ROME – A top Vatican official in charge of organizing a major symposium on the priesthood next year has said the discussion will touch on several controversial hot-button issues such as priestly celibacy, the women’s diaconate, clericalism, and the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
Speaking to journalists during the April 12 presentation of the event, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet said, “the question of celibacy is important.”
“We have all spoken about it, and it will be discussed, but it will not be the central theme of the symposium,” he said. “It is not a symposium on celibacy, like it needs to be taken up deeply. It’s a broader perspective.”
Head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, which is helping to organize the symposium, Ouellet when asked whether other hot-button issues such as the priestly ordination of viri probati, or “tested” married men, and the women’s diaconate would be addressed, said yes.
“I can say that certainly none of these points will be ignored in the sense they are part of the current context of the question of the priesthood,” he said, but reiterated his insistence that these will not be the main topics of discussion.
Issues such as priestly celibacy, the ordination of viri probati, and the women’s diaconate have all been major sources of discussion and controversy in recent years, specifically during the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, during which proposals were made by several bishops to green-light viri probati ordinations as a solution to a regional priest shortage and to allow women deacons.
In the end, Pope Francis offered no definitive ruling on either, but instead urged Amazon bishops to up their efforts in promoting local vocations and strengthening regional seminaries. He also dodged the question of women deacons, saying a commission he formed to study the issue is still conducting research.
According to Ouellet, while these issues will be discussed, the event will focus primarily on the common priesthood shared by all the baptized and the roles of individual ministries within that, such as the ordained priesthood, consecrated religious life, and the laity.
Titled, “Toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood,” the symposium is set to take place in Rome in person Feb. 17-19, 2022 at the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall.
The symposium will consist of several individual conferences and will close with a message from Pope Francis. Details about the event are available online at a website dedicated to the event.
Calling the symposium an “act of faith” which had “some confirmation from above” given current risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic, Ouellet stressed that it cannot offer solutions to all of the Church’s pastoral and missionary problems, “but it can help us deepen the foundation of the Church’s mission.”
It will do this, he said, by exploring the “fundamental relationship between the priesthood of the baptized, which the Second Vatican Council has enhanced, and the priesthood of ministers, bishops and priests, which the Catholic Church has always affirmed and specified.”
“In this search for synodal conversion, there is room for a vast theological endeavor which should offer a renewed vision, a sense of the essential, a way of valuing all vocations while respecting what is specific to each,” he said.
Professor Michelina Tenace, an ordinary professor of theology at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, also weighed in on the topic of celibacy, saying that as a Church, “we must all ask ourselves again, what is the vocation to marriage? What does it mean to be young? What does it mean to be a priest?”
“This is the interest of the symposium: the obligation to review the priesthood in the global framework of the Church, and new paths could emerge,” she said, explaining that as the discussion moves forward, it’s possible that historical practices could change.
In today’s context, the solitude many priests face “is unjust, it’s aberrant. How can we leave a man called to testify to communion alone today, without reference to a family or reference to support?” Tenace said.
“This will be interesting. What does it mean to propose in the Latin Church, which still requires celibacy, the ability for a priest to live communion and be in communion? This is being explored,” she said.
“So, could there be surprises in this symposium? Perhaps yes, but we’ll see. Let’s see the work the experts who intervene will propose.”
Ouellet and Tenace also both touched on sensitive issues such as the current global priest shortage, the clerical sexual abuse crisis and the problem of clericalism, which Pope Francis has often condemned, and many have faulted as a contributing factor to clerical abuses of power, authority, and sexuality.
According to Ouellet, priests need to have “a broader and deeper ecclesiology,” which he said will allow them to understand themselves “as part of a communion and at the service of this communion, which is much bigger than themselves and their power or their ministry.”
When it comes to clericalism and the abuse crisis, Ouellet said it is largely the result of a misunderstanding of the “power” that priests have over their congregations through ordination.
“Power, in the end, is the power of love, is the power of the Risen One. The Risen One overcame all the powers of this world: sin, death, have been overcome by love,” he said, adding, “The power of the priest is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was given to him in the imposition of the hands, which is an imposition of love.”
The term “power” has been misconstrued in modern society, “because it is dragged to all levels and abused,” he said, “but the priests, obviously when they clericalize themselves in a negative way, it means they take power like an imposition, like being above others, commanding, and this is a deformation.”
“This will be a topic of deep reflection in this symposium, spoken of from different angles,” he said.
Tenace echoed Ouellet’s comments, calling clericalism “a danger for both priests and for faithful,” because it equates the priesthood with power “and not with service,” which is the true priestly call, as demonstrated by Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in the Gospels.
Often priests are seen as an alter Christus, taking their place at the altar “as a privilege and not as a responsibility that concerns all of the faithful,” she said, noting that this perspective also brings the risk of “having priests crushed by the idealization of omnipotence or by the demands of the faithful.”
The abuse crisis, she said, has prompted a deeper discussion on both vocational discernment and formation, because “discernment of vocations must be exactly the opposite of power.”
A true vocation is manifested in the desire to serve Christ, “being a servant according to the ways of Christ,” Tenace said, adding that one way of verifying the vocational call must be “not aspiring to any power.”
“For me, the true question of vocational discernment is the formation, which has a foundation and can be verified, but one of the verifications is not to aspire to power, because this is not a priest of Christ,” she said.
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