George B. Wilson
An imagined bishop asks for advice.
Image
Thank you for coming. My name is Bishop Pascal. I am the diocesan bishop of Heartlands, and I need your help. Let me first tell you my situation and some of the options that are being proposed to me for dealing with it. Then Ill welcome your suggestions or proposals.

Our diocese has 83 parishes to staff. Until three years ago we were able to supply a priest-pastor for each one. Since then, as a result of deaths, resignations and retirements, the number of our priests capable of active ministry has declined to 76. I need your help in figuring out how to proceed.

Prayer for Vocations

I am sure many of you will suggest that we begin by storming heaven with prayers for new vocations. And I assure you we have been doing that and we continue to do so. We have had rosary crusades and the Serra Club Chalice Program and Come and See visits to our regional seminary. I promote vocations at every confirmation or Boy Scout ceremony I am part of. We are grateful that this past year we were able to ordain two new priests, and we rejoice at the six solid candidates in theology, as well as the 10 men coming along behind them. In the past year, however, we also lost 11 men through death and retirement. The bottom line is that right now our new vocations are not achieving replacement levels.

I believe strongly in the power of prayer and will continue to urge our people to pray for new priests. They want good new priests and support every effort we make in that direction. But I also believe in a God who is present and acting in the realities we confront, using them to transform us and help us to grow. Is it possible that we are getting an answer by the very shortage, that God is challenging us to become a different kind of church? A person of faith once said that God is magnanimous and always gives us the resources we needwhatever those are.

And may I ask you, please, not to use our precious time together to tell me all the ways weve gone wrong, what brought us to this pass. Besides being tiresome, these lamentations arent very helpful, are they? Ive got decisions to make. Real communities have immediate sacramental needs to be addressed right now. We havent the luxury of paralysis by analysis.

The Big Options

Some of you might propose that we begin right now to expand the pool of those eligible for ordination.

The options under that heading are easily named. Each one would involve challenging beliefs that have shaped our churchs way of ministering for centuries. Ordain married men? That would call us to rethink a longstanding commitment to a celibate priesthood. Although the practice is not a matter of faith but of church discipline and remains within the province of the pope to change, many even of our Protestant brothers and sisters caution us against assuming that you just say, Lets ordain married men, rub a magic lamp three times, andvoilà!the Parousia arrives. Ordain women? That would call us to challenge a belief that Pope John Paul II considered a matter of faith: that Jesus calling only male apostles constitutes a norm that binds the church forever, regardless of cultural changes across the centuries. Bring resigned priests back to active ministry? That would challenge our understanding of choices once made and raise issues of fairness, as if the priesthood were a matter of an individuals personal sense of calling rather than a call by the church community. What about time-conditioned celibacy, along the lines of Shinto priesthoodcelibate service for 7 years and then return to the lay state? That would challenge long-held beliefs about the lifelong commitment required by the model of Jesus life.

I do see some kind of potential in each of these options, but I call them the big options for two reasons: one, they fall within the compass of the churchs universal authority, way beyond my pay grade and, two, because even if they were to be adopted it would take years to think through all their consequences and develop reasonable plans for implementing them before they would be ready to meet the road. Mind you, Im not averse to bringing up their possibility in discreet circlesI did get off the ladder long ago. I happen to like our diocese and am happy to stay where I am, thank youbut Ive got decisions to make in the coming yearsome, in fact, that I probably should have made five years ago.

Possible Strategies

So lets just keep those conversations going in the background, shall we? What are my options in the immediate future? And what beliefs might each of those options challenge?

Close parishes. In one sense this is the easiest option to carry out, administratively. But what does it do to our belief that once formed, a faith community is not just a branch office of the diocese, just as a diocese is not a branch office of the universal church. (How would my brother bishops react to the notion of closing a diocese?) A parish is rather a unique incarnation of the body of Christ in a particular piece of geography. How is the easy choice for closure to be reconciled with the dignity of such a gathering of the faithful? The parishes being considered for closure will probably be those with fewer parishioners than the rest of the parishes in the diocese, but is the mere fact of smaller or larger numbers a criterion Jesus would find apt? Closing a parish may gain me a priest who can provide sacramental services for a parish with more parishioners, but what does that say about our concept of priesthood? There was, after all, a time in the church when it would have been unthinkable to ordain a man for service unattached to a diocese; the validity of his ordination was tied into lifelong service of a particular faith community, analogous to the connection symbolized by a bishops ring: that he was to be married for life to a single diocese.

