“No one has the power to change the nature of the priesthood and no one ever will,” Pope Francis states in a message to French seminarians, signed by his Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, and made public on December 1, 2023. In this two-page letter, sent to a gathering of seminarians in Paris, the Pope defended priestly celibacy, despite recent calls in some circles for the rule to be relaxed.
In his message to more than 600 seminarians from all over France, Cardinal Parolin places celibacy “at the heart” of the priest’s identity. “Priests are celibate – and they wish to be – simply because Jesus was celibate. The requirement of celibacy is not primarily theological, but mystical: may this be understood by he who is able (cf. Mt 19:12),” he writes.
“No one has the power to change the nature of the priesthood and no one ever will, even if the ways in which it is exercised must necessarily take account of changes in today’s society and the serious vocational crisis we are experiencing,” the Italian cardinal explained, on behalf of the Pontiff.
A discussed issue
These words are particularly significant, as this issue has often been the subject of debate within the Catholic Church.
In the conclusions of the German Synodal Way for example, which ended last March, the participants asked the Pope to “reexamine” the discipline of priestly celibacy.
Already in October 2019, the Synod on the Amazon had been marked by controversy over the proposal to ordain married men – under the determination of ‘viri probati’ (men of proven virtue) – in response to the shortage of priests. The proposal voted on by the assembly members was ultimately not retained by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (2020).
This theme came up again at the recent Synod on the Future of the Church in Rome in October. The working document on which the Synod’s work was based raised the question of whether “a reflection could be opened concerning the discipline on access to the Priesthood for married men.” However, the final document after the month-long work simply stated that the “disciplinary obligation” of priestly celibacy was a theme that “requires further consideration.”
Pope Francis has confided on several occasions during his pontificate that he didn’t “feel ready” to review the rule of celibacy, while noting that it is a question of discipline, which could be lifted. This is in contrast to the male-only priesthood, a doctrine that couldn’t be changed.
On November 1, in an interview with Italian public television, he said he did not consider that a change would “help.”
The figure of the priest is “no longer recognized”
In the message to the seminarians, Cardinal Parolin noted that in France today, “the ecclesial institution, and with it the figure of the priest, is no longer recognized; it has lost its prestige and natural authority in the eyes of the majority of people, and has even unfortunately been tarnished.”
In this context, the Secretary of State advises future priests to commit themselves, as Pope Francis proposes, to “a pastoral style of closeness, compassion, humility, gratuitousness, patience, gentleness, radical self-giving to others, simplicity and poverty. […] This is how the priest will touch the hearts of his faithful, win their trust and bring them face to face with Christ.”
“Countless holy priests have adopted this style in the past, but today it has become a necessity on pain of not being credible or heard,” the cardinal explained.
Love Jesus more than anything else, let his love be enough for you, and you will emerge victorious from every crisis and every difficulty.
Jesus accompanies you along the journey
Despite this seemingly bleak picture, the Holy See’s “number 2” offered a clear solution. “In order to live this demanding, and sometimes harsh, priestly perfection, […] there is only one solution, dear seminarians: Nurture a strong, living and authentic personal relationship with Jesus,” he wrote.
“Love Jesus more than anything else, let his love be enough for you, and you will emerge victorious from every crisis and every difficulty,” he added.
“If Jesus is enough for me, I have no need of great consolations in ministry, or of great pastoral success, or of feeling at the center of extensive relational networks; […] I have no need of disordered affections, or of notoriety, or of having great responsibilities, or of pursuing a career, or of shining in the eyes of the world, or of being better than others; if Jesus is enough for me, I have no need of great material possessions, or of enjoying the seductions of the world, or of security for my future.”
“Your first concern should always be to respond to this call, and to strengthen your union with the One who deigns to make you his friend (cf. Jn 15:15). He is faithful and will be your greatest joy,” the cardinal wrote.
Finally, the message on behalf of Pope Francis pays tribute to the “generosity and boldness of faith” of young people who commit themselves to the priesthood, “despite the difficult times facing our Churches and our secularized Western societies.”
Every year, between 80 and 100 new priests are ordained in France, according to the Conference of French bishops’ website. These candidates are trained in 25 seminaries, one of which is located in Rome.