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Posted May 15, 2004

Priests - Celibacy

Priests urging optional celibacy described as men who love the church
By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

The leaders of U.S. priests who recently formed a national advocacy group for optional celibacy are "mainly older men" acting out of love for the church, said Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

The group, Priests' Forum for Eucharist, was formed at a meeting in New York April 20-21 which was attended by 21 priests from 10 dioceses around the country. A week later they issued a press release announcing the formation of the forum and its position.

Outlining the growing shortage of priests and its negative impact on weekend Masses in parishes, the group said, "Priests' Forum for Eucharist sees that the church law of mandatory celibacy is endangering the identity of the Catholic faithful as a people of the Eucharist."

Members of the forum "believe that making celibacy an option for those who wish to become priests or by ordaining those who are already married is an obvious way to alleviate the problems" arising from the priest shortage, the news release said.

The forum traces its origins to a letter last August by a group of Milwaukee priests who expressed concern that regular access of Catholics to Sunday Mass was being threatened by the growing shortage of priests. They asked Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to open up a dialogue on whether ordination for married men as well as for celibates could be a way to resolve the shortage.

Groups of priests from several other dioceses subsequently signed similar letters, while priests in one -- Arlington, Va. -- signed a letter affirming their support of mandatory celibacy for all priests.

Representatives of priests from various dioceses who had petitioned for a dialogue on optional celibacy were convened for the April meeting by Voice of the Ordained, a group of priests and some former priests in the Long Island and New York metropolitan area that was formed two years ago to address challenges facing the church.

Father Silva said he met with members of Voice of the Ordained at their request in January and was surprised to find that "the leadership is principally older men, many retired. ... I was astonished at the average age."

At that meeting Voice of the Ordained discussed convening a broader group of priests to address the issue of mandatory celibacy, he said.

"When I asked them why they were doing this when they (many of them) were retired, they said, 'Because we love the church. We think the church needs to look at this, and we have nothing to lose,'" he said.

Like the Voice of the Ordained leadership, the working core group of the new forum consists of older priests, ordained an average of about 40 years.

The forum's coordinator is Father Andrew P. Connolly, a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., who was ordained in 1956. The most recently ordained priest in the core group is Father Dominic Grassi of Chicago, who was ordained in 1973.

Father Silva said when the NFPC's national convention was held in Atlanta in April, delegates had a discussion session with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry.

The priests at that session "brought up those same issues" to Archbishop Dolan, he said. "His response was that, yes, the issue of celibacy was brought to the priestly life and ministry committee. The second part of his comment was that it's something probably that needs to get looked at, but don't expect Rome to do anything too quickly."

"He didn't say yes, he didn't say no," Father Silva added. "He said that the issue had come to the committee and they had heard it, and then he said that it probably was something that would need to get talked about, but it's not going to be on the front burner."

From his travels around the country meeting priests, Father Silva said he believes they are about evenly divided about whether mandatory celibacy should be up for discussion.

"Slightly over half, I would say, would be very, very clear that the issue should be discussed. The other half would say, Well, the decision has been made. ... The Holy Father has spoken and that's the way it is, and that's what we need to accept."

He said when the NFPC board addressed the issue last fall following the Milwaukee priests' request for dialogue on the issue the board members "were very, very strong in their support for celibacy. At the same time, they said the voice of those who are calling for a discussion of mandatory celibacy -- given the shortage of priests and the need to look for alternatives -- we would support a dialogue surrounding that issue."