The “Priest Shortage”: John Kane writes

John Kane of Regis University was active with the Catholics for the Spirit of Vatican II nearly 30 years ago now, with the editor of this blog.  For over 20 years, he published the local newsletter/paper Leaven.  When he closed that, he collaborated on the start of Denver Catholic Network, which was also the genesis of CatholicNetwork.US

Welcome, John!


To start with that shortage: Yes, there is a shortage of priests in many Catholic countries, but mostly because of bad theology and bad management. As to the latter, it involves, as I see it, narrowness of vision and entrenched self-interest on the part key members of the clerical club. Mickens indicates some of the intense battle which Francis is waging on many fronts with those folks, and you’ve probably read reports of his statements about reconsidering the celibacy rule.

Vocations to the Catholic priesthood are there in abundance – among many married men (including many who have “left the priesthood” in recent decades), and among many, many women (married or single). Rumor has it, moreover, that significant numbers of priest-pastors in parts of Europe and Africa (and probably Latin America) already live with a spouse, without benefit of the sacrament but with the knowledge of their people and probably of their bishop. There was, as one illustration, a decent 1995 British film called “Priest” which realistically depicted an older pastor in Liverpool living amiably with his housekeeper/spouse (though the film focused on a younger priest’s homosexuality).

As most readers know, it’s never been Catholic dogma that priests must be celibates. John Paul II made no such claim even as he strenuously reemphasized mandatory celibacy. Yet he did proclaim that Catholic dogma prohibits women from being priests – a claim that many Catholics and many theologians find dubious on a whole range of grounds.

Thus claims about a “priest shortage” are, to put the matter in carefully nuanced terms, basically nonsense. Yet my saying so won’t change the minds and hearts of many believers (to whom I apologize for bluntness), nor of the defenders of the clerical club (to whom I do not apologize). Nor will it be much help to those many women and men who feel called to a priesthood which is denied them.

Nor will it help the folks trying to keep Our Lady of Visitation open here in Denver.

My short version of that effort goes as follows. The (Hispanic) pastor of the large church within which OLV operates as a mission has decided he needs to close the mission and bring its small community (100-200 folks) into the larger (3000 member) suburban parish. His reason is that there are no longer enough priests even to serve the larger parish, much less to continue weekly mass at the mission. He announced the closure last Fall to the surprise of the community, and is supported by the Archdiocese.

OLV began, I’m told, when Hispanic farm families from New Mexico settled in their north-Denver neighborhood early in the 1900s. Its religious community was built around a Penitente brotherhood, a form of piety brought north from New Mexico. The present church was built in the post-war 40’s and paid for (“one taco at a time” as one parishioner put it) by the community which over many generations has become a symbolic place for some in the large Denver Hispanic population. (I don’t know when it was incorporated as a mission into the larger and newer suburban parish.)

To no one’s surprise (except, perhaps, diocesan officials) members of the community (including its council and long-serving married deacon) were stunned by the closure announcement and have fought back (with the aid of folks from Denver’s larger community) – initially by seeking dialogue with the Archdiocese (whose delegates recently at the last minute declined to show up for a scheduled meeting); then by finding a number of retired priests willing to say mass weekly at this otherwise self-sustaining mission; and finally by receiving (so I’m told) pro-bono help from one of Denver’s most powerful law firms.

The situation as far as I know is unresolved, with the May 1 closing date fast approaching.

I’ve tried to suggest to a number of media folks (at the Archdiocese and The Denver Post) that this could and should be a great “win-win” situation. Clearly this small but multi-generational community has some symbolic value for Hispanic Catholicism, and just as clearly the US Church and the Archdiocese of Denver continue to claim that Hispanic Catholics are crucial to their future life and ministry. So I hope for a joyful resolution, but I’m not hopeful.

Indeed I’m skeptical. Dare I mention that there’s also a financial factor probably involved here? The community has a $ 250,000 reserve for building repair projects (which the pastor has refused to approve), and the Archdiocese, without the community’s awareness, reportedly just had the property assessed for $ 1.2 million. And there’s a new light-rail line that will run through the neighborhood?  None of this may be the primary reason for the closing, but it sure will make it easier for the bigger parish and the Archdiocese.