Appoint a layperson as pastoral agent of the parish. Ive seen wonderful men and women give excellent leadership to parish communities, as effective as any ordained priest, franklytheologically, spiritually and pastorally. But that reality doesnt really help us with the directly sacramental needs. Liturgical presiding, absolution and sacramental anointing require an ordained priest. The number of regular weekend liturgies does not necessarily decrease, and the pastoral agent still has to call for help from a sacramental minister who comes in to the parish from elsewhere. What does that do to our belief that effective sacramental liturgy needs to be acculturated, to issue from the unique faith life of a particular embodied community with its own integrated leadership?

Import priests from other priest-rich parts of the world. Several of my brother bishops are pursuing this strategy. It does meet the goal of a quick replenishment of priest-presiders to lead the liturgies needed, but so far the results appear to be mixed at best. The idea that every priest was cut from the same cookie-cutter and you could just substitute one for another, with no regard for issues of cultural sensitivity, runs counter to the rich development of eucharistic theology over the past 35 years. Do we want to risk returning to a mechanistic understanding that as long as the rite is performed validly, thats all that matters?

Loosen the connection between a particular day of the week, Sunday, and the communitys weekly public gathering around the table of the Lord. I have recently heard of dioceses in Europe where a priest is assigned as sacramental minister to as many as six parishes. On Sunday he presides at liturgy in one of them; on Monday evening in another, on Tuesday in another and so on. The people in each of those communities view that midweek liturgy as their central act of worship for the weekfulfilling the Sunday obligation, if you will. An arrangement like that challenges our identification of Sunday with the Lords day. On the other hand, I have to ask myself: did our church already fracture that identification when it introduced Saturday night Mass?

Cut back the number of Masses. In some communities pastors have tried so hard to accommodate the desires of their people that too many Masses of convenience have come to be expected. Add multiple Saturday wedding Masses and, at times, many priests find themselves violating canonical prescriptions concerning the number of Masses a priest may celebrate on a weekend. I can mandate reducing the numbers, but of itself that wont be sufficient to deal with the communities where I will need to find presiders in the coming years.

Introduce regular use of the ritual officially called Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest. Midweek Communion services are common in many parts of the country now. The church permits and has created officially sanctioned rituals for this kind of a service. I can inform my priests that when they have a sound reasonvacation, retreat, study program or the liketo be absent from their parish over a weekend, they are not to scramble around trying to find replacements but have a trained layperson conduct such a service. Does this practice risk treating the reception of Communion as something separable from the sacrifice of the Mass? Do we want to take that risk? Anecdotal evidence has people remarking that they like Sister Elaines Mass more than Father OTooles.

You see, whichever option I actually chooseand I must make a choicechallenges some conviction that has shaped our identity as Catholic Christians for a long time. If we arent willing to challenge any of them, we will just continue trying to do what we have always done, and our situation will become more and more stressful. My question to you is painful but simple: which traditional conviction do you want me to challenge this year?

Turn your chairs to form small circles and share your ideas. After a half hour our facilitator will collect your responses. Thank you. And please pray for the people of the Heartlands Diocese.

George B. Wilson, S.J., is a church organizational consultant who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Comments

