A recent homily delivered passionately by a priest at Sunday Mass made the point that the only solution to the Catholic crisis is cleaning house from top to bottom in the church’s hierarchy – and doing it now!
This could lead to a reduction in availability of clergy and the sacraments, which might create inconvenience for those accustomed to multiple Masses at multiple locations every Sunday. However, such inconvenience might also serve as a spiritual wake-up call for complacent Catholics, who might consequently have to travel a bit and take more time to fulfill their Sunday obligation.
Consider that pilgrimages to distant places have long been a celebrated part of religious tradition, be it for Christians, Muslims or Jews. Indeed, one of the happiest periods of my Catholic life involved a mini-pilgrimage on Sundays to provide music for Mass at a Catholic church in a neighboring town. These special Sundays, with all of the work and time involved, extended from early morning to midafternoon. For many Catholics, to include me, that routine was quite a departure from the usual running across the street to the home parish and passively sitting in a pew for a one-hour Mass.
Interestingly at that time when I did attend Mass at my convenient home parish, I felt like something was missing. That is, there was no effort, time commitment, special preparation or involvement like I was experiencing on my “pilgrimage” Sundays.
A few good men
From the perspective of a layman in the pews, the church should get down to “a few good men.” Any ensuing shortage of priests could be handled – “no” – not with a few good women, but rather with a lot of good married men who would jump at the chance to serve as priests.
Unfortunately, no historical precedent exists in the Apostolic tradition for female priests. However, tradition does support married men as priests, dating back to the first thousand years of the church. That is, we had married priests for a thousand years, then celibate priests for the next thousand years. Maybe it is time to try married priests again for the next thousand years!
The difficulty of being a priest
It is quite a challenge to live the life of a priest for 60 or 70 years. That is a long time to be in any vocation or career.
Consider that Jesus’ ministry lasted only three years till he died at the age of 33. According to Catholic.com, “Of the apostles, only St. John is unanimously considered to have lived into his nineties. Most of the other apostles are generally considered to have died by A.D. 75. If they had been in their twenties at the time they joined Jesus' ministry, that would place them in their sixties at their deaths.” If they were considered ordained after Jesus' death, they might have served 20 to 40 years, depending on whether they died of martyrdom or natural causes.
It is rare in modern society that anyone commits to work at something for 40 years, much less 60 or 70 years. Even physicians and professors, historically known for their dedication to their respective arts, tend to retire to something else after 35 or so years of service.
I can think of only two jobs that are lifetime appointments: the U.S. Supreme Court and the Catholic priesthood. There was one more, the papacy, but Pope Benedict changed that. And, yes, parenthood! You might be able to escape marriage, but you can’t legitimately abdicate your role as a parent.
According to the website Canon Law Made Easy, the catechism states that holy orders confers an “indelible spiritual character on the man who receives it” – once a priest, always a priest! Nonetheless, it goes on to say that it is possible for a priest to be released from the duties of the clerical state, if he requests it due to his feeling unable to continue living the life of a priest. This “loss of clerical state,” commonly called laicization, is not granted easily, but it does happen with the blessing of the church. Note that the man is still a priest, still has the indelible mark on his soul, but he now no longer identifies himself as a priest or involves himself in any of the duties, responsibilities and privileges of a priest.
What I am leading up to is this: Might not the church attract more good men, if those men knew they could progressively take, or opt out of, a series of increasingly serious vows made, say, every 7 years, to pick a good biblical number? They would have the foreknowledge that at set times they could change their minds about their vocation, if they happened to grow in wisdom and understanding of themselves in a way that took them in a different direction in life.
It is a lot to ask young men to commit their whole lives to being a priest. But maybe a good chunk of life would be given to the church by many good young men if they knew they could change their minds over time. Why make this option available only through laicization, and only after a priest has become disenchanted, miserable and maybe getting into trouble, things that might be avoided, if they knew they weren’t trapped in the priesthood?
Clearly, some priests would move on from the priesthood at one of their vow renewals. But new priests might readily be willing to take their place, and the ranks of the clergy might actually grow overall.
Finally, those who might ultimately prove to be an embarrassment and detriment to the church might weed themselves out on their own at a vow renewal, long before higher authorities are called upon to exorcise them, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.