Yet the larger theological and ecclesial issue here (and throughout the country where parishes are being closed) is not just about a priest shortage. It’s about the teaching of Vatican Council II (1962-65) on the nature of the Church.

Here’s my quick and I believe accurate summary of that teaching and the issues it raises: The Church is above all “the people of God” on pilgrimage through history. Distinctions of office and function are secondary and have changed many times during the people’s 2000 year pilgrimage. Yes, the Council affirmed the important role of bishops (as do I), and consequently of an ordained (trained, professional) priesthood. Yet the roles of bishops and priests, and the ways they are selected, has changed often to meet the needs of different times and cultures. So too the relationship of such officials to their communities with regard to things like finances, governance, preaching and other forms of ritual and ministry. Thus theological and ecclesial questions raised by Vatican II and stirring Catholic culture wars ever since concern what changes in office and function make sense for our times and for different cultures and regions of the globe.

As noted, I think that married and women priests are much needed, at very least in modern Western cultures. I also believe that bishops should be chosen by a process involving both local election (by lay leaders as well as clerics) and Roman approval or veto. Pastors (and priest assignments) should be managed by a similarly shared parish-diocesan process. And there are many models and much experience with such processes among our Episcopalian and Protestant sister and brother churches.

More fundamentally, with Francis I believe that we must declericalize and decentralize the Church. Yes, I believe we do need professionally trained clergy, but I think that we Catholics have put far too many eggs in that basket (even if the history of that centralization and clericalization was at the time part of needed reforms). We’ve assigned too many ministries and tried to capture too many charisms within one set of officials. We’ve failed to put money and prestige into the development of other (not lesser) official ministries. Why not, for instance, separate the office of preaching and of confession from leadership in the eucharistic rite? I suspect (indeed I know) that many women would make better confessors and better preachers than many of today’s priests. More significantly we’ve largely failed to develop a sense of discipleship and ministry among “ordinary” Catholics – not just religious ministries (which these days are of necessity increasingly performed by laity), but the far more fundamental sense of discipleship in secular work and professions.

Will any of these deeper changes happen, and if so how long will it take? I do think important changes are coming since they have been mandated by the highest authority of a Council with the Pope. Yet how such change will happen and when is what the struggle is about. I doubt I’ll live to see the more fundamental changes, and I doubt that my pet theories will necessarily “win” when change comes. Yet the Holy Spirit guides the Church even though She often “writes straight with crooked lines.”

I do hope, though, that I’ll live to see an eventual win-win at Our Lady of Visitation and for other communities threatened by closure.


II originally wrote this piece for the Denver Post’s online religion page, but only a shortened version was published.  I republish it here, as the first post on my new blogsite, since it strikes me as a good way to begin a series of reflections on religion and politics.

I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that the years ahead will be tough, perhaps terrible and tragic. Let’s hope not. Indeed, we need to find ways to counter the fear mongering that was the path to power for Trump’s election. Yet we can’t hide our minds in the sand or allow spirits to drift into dreams, perhaps especially religious dreams.

On the political stage, I’m hoping that groups stirring with anger about Trump & Co. will move towards some united front or fronts. That’s long been a dream of the left, but rarely an embodied reality. Yet I realize others will have quite different, even quite contrary political hopes for the coming years. Even so, I hope we may still find ways to seek common goods despite deep divides.

Here, though, I don’t want to speak about politics but about prayer. And I’ll use Jesus’ prayer to “Our Father” as my example.

Though I am someone who tries to pray, I write here as a professor, in the way I would talk about prayer in the classroom. Not bullying, trying not to sermonize, but discussing and inviting thoughtful response.

In a class I would explore the persistence of prayer practices across all religious traditions and the presence of prayer even today in secular song and poetry. I would also explore doubts about prayer, the abuses of prayer (to support injustice or as a form of escapism), and the difficulty (acknowledged by all masters) of finding authentic forms of prayer.

So here are a few comments on the much analyzed and regularly repeated Christian prayer that virtually all scholars trace back to Jesus’ Jewish preaching.

Catholics say this prayer together at every Mass. The priest leads with the words “Our Father” and the standing congregation joins in immediately…“who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come…” and on through “give us this day our daily bread…forgive us as we forgive…deliver us from evil.” These days the congregation typically joins the priest in the concluding refrain: “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory…” And in many congregations folks join hands with their neighbors for this prayer which then leads to a “kiss of peace,” a greeting or handshake with other participants before the sharing of communion bread and wine.

