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Married Priests? — Synod on the Amazon formally opens the discussion

The forthcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon could have significant implications for the Church. On the agenda is the discussion of the possibility for married clergy in Catholic Church as Annemarie Paulin-Campell discovered.

The preparatory document for the forthcoming Synod on the Amazon to take place in October 2019 was recently released. The document known as the Instrumentum Laboris outlines the agenda of the meeting.

The most significant issue tabled for discussion is the ecological threat to the Amazonian forests, which are being destroyed through mining and oil projects, deforestation and pollution. Other big issues include: global warming, human trafficking, education, the need for employment of local people and the inculturation of the liturgy.

But the Synod has received particular attention in the global Catholic media because it formally puts the possibility of ordaining indigenous older married men (so-called “viri probati”) on the agenda.

the possibility of ordaining indigenous older married men

Some of these men are already permanent deacons. In many remote parts of the Amazon the people are only able to attend Mass once in two months — or less — due to the shortage of priests. Attempts to import priests have not proven successful as the area is remote and the culture is very distinctive.

Some, such as the Austrian missionary Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who worked for many years in the rainforests of Brazil, are hopeful that the Synod may lead to the ordination of married men and the opening of the ordination of women, who already lead some of those Catholic communities, to the permanent diaconate.

Our own retired Bishop Fritz Löbinger, who served as Bishop in the Diocese of Aliwal North from 1987-2004, made a similar suggestion regarding the ordination of older married leaders of the community.

Watch — SA bishop emeritus, Fritz Lobinger on married clergy

Lobinger proposed that teams of elders would be sacramentally ordained to lead communities without priests. These would be overseen by a celibate priest-animator. It is already the case that married priests who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism have been allowed to be ordained and continue to minister as priests in the Catholic Church.

obinger proposed that teams of elders would be sacramentally ordained to lead communities without priests.

Perhaps, not-surprisingly, many of a more conservative worldview have reacted negatively to the Instrumetum Laboris . They are nervous that a discussion about married priests and women deacons could be a potential threat to an all-male celibate priesthood and, therefore, sacramental leadership. 

However, perhaps this unique situation provides an excellent opportunity for the Church to try a married priesthood. We have to decide what is more important: a celibate priesthood or reasonable access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. To deprive people of the Eucharist for many weeks does not give them the food for the journey that it is intended to be. 

We have to decide what is more important: a celibate priesthood or reasonable access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

While this Synod is focused specifically on the Amazon, decisions taken here, if they prove to be life-giving and fruitful, might well in future be extended to the rest of the Church. If we are serious about a less clerical church, responsive to the needs of the local people, I believe the discussion of these possibilities and the potential to experiment with them, is a great sign of hope.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Annemarie Paulin-Campbell
Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell currently heads up the Jesuit Institute School of Spirituality (JISS). Annemarie is a Catholic laywoman who has studied and worked in the area of Christian Spirituality for the past 16 years doing spiritual direction and retreat work, and training spiritual directors in the Ignatian tradition. Her particular focus is the training and supervision of spiritual directors and retreat givers. A related area of interest is in the interface between Christian Spirituality and Psychology. Annemarie's doctoral research is on "The impact of imaginal and dialogical processes on shifts in image of self and image of God in women making the Spiritual Exercises as a 19th Annotation Retreat." Annemarie is also a registered psychologist (and life coach), and has worked in particular in the areas of trauma counselling and community psychology.

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