CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

Easter is the “most solemn festival” on the church’s calendar. 

But this yearly commemoration of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—stretched over a three-day period within Holy Week known as the Sacred Triduum—actually happens every single Sunday.

“By a tradition handed down from the apostles, which took its origin from the very day of Christ’s resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day… the Lord’s Day or Sunday.” 

That’s from the Second Vatican Council’s (1962-65) document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

It notes “Christ’s faithful are bound to come together into one place” each Sunday “so that, by hearing the word of God and taking part in the Eucharist, they may call to mind the passion, the resurrection and the glorification of the Lord Jesus.” (SC, 106) 

The Council stated clearly that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the church’s life and all its activity. 

And in its decree on priestly life and ministry Vatican II said it’s impossible to truly build up a Christian community “unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 6). 

Hence, the need for priests, more properly known as presbyters; persons ordained and sanctioned by the church authorities (the bishops) to preside at the Eucharistic liturgy, the Mass. 

But the church has a serious shortage of ordained presbyters in almost every part of the world, except in some countries in Africa and Asia. And this “vocations crisis” is not something new. The first signs of it started appearing even before Vatican Council II got underway.

But Paul VI (pope from 1963-1978) stifled any serious discernment on how to effectively respond to the problem when he forbade the Council Fathers from questioning mandatory priestly celibacy or deliberating over the possible ordination of the so-called viri probati—married men of proven virtue. 

In fact, the Council never had a serious discussion on the much larger and important issue of ministries (in general) in the church or how we discern, recognize, distinguish and verify the different charisms (spiritual gifts) Christ bestows on the Holy People of God. 

“To some, his ‘gift’ was that they should be apostles; to some prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers; to knit God’s holy people together for the work of service to build up the Body of Christ,” St. Paul says (Eph. 4:11-12).

The diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate are a necessary, but only a very limited manifestation of these charisms. And down the centuries church authority has tried to circumscribe all these gifts within these Holy Orders. And, in doing so, it may have limited and/or resisted the working of the Holy Spirit. 

In the immediate decade following Vatican II, there were many theologians and even a good number of bishops that tried to keep the discussion alive as they explored some of those questions that were off-limits or never mentioned at the Council. 

However, that was all brought to an abrupt halt shortly after the election of Pope John Paul II who quickly imposed lock-step discipline throughout the hierarchy and it was directed from the centralizing offices in Rome. 

No more discussion of the possibility of ordaining the viri probati. Absolutely no questioning of mandatory celibacy. Woman priests? Forget about it, and your church job (or even your membership in the church), if you as much as broach the topic.

Then in 1990 the Polish pope and his Vatican aides strong-armed the Synod of Bishops into rubberstamping his firm reinforcement of the Tridentine paradigm of the priesthood and its model of seminary formation. The ethos and basic structure of priestly formation and ministry, all dating back to the sixteenth-century, was repackaged with contemporary semantics and the ever-so-lightly seasoning of an updated psychological and sociological pedagogy.   

The document John Paul issued two years later as a recapitulation of that Synod assembly, Pastores Dabo Vobis, was disturbingly backwards looking. It even endorsed the re-opening of high-school seminaries, most of which had long been shuttered for very good and sane reasons. 

Yet the vocations crisis continued. While there was a steady, though modest rise in the number of major seminarians during John Paul’s pontificate, it was not enough to replace an aging clergy—or keep pace with the growing number of Catholics. 

We all know what happened next. Bishops started closing or merging parishes. And it soon became clear that the Eucharist-centered communities that Vatican II said were imperative had succumbed to being (or, in reality, had always been) priest-centered communities.  

And, of course, the priest at the center had to be a man—and only a man who was willing to make a promise to live celibately and be obedient to his bishop.

Without other possibilities, what was a bishop to do? He could not ordain married men or reinstate priests who had left to get married. What bishop in his right mind would even dare to try that in the long reign of Il Santo Subito? 

A growing number of bishops from countries where the shortage was growing more and more acute (especially in the United States, Australia, and parts of Europe) began “importing” foreign priests. Some of these clerics came from dioceses in India and Africa, places Rome hailed as being “blessed” with numerous vocations. But others were young men from countries (such as in Latin America) where the priest-to-people ratio was even higher than in the places abroad that were recruiting them. 

There are all sorts of sensitive issues connected to these “imports” that have to be very carefully worked out. What is their true motivation for leaving their native country, especially those from underdeveloped or impoverished areas? How willing and capable are they to adapt to a new culture? And then there are the normal verifications that must be made of anyone who believes he is called to the priesthood—his psychosexual maturity, commitment to serve and not be served, and so forth.  

