Priest shortages: Bring in the elders

EVERY COMMUNITY ITS OWN ORDAINED LEADERS: A Picture Book for Discussing the Shortage of Priests, by Bishop Fritz Lobinger. Claretian Publications, Manila. 2008. 75pp.

Reviewed by Günther Simmermacher

The number of priests in the Western Church is rapidly declining, and in areas where vocations are increasing, geographical dispersal or growing Catholic populations make it impossible for one priest to serve just one parish.

This reality has long concerned Bishop Fritz Lobinger, who retired in 2004 after serving as bishop of Aliwal North for 16 years. He has written several books on the reorganisation of parish life, mooting the notion of viri probati priests — the ordination to holy orders of laymen of proven character.

The idea is not his own; indeed, it refers back to the manner in which St Paul organised the early Christian communities. In other words, the model proposed by Lobinger has a basis in Scripture.

In surveying the vocations shortage, he points out, nothing is accomplished by nostalgically longing for “the good old days” when vocations were plentiful. At the same time, the option of ordaining women to the priesthood is closed.

But, he writes, something needs to be done. “It is not right that [communities who most weeks have access only to the Liturgy of the Word, not the Mass] remain limited to such an incomplete faith life. Although it is already several decades that this has been happening, we should not accept it as something we cannot change. It must be changed.” But that change, he stresses, needs to be prudently recognised and developed.

The bishop may not have been thanked universally for his troubles, but he says that half of the world’s 3000 bishops have already expressed sympathy for the notion. And well they might when half of the world’s Catholics do not have weekly access to the full celebration of the Eucharist.

To Lobinger, a situation where the Church accepts, with sad resignation, that many Catholics cannot participate in the Mass every Sunday (never mind on week-days) is perilous to the Church itself.

In an article he co-wrote with Professor Paul Zulehner in the British Catholic journal The Tablet some time ago, he warned: “By the way it is coping with the increasing shortage of priests, the Church is signalling that the faithful can manage without either sacraments or priests. If the sacramental dimension diminishes in importance, the Church itself, as the fundamental sacrament, will be devalued in the eyes of the faithful.”

Lobinger outlined his carefully nuanced case for viri probati priests in his much-acclaimed 1998 book Like His Brothers and Sisters. The argument is complex, and its implementation requires sets of requisite conditions.

Lobinger’s latest book on the subject, Every Community Its Own Ordained Leaders, distils the argument, with the aid of illustrations, so that it can be easily understood.

In doing so, he takes the abstract propositions from the arena of ecclesiological academia and presents these in the style of a school textbook which can serve as a basis for reflection and discussion on all levels of the Church: lay Catholics individually and as groups; in parishes and dioceses, including synods; and even at gatherings such as national synods for the laity. Indeed, the book may be helpful also for those in leadership positions who would like to be introduced to the plan in simple terms, with a view to taking concrete action.

The book gives an overview of the advantages of a community ministering to itself, the methods of successful implementation, and the multiple hazards that must be avoided. Lobinger is at pains to emphasise that this model may not be necessary or possible in every parish, and equally adamant that it must not be seen as a temporary measure until vocations may pick up again. “Even if one day there were to be many vocations to the priesthood, we would assign other tasks to those vocations, and would not remove the ordination of local leaders from the communities,” he writes.

The priest’s role in those communities would be that of enabler and formator, providing the means by which the community, under the leadership of groups of ordained “elders”, would minister to itself. And this is the key: that communities be involved in their parish and mature in their faith.

In brief, Lobinger proposes that groups of lay leaders are trained and formed by the local priest and in the diocese, on a continual basis. Of these, small groups of men of proven character (viri probati) are ordained to preside over the life of their faith community and its liturgies while continuing with their professional and family lives.

Although they are ordained to the clerical state and incardinated into a diocese, they don’t assume the role of the priest; were they to take over that role, Lobinger warns, the rest of the community would remain passive and perhaps even dismiss the ordained lay leaders as second-class or imitation clerics.

It is the awareness of such potential problems that strengthen Lobinger’s argument for such a reorganisation of parishes.

Each page in this book is illustrated with helpful graphics, and raises questions for discussion, reflection and prayer.

  • Martin Keenan

    Firstly, another simple error here: there are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops, not the meagre 3,00o you (or Bp Lobinger) mention – and “support” comes in many forms.

    Second, the instability of Bp Lobinger’s thought demands notice. He repudiated his earlier scheme for ordaining “viri probati” as unworkable. His latest plan (first elaborated by him in his book “Teams of Elders”) proposes that teams, not individuals, be appointed (he rejects the term “priests” for them) for a 3 year term.

    Most significantly, your (and his) assertion that such a scheme (or any variation of it) has scriptural authority is highly contentious and demands a forced reading of a clause in the Epistle to Titus on which I have made a post in the thread under your leader for Vocations Sunday but which I repeat here.


    [Bp Lobinger’s] latest scheme for “teams of elders” serving in rotation for 3 years derives, I think, exclusively from a half sentence in the Epistle to Titus which gives no support whatever for that particular idea:

    ” . . I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you . .” (Tit.1:5, NAB).

    The commentary in the New American Bible says this provision – and the remainder of the passage, extending to verse 9 – is a reference to bishops (cf.1Tim.3:1-7), so it must mean one bishop in each town, not teams of “elders” in each town.


    Whether or not these “teams of elders” as proposed by Bp Lobinger are or are not “priests”, the proposal conflicts with the Church’s teaching that only an ordained priest may confect the Eucharist.

    Expanding provision for the celebration of the Eucharist is, I might add, of very limited value if there is to be no provision for catechesis (by homily and by other means) or for the sacrament of reconciliation. That aspect is ignored by Bp Lobinger because his “solution” is a purely mechanistic one.

    Now I am wondering if it is perhaps you, Günther, who has not read all of Bp Lobinger on this subject.

  • Pingback: The Case for Viri Probati « Catholic Sensibility()

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