In 1742, a Franciscan friar reported to Rome the remarkable news that a hitherto unknown Christian community had been discovered on a river island in Nubia, the region south of what had once been Roman Egypt. The Nubian church was thought to have been extinct for centuries, cut off as it was from other Christian communions. But this ancient Nubian church, established no later than the fourth century, had persevered through a millennium of Islam and periods of isolation from the patriarchate of Alexandria, which traditionally supplied it with bishops. Pondering the fate of the Nubian church, the Franciscan posed a rhetorical question: “Did Nubia go astray from the Christian faith?” His answer was surprising but unequivocal: “Only because of a lack of pastors.”
The Nubian laity had long struggled to keep the faith. In the early 1500s, a Syrian traveler reported finding more than 150 well-tended churches, with crucifixes, altars, and images of the blessed Virgin. While the people were not officially Christian, the traveler found they “lived in the desire of being Christians.” Then in the 1520s, a Western Christian witnessed perhaps the last attempt by the Nubian laity to revive their dying church. Since contact with the mother church in Alexandria was impossible, six Nubian Christians traveled to Ethiopia and begged the emperor there for priests and monks. But the Ethiopian church was struggling with its own challenge. It also depended on Alexandria for its abuna (bishop), and—in the decades-long absence of a bishop—its clergy were aging and dying. So the emperor sent the Nubians away, and their church disappeared for a lack of pastors. By 1742, only a stray remnant of this once-thriving ancient church remained.
The Nubian people had carried on for generations with their desire to remain Christian, but church leadership had failed them. No doubt these leaders were sincere and well meaning. Bishops had always come from Alexandria, and priestly ordination depended on them. But when circumstances changed because of the Islamic ascent, the ecclesiastical structures intended to supply pastoral care and evangelical witness failed to adapt. Preserving customary discipline took precedence over spreading the good news and nurturing the faithful with word and sacraments. It was not Islam that destroyed Nubian Christianity. Church leaders—who did not adapt to the needs of their time—strangled the faith of a people who desired to live as Christians.
This type of failure is being repeated today. From the Vatican to local dioceses, the church's hierarchy refuses to consider a practice that already exists in the Western rite and that could easily be expanded: the ordination of married men to the priesthood. This unwillingness to adapt has tragic consequences. Parishes are being consolidated or closed—even though they are viable and thriving—because there are not enough clergy to staff them. In many rural regions, aging priests travel hundreds of miles to provide the sacraments to small faithful communities of Catholics. In both urban and suburban areas, solitary parish priests are charged with the care of thousands of families. Yet they cannot even supply the essential sacramental ministry, much less engage in the pastoral care or spiritual counsel so many people long for and cannot find.
The widespread absence of priests to provide the sacraments is forcing the laity to do without, or to seek spiritual nurture in other ecclesial communities. Increasingly, laypeople with pastoral degrees are being asked to act as parish administrators; and more than half the theologians teaching in Catholic colleges and universities today are laypeople. But these men and women, while doing the best they can within present church structures, cannot make up for the absence of priests.
Like the Franciscan friar who discovered the vestigial Nubian church, we must ask ourselves what is happening to our once-thriving church. One thing is now undeniable: In many regions of the world, the church is becoming smaller because of the lack of available pastors. The Nubian example suggests that the challenges the church faces today are fundamental and beyond the ability of the laity alone to solve. So the real question is: Are the pope and bishops going to fulfill their sacred obligation to us? The customary means of supplying priests must change. The faithful pray that we will not suffer the fate of the ancient Nubian church.