VATICAN (SE): Despite expectations that Pope Francis may have put forward the topic of priesthood as the theme for the next Synod of Bishops, he has named young people as the theme for research and discussion.
In an interview published by the German newspaper, Die Zeit, on March 8, he gave a strong hint as to why, when he admitted that ordaining married men in some special circumstances could well evolve as a possibility in the future.
While he insisted that he was only talking about what are referred to as viri probati, or well tested men in particular circumstances, he stressed that he does not see this as being an overall solution to the broader problem of lack of vocations to the celibate priesthood.
But what he did suggest as being a mainstream approach to finding a solution to what he referred to as an enormous problem is prayer, coupled with a more intense focus on walking with young people in their search for orientation in life.
The pope described the shortage of priests in the Church today as depriving the Catholic community of its strength, saying that the Church and the Eucharist feed off each other, as the Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.
While admitting that ordaining some married men is only a small space for liberty that he is looking at, the pope said that it must be faced fearlessly because, “fears close doors, freedom opens them.”
He added that in addition, it would still be necessary to determine what functions and roles that such ordained men would carry out.
When Pope Francis ruled out any move away from the traditional celibate priesthood last year, he did mention that there is a possibility for married men of fidelity and faith to be ordained in particular circumstances.
In 2014, he even suggested that could be a matter best left to local bishops’ conferences to make the final decision about in a private conversation with a bishop from Brazil, where in many parts of the vast country there is only one priest available to serve up to 10,000 people.
Studies have been carried out and received support for a non-celibate clergy among some indigenous peoples in the Amazon area of Brazil, as well as parts of Africa, and judged by some respected theologians as having validity.
This conversation is not new. Studies have been carried out for decades and the idea has been put forward as feasible among some tribal peoples that have been Catholic for centuries, but never produced more than the occasional priest, as the concept of celibacy simply does not exist in their cultures.
Pope Francis also pointed out that celibacy is fundamentally a discipline and that there are already several exceptions made to the general rule.
All up there are 23 Eastern Rite Churches that are in full communion with Rome that have a married clergy, but normally in the Eastern Rites priests cannot marry after they are ordained and are required, if they wish to marry, to do so before they become priests.
Similar discipline also applies in many parts of the Anglican Communion, but in the Latin Catholic Rite ministers of non-Catholic Christian denominations who have been received into the Catholic Church have been ordained, even though they are married.
In addition, while the current paucity of priests has had a profound impact on the western Church, in many parts of Africa, Latin America and even Asia regular access to the Eucharist is simply not on the cards and never has been. Providing some access to the Eucharist has been the work of catechists running liturgies in the absence of a priest.
But the big factor that Pope Francis stressed in his interview with the German publication is that fear is the big killer. “Truth means not being afraid,” he said. “Fears close doors, freedom opens them. And if freedom is small, it at least opens a little window.”
He also added that he cringes when he is idealised by people or the media, as he believes that it is actually a form of being attacked. He fears that it is just another version of populism, which is an evil because it is using people and is always a disaster.