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 1/3/2008 - 4:08pm
Dear Bishop Pascal, Here are some suggestions perhaps helpful to you in fulfilling your Diocesan priestly needs. Petition the Holy See to establish a new ecclesial structure(order)in the Church called, "Extraordinary Parochial Assistants" wherein Catholic priests who left the priesthood for marriage, and those who remained unmarried, but who ardently desire to resume the priestly function, be invited to do so as "EPA's" for weekend service in the confessional and in the celebration of Masses, according to the discretion of Bishops and Pastors. Under the same ecclesial structure (order)I suggest a kind of ecumenical concordat between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Patriarchal leadership to permit and allow Orthodox priests to hear confessions and to celebrate Mass in Roman Catholic Churches, using the Roman Rite, as Bishops and Pastors may see as necessary for the faithful. This arrangement may do much to accelerate ecclesial unity between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as the Spirit moves. Finally, do as the underground Church in Czechoslovakia did during WWII in the absence of Bishp and priest and feeling the need for Eucharist - the Community called forward one of the male congregants and proclaimed him their priest and that priest began to confect Eucharist for the faithful. Subsequently the Vatican uphelp the validity of the call. In other words as the needs demands let the Bishop call forth a qualified member of a Faith Community and ordaim him for a certain place, following consultation with that Faith Community.
JOHN DAHMUS | 1/2/2008 - 8:49pm
Father George Wilson’s “What Would You Tell Your Bishop?” (December 17) proposes all the obvious solutions to the problem of the shortage of priests. His “you” rightly suggests that the question should start with the needs of the people as directed by Christ Himself—Jesus asked his apostles to preach the Gospel and to make Him present in the breaking of the bread. Church leaders should fulfill those demands in the most efficient ways possible. In an earlier age a celibate priesthood provided heroic service and witness; that solution no longer appears to be adequate. If the Gospel is to be preached, foreign priests also do not appear to be the best alternative since both language and cultural barriers prevent the smooth transmitting of the Gospel message. In the past, in fact, the Church’s leaders attempted as quickly as possible to provide native clergy in mission areas; why should that wise policy be reversed now? My suggestion is to return to the practice of the New Testament itself, as described in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles. It appears clear that most of the apostles were married. It appears that many persons, both male and female, served the community in various capacities. It appears that St. Peter did not exercise the degree of papal power exercised by modern popes. I think Father Wilson’s “big options,” therefore, should be seriously investigated. True, Pope John Paul II asserted that women could not be priests, but he also apologized to the world for the past actions of earlier popes, certainly implying that his own pronouncements were just as fallible. As a professional historian I find it disconcerting that just before the Reformation, Church leaders at the Council of Constance limited papal power through church councils only to have their actions disregarded by later popes, and in the early Reformation popes were so afraid of a return of conciliar power that they delayed the calling of the Council of Trent until it was too late to reconcile religious differences. At Vatican II the council promoted Episcopal collegiality, an ideal which found little support from Pope John Paul II. I hope that this second flouting of conciliar decisions does not have results like the sixteenth century’s. It appears to me that there is much religious enthusiasm in the world, especially in this country. But the attempts of popes and bishops to control and manage this enthusiasm may lead to the opposite results of secularism or schism. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, has lamented the prevalent secularism of Europe; perhaps one reason for that secularism is the squelching of the voice of the Spirit in European people since the days of Vatican II. Schism: in this country some women have become so frustrated at the glacial progress of change that they have become priests and bishops by going around established church law. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan, a symbol of Christ, is referred to as “not a tame lion.” Are the leaders of the Church unwittingly trying to tame the Holy Spirit to fit their own, historically based notions? A celibate priesthood served the Church well for centuries, but Christ did not require the apostles to be celibate, and most of them were apparently married. But he insisted that they preach the Gospel and make the Eucharist available to His people. The only reason why the Church has not suffered greater losses than it already has is the hunger of the people for the Eucharist. Surely celibacy can be made optional to satisfy that hunger. If Church leaders would stop acting in such an authoritarian fashion and allow the Holy Spirit to lead where the Spirit wills, they might be surprised to see how white the harvest is.
DOROTHY REILLY | 12/23/2007 - 8:49pm
Some thoughts for the good Bishop Pascal to consider vis a vis his priest shortage. Group the existing parishes of his diocese into geographically sensible clusters. Pick the one with the largest seating capacity within the cluster for Sunday liturgies. Pool the priests from the cluster parishes. Create a feasible schedule to accomodate the assessed need for Sunday Liturgies. Finally, plan for GOOD LITURGY. (Philosophical definition of GOOD meaning it fulfills it purpose.) Voila! A Catholic megachurch! (Seems to work for our Protstant brethren.) This concept will also bring exposure to a more diverse congregation, a greater variety of homilists and a larger pool of liturgical ministers. (Gets the assembly out of a parochial rut - maybe even into auditioning "well-read" lectors.) The local parish remains the core faith community for daily Mass or Communion Service, weddings, funerals, Baptisms etc. The challenge that I would suggest that you and your fellow Bishops consider lobby for in 2008 is permission for permanent deacons to have greater sacramental delegation. They are a great gift to the Church which remains esentially unwrapped. Finally, we do need to appeal to the Master of the Vineyard to send more laborers into the Vineyard. But perhaps our first prayer should be to request the correct equipment to prune (make necessary changes) our Vineyard with its current laborers so that it will flourish; thus attracting even more laborers.
