In mid-February Pope Francis will go to Chiapas, where hundreds of deacons with their wives are pushing to be ordained as priests. And in the Amazon as well the turning point seems to be near. It was all written down in the agenda of Cardinal Martini
by Sandro Magister
ROME, December 9, 2015 – While waiting for Pope Francis to rule on communion for the divorced and remarried, which two synods discussed and split over, there is already a glimpse of the theme of the next synodal session: married priests.
The selection of the theme is up to the pope, as happened with the past synods and will take place with the next, independently of what will be proposed by the fourteen cardinals and bishops of the council that acts as a bridge between one assembly and the next.
And that married priests will be the next topic of synodal discussion can be gathered from various indications.
The first indication is the evident intention of Pope Francis to implement the agenda dictated in 1999 by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, in a memorable statement at the synod of that year.
The archbishop of Milan at the time, a Jesuit and the undisputed leader of the “liberal” wing of the hierarchy, said that he “had a dream”: that of a Church capable of getting into a permanent synodal state, with a “collegial and authoritative exchange among all the bishops on some key issues.”
And here are the “key issues” that he listed:
“The shortage of ordained ministers, the role of woman in society and in the Church, the discipline of marriage, the Catholic vision of sexuality, penitential practice, relations with the sister Churches of Orthodoxy and more in general the need to revive ecumenical hopes, the relationship between democracy and values and between civil laws and the moral law.”
Of Martini’s agenda, the two synods convened so far by Pope Francis have indeed discussed “the discipline of marriage” and in part “the Catholic vision of sexuality.”
There is nothing to prevent, therefore, the “key issue” of the next synod from being that which Martini put at the head of them all: “the shortage of ordained ministers.”
The shortage of priests – who in the Latin Catholic Church are by rule celibate – is felt especially keenly in some regions of the world. Above all in Latin America.
One year ago Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Austrian by birth and the head of the Xingu prelature in Brazil, with only 25 priests in a territory larger than Italy and therefore with the possibility of celebrating the Mass and the sacraments only two or three times a year in the most far-flung localities, has made himself the messenger to Pope Francis of the request from many of his brother bishops to make up for the shortage of celibate priests by also conferring sacred ordination on “viri probati,” meaning men of proven virtue, and married.
The request was not new. And the Brazilian bishops – but not only them – have made it repeatedly. Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, 81, archbishop emeritus of São Paulo and a leading elector of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, even proposed it when he was prefect of the Vatican congregation for the clergy, from 2006 to 2010.
Today Hummes is president both of the commission for the Amazon of the episcopal conference of Brazil and of the Pan-Amazonian Network that unites 25 cardinals and bishops of countries in the area, in addition to indigenous representatives of diverse local ethnic groups. And in this capacity he told Vatican Radio last month that he is “working for an indigenous Church, a Church immersed in history and in the culture and religion of the indigenous, a Church that would have an indigenous clergy as its guide. They have the right to this. They are the last periphery that we have, the farthest away.”
This time Hummes didn’t say more. But it is known that saying “indigenous clergy” in this context means envisioning a clergy that is also married.
Rumor has had it this year that Pope Francis wrote a letter to Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes in support of a reflection on ecclesiastical celibacy and on the ordination of “viri probati.” Fr. Federico Lombardi has denied the existence of this letter. But, he added, “it is however true that the pope has invited the Brazilian bishops on more than one occasion to seek and propose with courage the pastoral solutions that they believe to be suitable for addressing the major pastoral problems of their country.”
In another area of Latin America, Chiapas, in the south of Mexico, the pressure for a married clergy has been made concrete in recent decades with the ordination of an exorbitant number of indigenous deacons, several hundred, in the vast diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in which there are a few dozen priests and almost all of them are elderly.
The mass ordination of these deacons, all of them married, had its culmination in the forty years of the episcopate, from 1959 to 2000, of Samuel Ruiz Garcia, who became famous for his proximity to Subcomandante Marcos, in the long conflict in Chiapas between the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación and the Mexican federal government.
In 2000, however, with the retirement of Ruiz Garcia, Rome ordered a suspension of ordinations to the diaconate. It banned the practice of calling them “indigenous deacons,” as if this constituted a new and different kind of ministry in the Church. It enjoined the wives not to call themselves “deaconesses” or represent that they too had received sacramental ordination, on account of the practice of imposing hands on them as well during the ordination of their husbands. It demanded that the deacons already ordained state publicly that their ordination ended there and did not constitute in any way a stage toward a subsequent priestly ordination, as married priests:
But after Bergoglio’s election as pope, the ban was revoked. In May of 2014, Rome again authorized the successor to Ruiz Garcia, Bishop Arizmendi Esquivel, to resume diaconal ordinations. And the bishop promptly announced that he had around a hundred of them planned:
Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Francis was proceeding with a profound reorganization of the management and personnel of the Vatican congregation for the clergy, where the greatest resistance to the introduction of a married clergy lay.
But there’s more. It is now certain that on his next intercontinental journey, to Mexico in mid-February, Francis will make a stop in none other than Chiapas, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Receiving last February 10 at Santa Marta twelve priests, five of whom have left the ministry to get married, when asked about it Francis replied: “The problem is present on my agenda.”
And already there are some who can see another step ahead: that Francis would bring back into discussion not only the celibacy of the clergy, but also the ban on the sacred ordination of women. This is the hope expressed by, for example, one famous American Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister: