The cardinal, a scholar on the identity of the priesthood, says removing the discipline of priestly celibacy would have "unforeseeable consequences."
“The suspicions about their lives that priests have to endure sometimes go as far as public insult.” These are the words of someone who, from 2010 until his resignation due to age last January, was the Church’s top official in the appointment of bishops and one of Pope Francis’ most trusted men: Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
His extensive experience as a missionary in Latin America (where he could be found giving catechesis in the middle of the jungle or sleeping next to the Blessed Sacrament in a chapel made of palm branches) not only helped him to preside over the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, but also to speak Spanish with great fluency. The same fluency, incidentally, with which he speaks French, English, Italian, Portuguese, and German.
Now he has recently visited the Ecclesiastical University of San Damaso in Madrid to carry out, in collaboration with the Parisian Center for Research in Anthropology and Vocations, what for some years has been his great personal mission: strengthening the identity of the priesthood in this complex time. Aleteia spoke with him.
Loneliness, overwork, discouragement, misunderstanding… Being a priest has never been easy, but it seems that our society today makes it particularly difficult. What are the greatest crosses that priests have to bear today?
Cardinal Ouellet: I believe that today the three great crosses of priests are: religious indifference, pastoral failure, and suspicions about their lives, which sometimes go as far as public insult.
Could you explain them in more detail?
Cardinal Ouellet: Religious indifference, because many of the baptized live as if God does not exist, and that makes it more difficult to find meaning in their lives. Pastoral failure, because pastoral initiatives often receive limited and disappointing responses after a great deal of effort. And suspicions about their lives, even to the point of public insult, because that leads priests to loneliness and to have a more tense relationship with authorities, since they can feel the pain of the measures taken by the bishops and the generalizations made by the media.
And do you think that priests today feel accompanied by the laity in these concrete needs and difficulties?
Cardinal Ouellet: This is a question that I find interesting, and one that’s not very present in today’s Catholic culture: Do the laity have anything to do with the priesthood? It may seem that they don’t, because it’s not about them. But, in reality, the raison d’être of the priesthood of priests is the service to the priesthood of the baptized. And this priesthood of the baptized implies that they participate in spreading the spirit of the Gospel through the witness of their faith, their hope, and their charity.
According to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the laity are part of the Church as a mediator of salvation in Jesus Christ and participate in the consecration of the world. Therefore, this is a question that the laity should ask themselves.
Cardinal Ouellet, you spoke of the attacks that priests sometimes suffer. One of the causes of these attacks that many innocent priests suffer today is that they are associated with brothers in the priesthood who have committed crimes of abuse. You yourself have suffered a peculiar public accusation in this regard, and not only have you defended your innocence, but you have announced that you would sue your accuser to restore your good name. Without going into the judicial details, how are you experiencing this process, from a faith perspective?
Cardinal Ouellet: At this moment it’s not possible for me to answer your question.
Let’s change the subject, then. In recent years you’ve been very active in speaking about priesthood in the 21st century. What should characterize the priests of our times?
Cardinal Ouellet: This is something that the Pope already defined in February 2022: a priest must be close to God through his prayer, in the first place; close to his bishop, in a filial relationship; and close to his co-brothers, in a fraternal relationship. Finally, he must be close to his people through his pastoral charity.
And in addition to these general notes, what would you add from your own priestly experience?
Cardinal Ouellet: A personal experience of Christ as Savior seems to me necessary in the life of today’s priest. Theoretical knowledge is not enough: We must have the experience of being saved by God. That is why a priest cultivates in prayer his fascination for the person of Jesus and strives to make him known through pastoral activity and dialogue with our contemporaries of all backgrounds.
In 2019 you published “Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy.” Is priestly celibacy still valid and useful for the present and future of the Church, or would it be better to do away with it, as some voices in the German Synod, for example, are calling for?
Cardinal Ouellet:Celibacy has been very fruitful throughout history and always will be. The evangelizing power of the Catholic Church owes much to the celibacy of priests and religious. In fact, the meaning of celibacy as a vocation is a witness to the absolute love of God. And it’s also a witness of total availability to exercise the ministry as a selfless service that becomes a true spiritual fatherhood.
Christ called his apostles to leave everything to follow him. Accepting this call is a confession of faith in the divinity of Christ, because only God can demand so much love and return it. I believe that a change in ecclesiastical discipline on priestly celibacy would have unforeseeable consequences.