It’s a prayer common to and important for all Christians, one shared without hesitation in settings where Christians of different traditions pray together. Many Christians say the prayer privately, often daily or at particular times of need or gratitude. For Catholics it was (and for some remains) a central part of the tradition of “praying the rosary” – using prayer beads to meditate on the stages of the life of Christ, a practice that goes back to Medieval times and may have been influenced by the Muslim practice of using a string of beads to pray, as Buddhists also do.

These days I’ve come to think that at Mass the priest should pause after intoning the words “Our Father” to allow each of the congregants to think about the name of God we are about to praise (“Hallowed be they name”) – to think about the many important ways we name God, and to call to mind and heart that name or names which most expresses an individual’s faith and need.

Because of Jesus the name “Father” remains central for Christian tradition. Despite its seeming (and too often actual) support for patriarchy, it’s clear that “Father” was Jesus’ way of relating in family terms with the God his own Jewish tradition (and many other traditions) thought must finally remain un-namable. Yet the constant Christian (and Hindu, and even Jewish) way of dealing with God’s un-nameability is both to practice reverent silence and also to use many names as a way of avoiding an idolatrous fixation on just one name or one set of names.  For that, I’m not alone in thinking, is what has happened over millennia with overuse of exclusively male names like Lord or Father or Master or King.

Personally, I find accompany (in thought and whisper) the address to “Our Father” with an equally legitimate address to “Holy Mother” (a name with pagan roots re-appropriated by feminist imagination) and to “Great Spirit” (a powerful name I first learned from Native Americans).

Yet finally, especially when dark fates threaten, the particular name we Christians use at the start of this prayer is less important than its concluding affirmation that the kingdom and the power and the glory are God’s – however little we, like Job, understand how that kingdom and power and glory may prevail against the furies of fate.

Sure, it’s possible that all prayer is just comforting illusion. That’s part of what it means to understand that prayer is a matter of faith and honest conviction. Yet I’d also note that the arrogant or fear-filled assertion of the power and glory of our nationalism is this culture’s prevailing and comforting illusion.

So Christians continue to believe and pray with Jesus that God’s kingdom is present and coming, that She Who Is holds the whole world in her hands, that Our Father will forgive, and the Great Spirit will deliver us from evil. Note especially that last petition – not that there will be no evil, perhaps even terrible evil and much death, but that the power and glory of the Spirit-Mother-Father will somehow see us through into good.

I think there is much to ponder in Jesus’ prayer, and in broadly analogous forms of prayer in other forms of faith and practice, religious as well as secular.

I do not mean thereby to reduce all faiths and forms of prayer to one vague “spiritual” thing. There are significant differences between faiths (religious or secular) that must be respected and yes, at times, opposed.* Yet as Pope Francis and leaders of other religions have affirmed, there are also fundamental similarities.

Recent Popes have invited leaders of different faiths to pray together, each in their own way, in the Italian city of Assisi. They gather there in memory of St. Francis, that great man of prayer and interfaith cooperation during a previous period of severe warfare between Christian and Muslim empires. And recently Pope Francis joined with New Yorkers of different faiths in a beautiful prayer service at the 9/11 Memorial.  (Check it out if you’ve never seen it:

For all such people, prayer is not an escape. Rather it is an intentional way of living in and with the realities of our world. It is a form of living that is important in itself, regardless of hoped for practical or political effects. Yet it may also nurture efforts for justice and peace. It could contribute to the uniting of fronts against injustice in the dark years ahead. It might even lead to cooperative efforts across deep divides.

*A personal footnote: I’ve long hated the fanatical cry “Allahu Akbar” heard on television footage. Yet it recently occurred to me that that warrior’s cry (which simply means “God is Great”) may well be much the same as the (typically whispered) prayers of our soldiers and police facing death. “Allahu Akbar” could, in other words, be less an expression of fanaticism than an honest prayer in the face of death. Of course,  I don’t really know this, but understanding that cry as a simple prayer helps me to humanize these enemies (even as I still see them as enemies). It be their recognition that the real kingdom and power and glory is God’s, not ours.

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