A firm just and necessary defense of the Amazonian peoples and of an integral ecology.
1. After two intense weeks of prayer and liturgical celebrations, general session, sessions of the small groups, meetings of various types and parallel activities, the Pan-Amazonian synod is now in its final phase.
2. Many subjects have been treated, with great freedom and respect, by the synod fathers. Some have given testimonies of their work, their difficulties and pastoral successes. Others have presented contributions to the ecological and social themes. These, in a necessary and just line of defense of the rights of the Amazon peoples and the ecology of the territory, have been well received by the solemn assembly. The majority of the synodal fathers have spoken of strictly pastoral subjects.
Of these some are of weightier relevance. One of these is the subject of elder, married priests. I would like to offer some reflections upon this point.
An important fact: Not all the Amazon population are indigenous people.
3. This subject of ordination concerns the entire universal Church. And let us recall that the population of Amazonia is 34 million, of which only 3 million, less than 10%, are indigenous, those not integrated into the social life of their various countries.
This is to say that the indigenous population, which suffers pastoral visitation and not presence, is not the majority of the Amazonian populations, of which the greatest part are Latin American and mestizo (mixed race), baptized Catholics or other Christians. And so we should not generalize and present the problem of chronic absence of priests as that of all Amazonia. The problem is present particularly in the isolated indigenous communities. In the territory there are also large cities, important dioceses and archdioceses, better served than the indigenous communities that are scattered across huge extensions of land.
The solution: to ordain virtuous older married men as priests?
4. Of course there is a legitimate concern for improving pastoral attention to these indigenous populations. And a solution to the shortage of priests must be found. The synod has considered the possibility of ordaining as priests married men of known virtue, living with their own families in these communities that would make possible the frequent celebration of the Eucharist. The instrumentum laboris (working document) clearly upholds the continuation of the discipline of celibacy as a gift to the Church. All well and good! In effect: We, in imitation of Christ, celibate and spouse of the Church, the priests of Latin Rite, as well as many of the Oriental Churches, freely choose to consecrate our lives to God and to the Church. For this we renounce marriage, and we make a religious commitment to God to live in perfect chastity. This is a strong way to configuring ourselves to Christ, the High and Eternal Priest and Good Shepherd.
5. A detail: The text does not use the well-known and popular term viri probati, “men of proven virtue.” It uses the expression “older persons” and therefore leaves open the possibility of the ordination of women. We will not consider this second possibility, as it has been openly and repeatedly rejected by St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, as well as more recently by Pope Francis. Let us hear St. John Paul II:
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (see Luke 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (St. John Paul II, apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4, 1994).
6. Here we shall only reflect upon the possibility of conferring the priesthood on older married men. This solution must face up to various problems or doubts. I will mention some of these. Of course: It is clear that the ordination of older married men is a matter of discipline, of religious or pastoral convenience and deserves considering the pros and cons. Priestly celibacy is not a dogma of faith. Sure, they could be ordained. But what kind of priests would they be? This needs to be discerned. Would they be second-class priests, like the famous “bread and butter priests” of the past? What formation would they have, that is to say, what studies would they require? The permanent deacons require serious studies, usually of at least four years. And what would be their ministry … simply celebrating the sacraments? From whom would they depend … who would be their immediate superior? Would there not be friction between these “older priests only for sacraments” and the parish priests and parochial vicars? How would the economic and administrative routine work … that is to say, who would support them in these extremely poor dioceses and missionary vicariates?
7. And then: This disciplinary opening up … would it be limited to Amazonia? Would it not weaken the celibate priesthood in the rest of the world? Can a regional synod approve a norm that affects the entire universal Church? One important synodal father has already indicated that the priesthood would have to be studied in its entirety, not only the topic of celibacy, and that it would have to be done in a general synod, not a regional one.
The main reason for priestly celibacy: configuration with Christ, the High Priest and Good Shepherd
8. And as well … we must take into consideration the value of priestly celibacy when it is lived authentically by the religious and priests of the Latin Church. It is the way to give, to consecrate, the heart and all one’s life to God, to give witness to his greatness, testimony that he is the all-important, that his love is the maximum, that his love gives us infinite joy!
9. We must ponder as well what configuring to Christ, Good Shepherd, High and Eternal Priest, who gave himself to his celestial Father as a celibate in order to give life to the world, to offer his existence as a sacrifice of perfect offering to the Father, and to give divine life to the world (see John 10:10), requires. Celibacy is a total consecration, which makes present and gives witness to the fact that that the diocesan priest, as well as the religious one, loves God more than all things and has given himself to the Church and to his brothers, to humankind, in order to give them the divine gifts, bringing them closer to God so as to make Christ present among his people.
The Venezuelan experience: Vocations can increase.
10. I believe that the solution to attending to communities properly lies in having more evangelizing and sanctifying activity to strengthen the life of faith in the Christian communities that lack priests. Evangelization and promoting youth and vocational ministries give good results in the medium and long term.
We have seen this in Venezuela. Dioceses such as Coro, Maracay, Maturin, Barcelona, Valencia, San Felipe and others have shown a significant increase in priestly vocations in the last 40 years. There is no doubt that the work of our beloved missionaries has been, and is, magnificent, sacrificial and worthy of all respect, gratitude and praise. Therefore, we must study with sincerity and realism why it is that the evangelic preaching and missionary work so far has not produced more fruit in the indigenous communities, nor any indigenous vocations to the priesthood or religious life.
11. Let’s face it: Would ordaining good older men as priests only for liturgical functions truly give the impetus which is needed in the life of the Amazonian Church? And as well, the subject of elder married men called to the priesthood is too important, too grave, for a regional synod to decide it for the universal Church.
12. Why, then, weaken the discipline and value of priestly celibacy with an imperfect and problematic solution for the indigenous populations of Amazonia? Yes! There are many serious problems about the ordination of these good, older married men. And it might still not solve the problems of the current situation. I cannot see it as opportune nor useful.
13. I hope and pray to God Almighty that the Holy Spirit illuminate all the participants of this great assembly, so that it may give positive fruits for the strengthening and revitalization of the Church in the Amazonian countries. Let us pray for a greater impetus in the missionary work and evangelization in that immense territory and for her population, indigenous, Latin and mestizo, and that our loving Mother, Mary Most Holy, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of America, intercede for our Amazonian and universal Church. Amen.
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino is the archbishop emeritus of Caracas, Venezuela. This essay has been edited for style.