"Allowing older married men to become priests is being studied”

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"Allowing older married men to become priests is being studied”

Andrea Tornielli/ lastampa.it

The Cardinal and Prefect of the Clergy interviewed in the book “Tutti gli uomini di Francesco”, speaks of this hypothesis for the Amazon and some Pacific islands, “We would recover a structure which already existed in the early Church. Celibacy is not in question”

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A hypothesis that has to be “carefully evaluated without closure or rigidity”, that of old married men becoming priests, the so-called “viri probati”. Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, affirms this in the interview featured in the book “Tutti gli uomini di Francesco (Saint Paul editions), by Vatican journalist Fabio Marchese Ragona, dedicated to the cardinals created by Bergoglio.

“Even priests can get married, but only at a certain age...” Italian singer Lucio Dalla sang… The issue of married priesthood, as a way to curb the decline in vocations, has long been on the agenda of some progressive movements but it has never really been taken into account by the Church: all the last Popes reaffirmed the importance of priests ‘celibacy, which has never been a dogma, but is considered a precious gift to preserve.

The possibility of opening ordination to married men of mature age, the so-called “viri probati”, is in fact a different hypothesis: it would not, in fact, be a matter of allowing priests to marry if they wish to (optional) or of ordering young men who, before arriving to priesthood, have married, as is the case in the Orthodox Churches and for the Eastern Catholic Churches. Instead, it is about responding to an emergency in certain areas, entrusting the guidance of communities - often impossible to reach by the priest- to older married men of proven faith, by ordaining them priests so that they may celebrate the sacraments.

Pope Francis in an interview said, “We have to reflect about whether the viri probati are a possibility”. In the book, Marchese Ragona asks Cardinal Stella if he is trying to go down this road. This is an issue that often returns to the forefront - the Vatican “minister” of the clergy replies - The risk is of instrumental and ideological readings. From that interview, however, the Pope’s intuition emerges, which exhorts the Church to “recognize the right moment in which the Spirit suggests something”. That is, it is not a question of being for or against something, but rather of carefully evaluating the different possibilities, without closures or rigidity. With regard to the shortage of vocations, in some areas of the world - think for example of the Amazon or the remote Pacific Islands, but not only - there is an acute suffering for a true “sacramental emergency” which the few priests present are not able to accommodate; It is a question of how to respond to this urgency, considering - at least for some of the more isolated communities - the possibility of entrusting evangelization and the celebration of the sacraments to the viri probati.

It should be noted that Stella speaks of “sacramental emergency”: to open in favor of the ordination of the viri probati - only a hypothesis, that will probably be discussed at the Synod on the Amazon - would be motivated by the supreme law for the Church. That law that should be subject to every reform: the good of souls. That is, the good of those people and communities who, for various reasons, cannot be reached by priests except only few times per year.

From the study - Cardinal Stella observes in the interview - interesting perspectives emerge, whose real scope could be evaluated, such as the possibility of ordaining older men to celebrate the Eucharist in isolated Catholic communities”, according to the proposal that the emeritus bishop of Aliwal, in South Africa, Monsignor Lobinger, did a few years ago; here, the focus is not on the ordination of individual probati viri, but on the maturity and responsibility of the Christian community, from which some “elders” may emerge and who, once they have received their ordination, would be responsible for ensuring the celebration of the Eucharist, the sacrament of reconciliation and the anointing of the sick”.

In receiving the sacred order - the Prefect of the clergy continues- these “elders” would dedicate themselves to the faithful exercise of the munus sanctificandi, since among the tasks of a priest - as recalled in an audience with Benedict XVI - is that of “sanctifying people, above all through the sacraments and the worship of the Church”, becoming “bridges” to the encounter with him and of his mediation between God and man and between man and God”.

The fundamental idea, according to Henri de Lubac’s axiom, often developed in John Paul II’s Magisterium, is that “the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist”. This means recalling that “It is an essential truth, not only of doctrine but also of life, that the Eucharist builds the Church, building it as the authentic community of the People of God, as the assembly of the faithful “ (John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, n. 20) and, consequently, the Church, through sacramental celebration, ensures that the Eucharistic mystery is updated in time and space”.

Therefore – Stella explains providing the reasons for opening to the possibility to ordain elderly married men priests – if “the Church lives the Eucharist” and the Eucharist “is the core of the mystery of the Church” (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 1), then every Christian community, even in complex situations and in difficult cultural and ecclesial contexts, should be guaranteed this spiritual nourishment. In this sense, should the urgency emerge, we can think of the ordination of “older people” who, continuing to preserve the family and work and receiving a training contextualized to the environment, could offer a part-time service in the same community from which they come, to guarantee sacramental pastoral care and, in particular, the presidency of the Eucharistic celebration”.

The cardinal recalls that the viri probati hypothesis would represent a return to the beginnings of Christianity, “we would recover that structure which already existed in the early Church, that distinguished the ordained celibate ministers (such as Paul and other community founders) from those responsible for communities, such as the “elders” of Corinth. The former, with more specific training and full-time commitment to their ministry, were more itinerant; the latter, instead, born within the same communities, were more sedentary, according to the sacramental needs of the community. Every remote if not secluded community could nominate their “elders” for the Eucharistic presidency, while the ordained celibate ministers, being itinerant, would take care of bringing to life and forming these communities, as well as their “elders” who are permanently presiding over them”.

Finally, Cardinal Stella in the interview with Marchese Ragona points out that the possible ordination of viri probati in some remote areas of the world would not affect the figure of the celibate priest as it has been consolidated in history over the centuries. This is only - he explains – a hypotheses that needs to be studied in depth and a suggestion that should be verified through attentive study and a widespread ecclesial discernment. However, such a proposal would not replace the current type of priest or place any emphasis on optional celibacy. Instead, it would complement this figure, flanking that of the members of the community, chosen for their mature age and exemplary life, who could offer a valuable service, presiding over the Eucharist and guaranteeing confession and anointing of the sick. The journey and discussion on the subject has just begun.

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 10:43
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