The final preparatory document for the autumn synod on priestly formation has been published this week. Fr Michael Gaine looks at the issues it covers and those it avoids.
THE last 25 years have seen a catastrophic decline in the number of Catholic priests engaged in the active ministry. The number of those who die combined with the number who leave the active ministry has each year been greater than the number of those being ordained to the priesthood.
This .pattern has not been consistent throughout the world. For example many third world countries have seen an increase in the number of their priests. However, this has not kept pace with their rapidly growing Catholic populations.
In addition, largely because those leaving the active priesthood were comparatively young, the clergy are an ageing body. The age structure of the priesthood has ceased to be the pyramid it should be in any self-perpetuating group: it has become top-heavy. As a consequence the death-rate will increase noticeably during the last decade of this century_ Given present trends the decline in absolute numbers will become even more rapid.
Some see this change as providential. It will accelerate the growth of collaboration between priests and laity in the work of the church, and it will foster a diversification of ministries. This may well be true, but, more fundamentally, the trend threatens the very heart of the church's life, the eucharist. The eucharist is central to the life of the church. It applies the saving merits of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection to our lives; it is the shared banquet which makes us into a community.
No amount of lay collaboration, no increase in the number of permanent deacons, can provide the eucharist or the sacrament of reconciliation where priests are absent or overburdened.
Readers will all be aware of this change on a local scale. A parish which once had three or four priests now has only two; the .majority of priests in the deanery are over 60; a priest in a neighbouring parish has left the active priesthood; or a local parish or mass centre has closed down. Within try memory a parish required the bishop's permission if a priest had to say two masses on a Sunday. It required Roman permission if
he was to say three. Nowadays I meet priests who sometimes say three masses on a weekday because the need is there.
Bishops sometimes refer to this decline in numbers in their pastoral letters on vocations. They usually attribute the decline to a lack of generosity on the part of young men and their parents, a lack of prayer, the general climate of materialism, or a lack of zeal on the part of priests in encouraging vocations. They rarely encourage the Catholic community to see the situation as a developing crisis, or to explore in detail its component parts. (In particular a veil of secrecy has been drawn over the number of priests leaving the active priesthood.) It may be that the bishops fear that this would be seen as a counsel of despair, a selffulfilling prophecy which would deter young men from considering the priesthood as their calling. On the contrary their silence has prevented the Catholic community from seeking radical questions and finding the radical solutions which the crisis requires.
Against this background it was encouraging to learn that the 1990 Synod of Bishops would be devoted to considering "The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day". In preparation for the synod its secretary, Archbishop Schotte, sent a document with an outline questionnaire to every bishops' conference in June 1989 with a request that they consult the Catholic community about the topic. Replies were requested by September 2, 1989.
Sadly this was an unpropitious launch for the process. The document was badly written and ill-translated. (Just one example: "whatever the number of candidates, their 'selection' should be done through an intense process towards discerning God's call which ought to be strongly indicated.") Again it was unwise to allow only three months of the holiday season for such a major enquiry. Our bishops did refer it to major Catholic organisations but I found that most Catholic lay-folk, and quite a few priests, were unaware of the enquiry. Unfortunately the questionnaire, with its lengthy introduction, made no reference to the crisis of numbers. Indeed by concentrating on questions of training it implied that we are faced with an accumulation of individual failures rather than an institutional crisis based partly on an inadequate theology of vocation and partly on a refusal to ask radical questions about alternative patterns of priesthood.
The committee for ministerial formation collated all the replies from the dioceses and the various Catholic organisations. Inevitably their document reflected the weaknesses of the Roman questionnaire, although it provided interesting information on the ways in which vocations are fostered in different dioceses.
Now the final preparatory document for the synod (the Instrumentum Laboris) has been published. It has four chapters. The first is on the circumstances of the present day — in society, in the church, and in the life of the priest. As an empirical basis for guiding the bishops' deliberations this is particularly disappointing. It understandably emphasises the wide diversity of situations in different countries, but then it resorts to unhelpful generalisations. The bishops would have been helped much more if they had simply been referred to the excellent studies produced by the Pro Mundi Vita centre in Belgium on such topics as the transmission of faith in a secularised society.
The second chapter deals with the identity and mission of the priest in the church; the third chapter with formation for the priesthood; and the final chapter with the ongoing formation of priests. These chapters are full of references to the documents of Vatican II, papal speeches, and the Code of Canon Law. They offer little evidence of new and creative thinking.
If this document were to be accepted as a quasi-agenda for the synod it would virtually preclude all discussion of alternative models of priesthood as a solution to the problem. These could include, for instance, the ordination of married men; the enlisting of part-time, non stipendary clergy who would support themselves (and their families if married) by following a secular occupation but being available to perform priestly functions on Sundays and at other times.
Other alternatives which might be considered include making celibacy optional for the secular priesthood, or a short term commitment of five or ten years of pastoral and sacramental ministry, or, more controversially, the ordination of women. It is only when such issues are openly and widely discussed that the synod will reflect the mind of the people of God.
Fortunately several conferences of bishops, notably the Canadians, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the documents; others have expressed their interest in some or the alternative patterns I have mentioned above. It is to be hoped that they weave them into a new agenda for their synod.
The synod will take place in the Vatican from September 30 to October 28. It will be attended by representatives from virtually every bishops' conference in the world — a major and expensive exercise which must not be wasted.
Fr Michael Gaine is chairperson of the Movement for the Ordination of Married Men and a Liverpool city centre parish priest