Priesthood and the renewal of the Church

Debates about celibacy have recently been in the forefront of conversations regarding the Church, given the ongoing fallout of the abuse crisis and the meeting of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in the fall of 2019. Although the synod sought to confront the general pastoral difficulties of the Amazon region, stretched over many South American nations, European prelates focused excessively on changes to the priesthood and ecological problems. The final synod document, for instance, recommended the ordination of vir probati (mature married men) to the priesthood to overcome a shortage of priests in the Amazon mission territory. Pope Francis, however, decided not to address the issue of celibacy in his own summary of the synod within the Apostolic Exhortation, Queridia Amazonia, released this last February.

Many people have wondered if a married priesthood could benefit the Church in terms of enabling more men to pursue the priesthood and by bringing family life experience into ministry. One case for this change, drawing on the experience of the Eastern rites of the Church, which do have married priests, can be found in Adam A.J. Deville’s Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico, 2019). Deville, a professor and subdeacon in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, proposes renewal by returning to older structures of synodal governance within the Latin rite, by far the largest rite of the Church. Looking back to St. Paul’s Pastoral Epistles, Deville argues that married life provides a strong foundation for leadership within the Church, the household of God, as “the daily demands of raising children … strips a man of self-centeredness faster than just about anything” (107). The book seeks to provoke a discussion on reform of Church leadership and the role of the laity, attempting to foster greater openness and transparency, as well as collegial approaches to governance.

Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI strongly disagree, however, that any practical benefit of a married priesthood would outweigh the intrinsic spiritual reasons for celibacy. Together, they wrote an appeal to the Church in light of the Amazon synod, From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2020). They link the priesthood to the complete gift of self expressed in the Church’s worship and Christ’s offering within the Eucharist. In the first part of the book, Benedict argues that “the cultic act proceeds by way of an offering of the totality of one’s life in love. The priesthood of Jesus Christ causes us to enter into a life that consists of becoming one with him and renouncing all that belongs to us” (26). In the Old Testament, ritual purity required abstinence during priestly service. “But because of the regular and often even daily celebration of the Eucharist,” he continues, the entire of life of priests “is in contact with the divine mystery. This requires on their part exclusivity in relation to God” (41). There is an ontological conformity of the priest to Christ, so that the priest must “continually be purified and overcome by Christ so that he is the one who speaks and acts” through him (59).

In Cardinal Sarah’s longer section of the book, he offers an appeal for renewal: “Dear priest, dear seminarians, let us not allow ourselves [to] get caught up in haste, activism, and the superficiality of a life that gives priority to social or ecological commitment, as though time dedicated to Christ in silence were lost time. It is precisely in prayer and adoration in front of the tabernacle that we find the indispensable support for our virginity and our priestly celibacy” (130). He contends that a greater emphasis on evangelization and prayer will bear more vocations to the priesthood and will bolster the Church’s mission in this difficult time (120). He specifically responds to the married priesthood of the East, seeing it more as a later historical concession than a norm, and contends that even within the Eastern rites, a celibate monasticism and episcopacy retain a spiritual preeminence (81). Sarah argues that celibacy provides a necessary sign for all people, including those of Amazonia, calling not only priests but all the faithful to greater fidelity to Christ.

The Church certainly needs renewal. As the world changes and the Church faces new challenges, she must remain faithful to the faith and mission given her directly by Christ. The laity and clergy must work together in this mission, although our priests bear the special grace of representing Christ sacramentally. As we seek renewal, Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah give us a strong defense of the importance of celibacy and its enduring relevance for the life of the Church.

Featured image by Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

COMING UP: In a nearly empty cathedral, five men answer the call to priesthood 

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It was an ordination Mass unlike any the Archdiocese of Denver has ever seen. 

Empty pews could be seen throughout the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, with a few family members and clergy sprinkled throughout to maintain social distancing protocols as mandated by the Colorado governor. For the five men who were ordained to the priesthood, it wasn’t how they envisioned this day they’d awaited for so long. 

But for Fathers Christian James Mast, Chris Marbury, Chris Considine, Juan Adrian Hernandez Dominguez and Juan Manuel Madrid, it didn’t matter. The immense joy of being ordained priests of God could be seen on the smiles of gratitude their faces held throughout the Mass.

Click here to learn more about the newly ordained priests.

From front right, going clockwise: Father Adrian Hernandez, Father Chris Considine, Father Juan Manuel Madrid, Father Chris Marbury, Father Christian James Mast. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

As Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila ordained these five men as the archdiocese’s newest priests, he offered powerful words of encouragement and challenging comments about what it truly means to be a priest. 

“You, my dearest sons, are called to share in the same ministry of Jesus Christ. To the laying on of my hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit, this Holy Spirit will be upon you and anoint you for that mission. It is always important to keep in mind that the mission you share, it is the mission of Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Aquila told the men. “The mission is never about you. And remember, in those moments of temptation, when you will want to be the center of attention, in those moments of temptation where you are looking for affirmation, in those moments of temptation towards laziness, remember the glorious mantle that is being poured out on you today. You are not to have a listless spirit. You are to go forth in joy, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

As priests, the men are called to be conformed to the icon of Christ, the shepherd and bridegroom of the Church, the archbishop said. In their priesthood, they will have a responsibility to conduct themselves in such a way that bears witness to Christ and his Church. 

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila implored the newly ordained men to be mindful of their mission as priests, which is always to be aligned with that of Christ. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Never forget who you become and who you are,” the archbishop told them. “Especially with the fact, my dearest sons, that you are public persons from here on out. And as public persons who belong to Christ and the church, you can give great witness by your love for Christ and the church by the lives that you live in being that icon.” 

Citing the book of Jeremiah, Archbishop Aquila continued to implore the men of this call to never forget who they are, both as children of God and as priests. 

“Just as we hear in the book of Jeremiah, ‘I knew you before you were born. I knit you together in your mother’s. womb.’ That is true for every human being, and most especially for you,” Archbishop Aquila said. “We see that truth in being faithful to the word. Jesus goes on as he prays. ‘I gave them your word. And the world hated them because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. 

“And those are strong words by Jesus, and the world today will hate you. The world today will ridicule you because of what you believe,” the archbishop continued. “The World today continues to hate Jesus Christ. And hate put Jesus Christ on the cross. We can never forget that. And it is important to understand who you belong to. You belong to Christ. You do not belong to the world any more than he belonged to the world.” 

Especially as society deals with the reality of living in a global pandemic, priests have a special obligation to continue to care for the souls of their flock, even those on the verge of the death. Touching on this, the archbishop once again urged the men to remember who they are when faced with these situations. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the cathedral was virtually empty during the ordination, with a few family members and clergy sprinkled throughout. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“You will be called into situations you never, ever dreamt you would be called,” Archbishop Aquila said. “And whether it’s anointing the sick and the dying, or whether it is an emergency Baptism, in those moments, your heart will be moved with compassion. You may even shed tears. But with that, what is there is the compassion of Christ. “ 

To conclude, Archbishop Aquila cited the gospel reading of the Mass from the book of John and charged the men with being witnesses to Christ in the world. 

“People are hungry today. And you, my beloved sons, are great witnesses to the call of Christ and what can be accomplished today,” the archbishop concluded. “Remember the prayer of Jesus in today’s gospel and carry it with you throughout your priesthood. He is consecrating you today for himself and for the truth. He is consecrating you so that you may give witness to him and to the world. And remember, he is sending you into the world.”