Evangelizing the Amazon and the Gift of Priestly Celibacy

COMMENTARY: Will the proposed change in discipline lead to a holier clergy and a holier Church, or will it weaken the Church’s mission to evangelize and make saints of those in the Amazon and elsewhere?

Victor Meirelles, “The First Mass in Brazil,” 1860
Victor Meirelles, “The First Mass in Brazil,” 1860 (photo: Public Domain)

This article originally appeared June 27, 2019, at the Register.

Friday is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and, since 2002, the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. It’s a day on which, pondering the divine and human love flowing through Jesus’ heart, we ask him to make his priests’ hearts like unto his, with ardent, pure, spousal and shepherdly love. It’s a day on which we pray to the Harvest Master not merely for more priestly laborers in his fields, but precisely for holy laborers.

There’s a famous scene in the life of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, when, during an exorcism of a possessed woman, the devil howled at him, “If there were three like you on earth, my kingdom would be destroyed.” We never know whether we can believe anything the “father of lies” tells us, but if he happened to be telling the truth to the Curé of Ars, rather than lying to tempt him to pride, he would have been indicating that he feared three holy priests more than he worried about all other priests on earth combined.

Whenever I preach retreats for seminarians, priests or bishops, I always share this story, because, if the devil were really more frightened of a few saintly priests than of the other 435,000 priests who remain just good, or not morally good at all, then that should dramatically impact the way we live. To seminarians, I illustrate this point in a way that I hope they won’t forget: “God is not calling you to be a priest,” I tell them, with a long pause. “He’s either calling you to be a holy priest or no priest at all.”

These thoughts about the need not merely for priests but for holy priests come to mind after reading the draft of the working document of this October’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon region, published last week.

The headlines were captured, predictably, by the document’s request that, “for the most remote areas of the region, the possibility of the priestly ordination of elderly people, preferably indigenous people respected and accepted by their community, even though they may already have a family that is established and stable,” be studied, so as to “assure the Sacraments that accompany and sustain Christian life” will be provided.

The Amazon is an enormous tropical forest, covering 2.1 million square miles — four time the size of Alaska — and nine countries, embracing 2.8 million indigenous people, 390 indigenous tribes, 240 spoken languages and, as yet, 137 uncontacted peoples. There are obviously huge pastoral needs to evangelize and minister to that vast region. But is the fitting response to this situation to ordain elderly married men?

I would have a few reactions.

First, what would the patron saints of the missions, St. Francis Xavier and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, say about such a proposal?

When St. Francis was almost singlehandedly evangelizing vast regions of modern-day India, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan, he wrote letters back to Europe describing how “many, many people here are not becoming Christians for one reason only: There is nobody to make them Christians” and how he had thought about “going around the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity” to come help him in the mission. He never, however, suggested altering the Church’s practice of priestly celibacy to do it.

No one had more apostolic zeal, but St. Francis Xavier was not going to sacrifice the gem of priestly celibacy, because he realized that it really wasn’t an effective solution.

Similarly, when St. Thérèse was asked by a struggling young missionary priest in Africa whom she had adopted as a spiritual brother why, more than 1,800 years after Christ’s resurrection, there were still millions in Africa who had not heard the saving name of Jesus, the youngest doctor of the Church responded with profound practical wisdom: It was, she said, because other Christians haven’t done anything about it.

Like St. Francis Xavier, she recognized that the issue was a profound lukewarmness and lack of zeal throughout the Church to share the faith. The remedy, they both saw, was not to lower the standards to accommodate such tepidity. It was to summon people to mission.

To call for the ordination of elderly married men seems to be a pessimistic and despondent throwing in of the towel with regard to the efficacy of praying to the Harvest Master to send laborers for the Amazon.

We can imagine a different response. What if the bishops of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, buttressed by Pope Francis and his summons to share the joy of the Gospel, were to make an appeal that every diocese in the world and every religious order consider sending one priest per decade to help evangelize the Amazon?

