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Posted January 20, 2006

All I Want For Christmas is a Few More Priests

by Fr. Jonathan Foster, O.F.M.
Mayslake Ministries Second Journey:
A Quarterly Newsletter of Mayslake Ministries, Inc.

I felt let down by the recent synod of Bishops held in Rome. Devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and the Eucharist, it of course had to deal with the only people who can ‘do’ Eucharist — ordained priests. Before the synod, a number of daring Bishops had proposed that the church consider ordaining ‘viri probati’ (‘men of proven character’) to the priesthood. These would be older men, mostly middle aged, recognized in their communities for their value and wisdom. They would be given adequate training, but far less than the normal track of seminarians. They might be married or single. They might even be priests who had left the formal priesthood years age, but are willing to serve. They would serve only in their own local communities, neighborhoods, small towns, missionary outposts, and their primary function would be to celebrate the Eucharist. As you might surmise, most of the bishops proposing this were from areas desperately short of priests. It seemed a sensible solution to a growing problem, not only in mission lands, but in our great cities as well. Indeed the Episcopalians here in the U.S. have been doing this for many years on the Indian reservations of the West and in Alaska.

However, the vast majority of the Bishops at the Synod felt that this was a matter of such little importance that it was not even included on the agenda. So, all we got out of the synod was a further appeal for prayers for vocations and more intense recruiting — both of which we have been doing for so many years now with such few results that one must wonder if God is not answering our prayer for vocations by putting these ‘viri probati’ right in our faces.

I recall a reflection that came to me some years ago as I stood on the shores of Lake Michigan in northern Michigan. I visit a remote part of that lakeshore every year and every year for the past 10-15 have noted the steady drop in the water levels of the lake. On this particular occasion, this steady withdrawal of the lake from the stony beaches made me think of the ‘priest shortage.’ Like the lake growing shallower ever year, every year the number of priests in this country shrinks some more. I tried to see the positive side of this by noting and welcoming the new plants and flowers growing up in the lake bottom abandoned by the retreating waters. They suggested to me the emergence of a whole generation of new ministers in the church, mostly lay, and, this I assured myself, was hopeful.

But more powerful was the feeling of discouragement over the continued depletion of the ranks of those, who, like me, had committed their lives to this indispensable and irreplaceable ministry. Not only are we getting weary as we continue to work well beyond even a reasonably delayed retirement age, but I wondered if the people are not becoming less and less confident of a Church that cannot attract youth to its leadership ranks. Does anyone out there have any idea of what it is like to have spent your life on a mission you thought was so important, but which now very few are interested in?

It also struck me then that not only are aging men required to do all the priestly work of this large and growing Church, but that they would also be expected to have th idealism that youth typically bring to ministry. As well as wisdom, I wondered, do people also expect enthusiasm and boundless energy from us? I wanted to trust that, as the waters of the lake will eventually return, so will God in God’s good time renew the priesthood.

But more recently I have begun to wonder if God has not already spoken, but that the higher clergy are not listening. So, how is the official church helping us out? By sending us more and more priests frm places where priests are apparently plentiful, and, like interchangeable spare parts, can be shipped anywhere in the world. Typically, however, these good men do not know or appreciate our culture, and do not often speak our language very well. As England did during our Revolutionary War, it’s like hiring mercenaries to fight your wars for you.

Beyond this, the American Church is not considered worth taking special efforts and risks to help solve its own problems. Just send in the ringers. The ‘viri probati’ proposal would at least be a step away from that. If these men are little different from most of us in age, at least, as we await younger graduates from our seminaries, we will know there is someone competent on the bench.

Why did the synodal bishops not even grant this proposal the dignity of consideration? I do not presume to know. Perhaps one of the reasons is that Rome, where the synod was held, may be occupied at any given time by as many as 15,000 priests — students, tourists, diplomats, curial employ employees, men on sabbatical, etc. While in the part of the church I serve, work is looking for priests, in Rome priests may be looking for work. More likely the reluctance to take up this matter is simply a romantic attachment to a clericalism long discredited which cannot imagine anyone other than an unmarried male, no matter how old, presiding over our Eucharists.

Some of you may recall that I submitted the same proposal to Pope Benedict last summer, via his published e-mail address. I did not even get an acknowledgment. I suspect that will be pretty much the fate of any similar proposals. This just adds to the sadness. It is one thing to be denied help. It is quite another to act as though your appeal for help is not even worthy of a second look.

The Synod failed to recognize a great opportunity to give not just me, but the whole church, a Christmas present!