Pope Francis has caused a stir once again, with comments that indicate he’s open to considering ordaining more married men to be priests in the Latin rite. (Of course, our Eastern Catholic siblings have had married clergy for centuries.)
A lot of people have interpreted that as meaning he might make celibacy optional—but the Holy Father said no such thing. Indeed, quite the opposite. He indicated that optional celibacy is “not a solution.”
So what is he getting at?
The initial question about married priests focused on the notion of “viri probati,” that is “tested married men,” who are mature and reasonably settled in life.
In other words: the very men who are now being ordained as permanent deacons.
Considered in that light, perhaps the pontiff might weigh bringing married men into the priesthood in a manner that is not as radical as it sounds.
Imagine if you will:
A married man in his 50s, perhaps with grown children, is ordained to be a priest. He has a full time job in the community, maybe as a banker or a lawyer or a teacher or a grocery clerk, and he lives near the church. But a couple days a week, he is on call to visit the sick at hospitals, to meet with couples about marriages and baptisms and annulments, to hear confessions and to celebrate Mass. He might say a couple Masses on the weekend and preside at funerals when he’s on call. His role is, in a sense, supplemental—to assist the priest or pastor in his job, thus freeing up the “full time” priest to devote his life completely to his flock. This kind of “worker priest” doesn’t receive a salary; he doesn’t live in the rectory. He serves, really, as a volunteer.
In other words: he serves in the same capacity as a deacon.
This isn’t too far-fetched. Many of the married men who are now ordained as priests for the Latin rite (through the Pastoral Provision) have full or part time jobs outside the parish, to help support their families, and do not live in the rectory. And Orthodox clergy often work day jobs to make ends meet. (This profile of a priest outside Chicago who also works in a factory is just one notable example.)
A cadre of “part-time priests” could help provide sacraments where they might not otherwise be offered; they could help staff parishes that might face closing; and they could help lighten the load of overburdened priests who are often stretched too thin. (I visited Connecticut not long ago and met one pastor serving as the only priest at two parishes. He spent his Sunday bouncing back and forth between churches several miles apart to celebrate multiple Masses. There’s got to be a better way.)
I know: The notion of a part-time married priesthood comes with its own problems. It’s not what people are accustomed to, and some of the faithful will balk. Married deacons, who have decades of experience in this, will tell you this kind of vocation brings its own stresses and challenges. (And no, I’m not volunteering for this. I’m too old. And if this ever happens—a big “if”—there are much better candidates out there, anyway.)
Married priest Dwight Longenecker has written about the subject extensively and concluded:
So should we have married priests? For every “pro” there’s a “con,” and when you weigh up the historical and theological reasons for the discipline of celibacy, I think it’s better to maintain the status quo.
But in the same column, he saw not a problem, but a possibility:
There is another option. Rather than allowing all priests to marry, the Vatican could delegate to individual bishops’ conferences the authority to consider some older married men for ordination.
As most of us are living longer, active lives, there are many married men who are financially secure and whose children have grown up who could well serve the Church as mature priests.
He has more thoughts on the subject—and some helpful reminders— here.
The important thing, obviously, is to see that the people who make up Body of Christ are nurtured, sustained, uplifted and fed. The Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, needs to remain accessible. We need priests to make that happen.
Let us pray that God sends us those priests, in whatever way He sees fit.