Sometimes imported priests work out fine, but in many cases they do not.

Just last week Archbishop Tommaso Valentinetti of Pescara-Penne had to suspend a priest from India who is incardinated in his central Italian diocese. Fr. Edward Pushparaj, 40, was ordained just four years ago. 

Parishioners had been complaining to the archbishop for several weeks because the priest was constantly criticizing Pope Francis. Things reached the boiling point on Palm Sunday when Fr. Pushparaj used his homily on the Feast of the Passion of the Lord to attack the pope. Some worshippers even stormed out of church in protests, yelling, “Shame on you!”

According to Archbishop Valentinetti he was serving up the usual anti-Francis fare that one finds in “clericalist and pseudo-traditionalist circles.” 

What is so disturbing about this story is that this man was obviously not well vetted before being ordained. A simple background check, much of which could be done through the Internet, should have set off alarm bells immediately.

The fact of the matter is that there really is not lack of vocations to priestly service.

Pushparaj went to the seminary in his hometown in southern India, beginning at the age of fourteen. He continued up through the study of philosophy and theology, but then discontinued his path towards priesthood—for about six years.

“God wanted me to continue my formation outside the seminary,” he said in a recorded interview in January 2013 just hours before Archbishop Valentinetti ordained him a deacon.

Pushparaj actually came to Italy the autumn of 2008. Because? “God wanted me here,” he said again.

As a newly arrived thirty-one-year-old he joined the Olivetan Benedictines in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, eventually moving to another monastery in Bologna. He said it was an elderly priest of Pescara-Penne, now dead, who got him to join the archdiocese. 

No bishop is beyond criticism—not even the Bishop of Rome. But priests have no right to use the homily during the celebration of the Eucharist—especially during Holy Week—to have a go at the pope!

But even if Fr. Pushparaj was a great devotee of Pope Francis, there is something that is not right about his profile or the way he and many other foreign-born priests are imported to places with dwindling vocations. They are pawns in a cynical stopgap strategy that the bishops have employed.

The fact of the matter is that there really is not lack of vocations to priestly service. It is merely that the church authorities refuse to admit those who have the charism and feel the call. Married men or those who would like to marry; women in any category; those who for whatever reason resist making a lifetime commitment to ministry, but would be willing to serve for a time and season—all these are disqualified as candidates. 

This has to be re-thought, because a church that sticks stubbornly to the non-divine rule of mandatory celibacy when there is such a severe priest shortage deprives the Holy People of God of the Eucharist for which they rightly hunger. This is not only an injustice, but it might also be an act of opposing the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis has signaled his willingness to allow for the ordination of, at least, the viri probati. But people close to him, such as Cardinals Walter Kasper and Christoph Schönborn, say the pope wants the national episcopal conferences to take the initiative. 

In fact, Francis was as clear as he could be in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, that it is not the role of the papal magisterium to give “a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world”. l 

He said, “It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’” (EG, 16).

Francis is begging the bishops and all the faithful to join together in reforming and renewing the church.

“I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities,” he says (EG, 33).

But too many bishops seem incapable of what the pope is asking of them, especially regarding the priesthood. For far too long they have been afraid to ponder any change to the criteria the Tridentine paradigm imposed on how the church identifies and selects its presbyters.

And it is a bitter irony that the now-sainted pope, John Paul II—the very one who began his pontificate by saying, “Be not afraid!”—was the man who instilled that fear in the bishops (and all who aspired to become part of the episcopate) when he forbade any discussion or discernment, any creativity or boldness in exploring possible changes. 

But this is exactly what Pope Francis is now calling for: bold and creative solutions to all the problems that inhibit the church’s ministry and mission. And the vocations crisis is one of the most glaring.

Despite his prodding, too many bishops remain paralyzed by fear. They and far too many priests remain immobilized in the clerical club of their celibate, all-male fraternity or caste.  

But not all of them. 

There are those for whom Francis’s pontificate has offered encouragement and granted permission to speak up. And you can bet that at least one of them is likely to raise his voice when the pope convenes the Synod of Bishops in October 2018 to discuss young people and vocational discernment. 

Maybe it will be a Vatican official like Cardinal Kevin Farrell. Or perhaps it will again be a leader from the German-speaking Church or someone from Latin America.

It’s even quite possible that the prophetic call for a creative and bold solution to the crisis will come from a prelate from the United States, someone such as Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark.

Or perhaps… just perhaps, it will come from a future cardinal, like Robert McElroy in San Diego.

Whom will the Holy Spirit prompt to speak up? 

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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