect of this development is that, quietly and without fuss, women are now performing tasks formerly reserved for priests, and the faithful are getting used to them. But this transitional measure means that the Eucharist is being celebrated less and less often, and that the last sacraments are often not available for the sick and the dying. Church life in more and more regions of western Europe is beginning to resemble that in many developing countries, where the Eucharist is celebrated on just a few Sundays of the year. The Church is already preparing people to make do with fewer sacraments.

All this is dangerous. By the way it is coping with the increasing shortage of priests, the Church is signalling that the faithful can manage without either sacraments or priests. If the sacramental dimension diminishes in importance, the Church itself, as the fundamental sacrament, will be devalued in the eyes of the faithful.

We propose a different way out of the predicament, according to a more profound vision of the Church and renewal on the lines of the Second Vatican Council. The council’s documents lead us back to the biblical sources and to the rich tradition of the Church, which show that the faithful in Christian communities should see themselves as the People of God, called by God, enriched by his sacraments and endowed with multiple charisms. To these communities God has given the priestly office whose main task it is to proclaim the Gospel.

In many parts of Europe, where the faithful have for centuries been provided for by priests, they have often become passive. Parish communities must now once again take on full responsibility for their life and work. They have to become self-ministering. But they are less likely to achieve this goal if their parish priest is replaced by a full-time church employee - an ersatz priest. Such a parish would merely go from being run by priests to being run by experts.

Instead of the traditional, the reformist and the pragmatic solutions, we therefore propose a fourth way. Our suggestion is that a new type of priest should be introduced to work alongside and supplement the present clergy. Our inspiration is St Paul, whose letters distinguish the missionary priest, like Paul himself, who founds communities, from priests like the presbyters at Corinth, who are in charge of a community and preside over the Eucharist. Hence our names for the two types: Pauline priests and Corinthian priests. According to our conception, Pauline priests should continue to come from the ranks of celibate academically trained men (although many of the Catholic faithful will feel that at some future time "and women" will be added here). They will usually be full-timers, responsible for founding new communities and for training the Corinthian priests whom they will accompany.

Corinthian priests, on the other hand, will usually be part-time, ordained on a voluntary basis for a particular community, where they will work as a team and where, instead of in a residential seminary, they will receive their initial and later formation. Long active experience in their parishes will have distinguished them as "proven" community leaders and mature men - viri probati. They are likely to be married, and to have held jobs. Many would, one would hope, eventually be women.

The pastoral innovation we suggest would do much to help the Church move beyond its present dilemma over the celibacy rule. The Church would not have to abolish mandatory priestly celibacy, which would remain the norm for Pauline priests (all recent studies suggest that making celibacy optional would make it disappear). A young person wanting to serve the Church would have a clear choice between becoming a full-time celibate Pauline priest, or becoming an active member of his parish while pursuing a worldly profession with the prospect of perhaps being asked to become a Corinthian priest after years of devoted service.

Of course, if viri probati were to fill the positions left vacant by the shortage of priests they could hinder parish renewal as much as could the lay employees. Corinthian priests should therefore only be introduced in active, mature communities. One of the main tasks of Pauline priests would be to promote church renewal in the more passive communities until they too were mature enough to choose leaders from their own communities who would then be ordained as Corinthian priests.

The solution we suggest is not new, but belongs to the deepest traditions of the early Church. By returning to it, we may succeed in giving new emphasis to the age-old task of priests as community builders, infusing the Church with new life.

Fritz Lobinger is Bishop of Aliwal North in South Africa and author of Like his Brothers and Sisters (1998). Paul Zulehner is Professor of Pastoral Theology and Kerygmatics at the University of Vienna. With Jan Kerkhofs he edited Europe without Priests (1995). This is an edited translation of an article in German which first appeared in Christ in der Gegenwart (20 October 2002).

Published in The Tablet on February 15, 2003
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