MR/MRS DANTE FULIGNI | 12/19/2007 - 8:59pm
A thoughtful and thought-provoking appeal by Bishop Pascal, as channeled through Father Wilson! I suggest another "Big Option:" empower the thousands of deacons we have to satisfy ALL our sacramental needs. Because most deacons are married, I understand that this would be essentially a variation on the option of rescinding mandatory celibacy for new priests. We already embrace married Episcopal priests who convert, do we not, and our deacons already have undergone extensive preparation for their diaconate. Once the stricture of celibacy is lifted, they could fill many of the voids relatively quickly. The sacramental life of the people of God is at too great a risk to give a higher priority to man-made traditions, no matter how reasonable and worthy they were at one time. As for the "Big Options," in general, I am distressed that Bishop Pascal wants to "keep those conversations going in the background"-in "discreet circles." If we don't place these issues squarely in the foreground, we will see the good bishop's priests decline from 76 in number to 38 to 19 to close to zero in very short order. There is too much at stake and too much to do to postpone challenging the traditional convictions of which the bishop speaks: my answer to his question is that I want him to challenge them all-and now!
STEVEN DZIDA | 12/19/2007 - 12:40pm
"Bishop" Pascal of Heartlands is looking for help on how to deal with the shortage of priests. He lists all the usual options and laments that each of them challenges one or more "traditional convictions" of our Church. In doing so he "takes his eye off the ball" as has been the consistent practice of our leadership for years on this issue. We can all agree that the Eucharist is the "source and summit" of our faith. Yet the shortage of priests is causing a rationing of the Eucharist around the world. The ball our leadership needs to keep its eye on then is the Eucharist! Mandatory celibacy. Male priesthood. These are the "big options" the good bishop wants to talk about "in the background" while he explores a number of measures which can never be more than stopgaps: closing parishes, lay pastoral administrators, importing priest from around the world, shifting Eucharistic celebrations to days other than Sunday, cutting back on the number of Eucharistic celebrations, increasing use of communion services in the absence of a priest. Meanwhile, we continue to ration the "source and summit." Mandatory celibacy. Traditional conviction? Yes. Source and summit? No. Male priesthood. Traditional conviction? Yes. Source and summit? No. We are now and we have been for decades sacrificing the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, on the altar of preserving the male, celibate priesthood. Even worse ("Bishop" Pascal notwithstanding) our leaders have declared the subjects closed to discussion! The good bishop is on to something when he wonders if "God is challenging us to become a different kind of church." But how can we discover what our loving God has in store for us if we don't even talk about it? If we talk about it openly and honestly, if we "keep our eye on the ball" (which is the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith), we will surely discern God's plan for God's Church! By the way, Bishop, asking for help from lay people when it doesn't mean writing a check? What a refreshing and new concept!
Paul Seishas | 12/12/2007 - 11:40am
The demands on a priest's time most often run far beyond the laymen's eight hour day. An effective priest, who knows his job, his responsibilities, and his people, puts in far more than a 40 hour week. The canonical limit is, by necessity, simply disregarded by countless priests - as if celebrating the Eucharist is a priest's only function. Indeed, my pastor puts in 14 hour days, seven days a week. Those who do not may simply not be doing their job. Unfortunately, many of our bishops across the country raid the ranks of clergy from nations, not with a surplus, but with an even greater shortage of priests than in the US. It is a myth that we import "extras." I can't think of one country that has an abundance of priests. There are no short term solutions to this crisis. What is needed is a change of heart, a conversion from people to pope. The church must heed the calling of the Spirit and once again "open the doors" of reform as Blessed John XXIII did some sixty years ago. People must take their rightful place and responsibility in parish ministry. Bishops and Pope must take stock of their sinful lack of leadership and their priority of self-preservation over moral imperative. There must be a reformation -yes, reformation, not renewal - wherein the people and the magisterium become partners in living the Gospel, bringing to fruition the Kingdom of God on earth, and in moving us forward to growth and enlightenment, not backward to the darkness of a time long past. I believe this will happen! And, when it does, in a generation or two, the crisis will be over. In the meantime, people, get up out of the pews and minister to each other.
Ray Szempruch | 12/11/2007 - 6:40am
Further challenges can be made to the parameters provided by "Bishop Pascal." Example, he said: "...as if the priesthood were a matter of an individual’s personal sense of calling rather than a call by the church community." Most calls do begin in an intimate conversation between God and the individual, correct? I can name ten men that I have met recently who have expressed a one time attraction (still alive, even) to the priesthood, but there were obstacles. We all have met men and women who reflect Christ's image so clearly that we instinctively imagine them called to priesthood. So the obvious solution path is deepen our theology, our understanding of this call, and change the rules. And consider the lessons learned from the science/art of volunteer management: Not all volunteers are walk-ons We know some only need to be invited, some require insistent recruitment and development, some need an incentive (including financial)to allow them to serve. The Gospel word, "many are called, few chosen," might be a lament directed at the institutional Church rather than lay men and women within it in these days.
SAMUELA POLLACK | 12/7/2007 - 11:45am
How about changing the canonical requirement that limits a priest to two masses per day? Why is it so unthinkable for them to work an ordinary eight-hour day just like laymen have to? Raise the limit to eight masses a day; it would be like instantly having four times as many priests. Most of them already take Mondays off to recuperate from their strenuous two-hour Sunday workday.