Why We Need A Synod on Priesthood
The Vatican is preparing for the Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.
Unusually, the lineamenta — as the prepatory discussion documents are called — are now available online so that anyone can comment.
This is a significant step forward as the comments received are now not limited to the laborious process of filtering and redacting through the local diocese and the bishops’ conferences. One hopes that the synod office receiving the submissions of the electronic interaction with the youth — for this is how young people prefer to work — will recognise the value of this process.
The challenge of listening should be extended to listening now to the calls for the topic for the synod after that. I think that the Holy Father, who has proved himself a capable listener, should hear the crisis of vision of the ministerial priesthood.
His recent comments on the possibility of ordaining as priests viri probati — proven married men who would administer the sacraments in areas where these are difficult to obtain—is a huge step forward to recognising a discussion that has been taking place for the last 20 years.
To a great extent, that discussion has been led by our own Bishop Fritz Lobinger, retired of Aliwal North. At the centre of it is the fact that the Church cannot exist without the Eucharist.
The current situation of burnout, exhaustion and a lack of vision among priests has forced many of us into a maintenance situation. There are not enough of us on the ground. The demands are unrelenting and some, if not many, priests are just not up to the task. Often we have no idea what the task really is.
The idea of a crisis of vision means that we cannot look at the priesthood in isolation, yet we also cannot allow the crisis to be caught up in all the other crises that form part of the management burden of the bishops.
The Church is structured around priests being available. And the development of our South African Church means that priests spend more time not available for the core work: pastoring.
I am worried that one of the major areas where this vision crisis is experienced as a practical problem is in communities that receive the Eucharist only occasionally.
Often referred to as “outstations”, these often small and isolated communities might get to have Mass only once a month, or even less frequently. Priests have to travel vast distances, often for no more than a handful of people. And that handful is diminishing.
While every bishop wants to keep every community served, the reality is that this is no longer possible or logical. No bishop would ever wish to instruct his priests to neglect the rural and often already neglected — but the shortage of priests and the burden on the few demands a rethink.
What are Priests Expected to do and be?
I have heard bishops complain that priests work only on weekends — for Masses, weddings, funerals and so on — and then spend the rest of the week watching TV.
Facing the reality of dormitory suburbs, isolated communities and being left in communities of children, the ill and the aged, and considering the hopelessly inadequate formation and training framework which we just can’t think beyond in our seminary system, its no wonder that DStv seems more appealing.
We need to have an open and frank discussion, among priests as priests, about the reality of how we work and what we are expected to do and be. I suggest that we need to be honest about the expectations we face and can’t meet, the work we cannot possibly do and get to, and how we need to remodel the priesthood and consequently the training for it.
I realise that I sit in an extremely privileged position. I’m 17 years into this journey. Except for two brief, wonderful stints in rural areas, I have always worked in urban ministry. I have a large, well-functioning parish, an assistant priest, a permanent deacon, and (parish) money in the bank. I have staff, food, a decent car, paid insurance. And I have the luxury of being able to complain about the crazies and the amount of work that managing this enterprise is.
But many of my brothers can’t.
They are left with vast distances to travel, crumbling infrastructure with no hope of foreign or local funding to restore, diminishing communities, and a dearth of any viable lay leadership because trained persons tend to migrate to the cities.
The finances they are working with are at best murky and often not enough to support a person honestly. There is no real possibility of medical care other than the care offered in state institutions. It’s a struggle.
It’s into this mess that we need to speak honestly to each other and to episcopal oversight, to highlight that the stresses and pressures of the priesthood today are enormous.
The loneliness is immense and the stress is huge. There is no way that this will be cured by more missionaries or married clergy. This is not cured by DStv or alcohol or the struggle with celibacy.
To address this requires a new vision — a radical vision of what we actually want parishes and local communities to be. Such a process could help us all to vision a local Church that is no longer holding everything together in desperation, but a Church that has a vision of herself that matches our reality.
We never underestimate the effects of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit — but we also need to face our local situation with the grace of honest discernment.