Pope Francis has said very clearly that the Church doesn’t have a mission, but is a mission, and that each of us must recognize that “I am a mission in this world.”

Now is a time to prove it. Taking on such a global project, moreover, would likely galvanize the entire Church to start spreading the faith more zealously closer to home, likely leading to more vocations gained than those loaned to the Amazon.

Second, what would the ordination of elderly married men of the region look like?

Because of a severe lack of educational infrastructure, most of those in the Amazon do not have access to adequate, quality formal education. We are not talking about the ordination of married men with doctorates, master’s or even bachelor’s degrees, in theology or anything else. We would be studying whether to ordain even those with only an elementary-level education, such that they might struggle even to read the Scriptures and the missal.

Church history shows that is not a good idea. In the centuries before Catholic seminaries were founded in Europe, men simply apprenticed themselves for a time to local clergy, took an exam, and then were ordained, barely able to pronounce the Latin, not to mention understand it. The scandals caused by such poorly trained clergy helped precipitate the Protestant Reformation.

St. Bernardine of Siena, the great 15th-century Franciscan, decried the situation of so many priests, even well-meaning ones, who, while they were able to celebrate the sacraments, were not able to do anything else. He said that if a village were able to have for a generation only good preaching with no access to the sacraments, or only sacramental access with no or bad preaching, that it would be wiser to have the preaching, because after 20 years people would be hungering for the sacraments, whereas if people had access to the sacraments with no or bad preaching, they would take the sacraments for granted.

It’s a very relevant example for the situation in the Amazon. People in remote villages are becoming Pentecostals not because Pentecostals give them access to the sacraments (which they don’t), but because they give them the word of God, training in prayer and a community of faith. Catholics can do the same, even without priests, as the Church does in many other areas of South America. Is it wise to ordain priests who can perhaps celebrate Mass and absolve sins but who will not have the education and training to preach and teach effectively? History suggests that we would be asking for worse problems than we have now, since it is harder to change people’s minds than form them right in the first place.

Third, what would this mean for the Church universally?

There are, of course, many other areas where there are shortages of priests, where people do not have access to “the sacraments that accompany and sustain Christian life” each week or each day. If married men are eligible for ordination in the Amazon, why not in Alaska, Alabama or anywhere experiencing a priest deficit compared to previous decades? It would be very hard for the Church to play favorites and grant exceptions to one region and not to every region.

Such “exceptions” would become the rule. Celibacy would remain preferred in principle but optional in practice. And that would drastically change the lived experience of the priesthood.

Those priests who remained celibate for the sake of the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12), rather than being admired for their sacrifice in placing God, his kingdom and others over their own natural desires for marriage and family, would likely be considered ambitious — since, as in the Oriental Churches, bishops would be taken only from among the celibates — or same-sex-attracted, or both.

The practical effects, moreover, would be drastic in terms of the missionary dimension of the priesthood. Celibate priests can move on a moment’s notice and take difficult assignments. Which married priest is going to want to uproot his family to a dangerous inner-city post where, on his meager salary, he has to enroll his children in underperforming public schools?

There would likewise be an effect on the level of commitment the priesthood justly requires. Right now the priest must choose Christ over the goods of marriage and family. In a sex-obsessed age, such a decision is often heroic, and a capacity for heroism is even more important for priests than for soldiers. Priests’ joyful, celibate life of perpetual chastity, moreover, is a prophetic sign to this age that chastity is indeed possible, joyful and life-giving in every state of life. The loss of that witness would be a huge blow to the proclamation of the Gospel in our time.

The ultimate and most practical question, however, remains: Will this proposed change lead to a holier clergy and a holier Church, or will it weaken the Church’s mission to evangelize and make saints of those in the Amazon and elsewhere?

Pope Francis conferred on Catholics the lay ministries of catechist and lector at a Mass for the Sunday of the Word of God on Jan. 23.

Pope Francis: The Word of God Rekindles Hope

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the fourth-annual Sunday of the Word of God, during which he, for the first time, formally conferred upon lay Catholics the ministries of lector and catechist.