The Small Parish Problem


You know: where the Roman disciplinary requirement of mandatory celibacy does a smackdown on the Catholic faithful and their celebration of the Eucharist.

On the Communion Service thread below, the issue of ordaining viri probati, proven men, to the priesthood in situations in which an otherwise stable parish is denied the Sunday Eucharist because of the clergy shortage.

Lots of “good” obstacles get thrown up on that one: clergy wives will raise a ruckus, celibacy will go down the toilet, morale will drop among celibate priests, the Vatican will deep-six your bishop’s ambitions if he mentions it in public, Catholicism will turn into Congregationalism, cults of personality will surface, and every rural pastor will become a Milingo and ordain his own bishops.

Well, maybe not that last one.

Let me lay out my case and try to sweep aside the sexism, posturing, and outright fear this proposal seems to have conjured:

- Reiterate that the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, trumps an optional disciplinary practice when the spiritual need is of sufficient gravity. In other words, we don’t ordain Deacon Fred to the priesthood for an 800-family parish because he deserves a plum and we can put another priest in a chancery desk job.

- If a parish has the resources, they deserve Sunday Mass and the other sacraments. We’re not talking about a Catholic enclave of five in a ghost town where the tornado knocked down the mission church twenty years ago. We might be talking about 100-250 families with a sound building, a long track record, and no other parish nearer than 15 miles.

- The local bishop should have the option, especially a bishop in mission lands, to fulfill his duty to the faithful to provide the sacraments. What that means is we trust a bishop, a vicar of Christ ordained to the fullness of Holy Orders to talk to people, pray, plumb the depths of a man, judge his character, ability, and spirit, pray to God, then make a judgment that one guy’s going to do a good job.

- The parish and bishop together might discern a parishioner of sufficient ability, maturity, and charism. Someone respected parish-wide and not part of a faction or clique. Someone the bishop would feel comfortable with in terms of their spiritual life, religious sensibility, and the like. Let’s realize the bishop is actually going to have to do some work on this one, not just appoint someone because their file folder is free of suspicious behavior like VOTF meetings and kidporn.com links.

- Sticking to a person of about age 60 to 65 might be good: a person with a proven marriage, no dependent children, and give him a pastorate of about five to ten years with the possibility of keeping options open as need dictates.

- I don’t get Liam’s objection about a stubborn wife. As with the diaconate, wives are discerned with the husband. If the wife is a problem, the diaconate fades from the picture. It does get to be a problem once in a while, but overall, women are sensible human beings. A ruckus doesn’t seem as likely as a lonely rural celibate priest pickling his liver in a nightly trip to the bottle. Or some similar misadventure.

- Fr Fox’s problem with a cult of personality is likewise a straw man. Charismatic pastors gain fawning followings in big parishes. When it’s a problem, the bishop moves the guy. With a proven man in the small parish, the same possibility is there: early retirement if there’s a problem. People who have gone without a resident priest might get uppity. But then again they might value the sacraments and understand the appointment of viri probati is something under discernment both in their local community and in the Church at large.

To me, this situation reveals a fatal flaw in the thinking of the curia and in Rome. It might well be their biggest blunder of the post-conciliar era. Something almost on a par with losing a Catholic China a few centuries ago. Mission lands go wanting while Rome and big First World cities are relatively stuffed with guys in dress blacks. And priests are imported to the US from Poland and Nigeria instead of being sent to Siberia, Angola, or Belize.

Jesus nailed it when he said, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.” Wasn’t he talking to the apostles?

The timid are concerned about cults of personality arising from local guys making sacramental good. They promote a non-sacramental Christianity in their fixation on celibacy. No wonder evangelicalism is making inroads in the Third World. Do you want to settle for a priest arriving by Jeep once a month or less when a Bible College graduate lives in the village and pounds away on “saving” the Catholics? The hierarchy lost China in the 17th century. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake in the Third World in the 21st.

And John Paul’s urging to cast out into the deep? I think the Congregation for Bishops knows how to steer into the deep. But they’re trying to evangelize hoping the fish will jump into their bare hands. For the hierarchy not loosening up and seriously considering viri probati, I see it as a sign of spiritual immaturity and a dereliction of their duty as shepherds.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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