A female theologian and a Catholic archbishop add their voices to calls for change
“We need to revisit the issue of ministries in the Church.”
That’s a quote from French biblical scholar Anne-Marie Pelletier, a Catholic lay woman that Pope Francis appointed some months ago to the Vatican’s new “Study Commission on the Female Diaconate”.
Hers is just the most recent voice in a growing chorus challenging the current Catholic leadership to engage the whole Church in better discerning the Holy Spirit’s gifts among the members of God’s household.
In an exclusive interview with La Croix‘s Céline Hoyeau, the 74-year-old Paris native and mother of four basically said the Church needed to be more creative about how it commissions or ordains people, both men and women, for ministry.
Her point was that being an ordained deacon or presbyter is not – or, at least, should not be – the only form of legitimately recognized and officially commissioned ministry in the Church.
Pelletier, who won the Ratzinger Prize for Theology in 2014, said more must be done to make this a reality.
Catholics tend to be lousy at group discernment
And that will require some serious discernment as a community. However…
“Catholics, particularly those in the clerical caste, tend to be pretty lousy at group discernment – especially when it comes to identifying those in the community who possess the unique spiritual gifts ordered to the various ministries of service in the Church.”
Thus began the Nov. 8, 2019 “Letter from Rome”.
In light of Anne-Marie Pelletier’s comments and in the context of what is usually the “ordination season” for new priests, let’s refresh our memories about the current crisis surrounding Church ministry and ecclesial leadership’s inability or unwillingness to reform a system that is broken.
There is lack of true discernment when it comes to charisms.
The ordained priesthood (presbyterate) is a good example.
Generally, the process begins through the initiative of a male adult who believes (or his mother believes) that God is calling him to be a priest. The man will then seek to affiliate with a diocese or join a religious order.
If he can tie his own shoelaces and is not a convicted felon, he’ll likely pass his initial audition. Unfortunately, that’s no joke.
The most important thing in order to get to the next stage is to manifest the will to be celibate and convince the Church authorities that he does not “practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.'”
If all that checks out, our man with the vocation will likely have more interviews, undergo psychological testing and be subjected to other background checks.
Jumping through hoops
If there are no glaring signs of mental illness or personality disorders he will then be admitted to a seminary or novitiate program. At this point, the standard trope is that the seminarian is discerning and the diocese or religious order is discerning, as well.
Thus begins a series of “hoops” the candidate for priesthood will be expected to jump through in order to make it to ordination. He will learn that very special and necessary skill – creativity with the truth.
There are elaborate programs of priestly formation that are drawn up by national episcopal conferences. They must receive the Vatican’s seal of approval before being implemented.
The daily regime differs somewhat from one seminary to another. Every house of formation has its own variation of a dress code, liturgical schedule and style, types of pastoral experience, curfew (or not) and a number of rules and regulations.
Then after three or four years of theological studies the candidate must face his first major hurdle. Will the seminary staff recommend him to be ordained to the transitional diaconate?
Occasionally, one or two don’t make the cut. But that is rare.
The second and final hurdle is ordination to the presbyterate. The seminary rector and his staff can advise a bishop not to ordain a man for reasons they deem to be serious.
But, again, and for a variety of reasons, there are few people who are blocked.
Usually a questionable candidate has been weeded out already in the first couple of years. If he is not, it is because he enjoys the favor of his bishop…
Where is the voice of the community?
During the Rite of Ordination a priest presents the candidates to the bishop.
“Most Reverend Father, holy mother Church asks you to ordain these, our brothers, to the responsibility of the priesthood,” he says.
“Do you know them to be worthy?” the bishop asks.
And the priest responds: “After inquiry among the Christian people and upon the recommendation of those responsible, I testify that they have been found worthy.”
How, exactly, have the “Christian people” been questioned or involved in the process of finding these men worthy? And which people – their parents, their friends?
Every diocese and house of formation is unique, of course. Some involve the laity in the task of reviewing applicants for seminary or preparing them for ministry. But the origins of a man’s path to the priesthood – or at least the exploration of it – is mostly of that man’s own initiative.
Obviously, there are people – especially priests – who encourage certain men (usually young men) to consider the priesthood.
Hopefully, they see qualities in these men that would make them good presbyters. But, again, this is the initiative of an individual.
What if an entire community – say, a parish – were able to do something similar?
Rather than waiting for someone to come forward on his own initiative, what if the community engaged in prayerful discernment to identify those in their own midst who have the charisms of service?
The system of seminary selection and formation is broken
The truth is that the Church’s system of selecting and preparing presbyters is seriously flawed.
We’ve known this for a very long time. And in light of the clergy sex abuse crisis, which has been like an ever-replenishing Pandora’s box of horrors, the bishops have been emphatic that they have improved the screening of candidates and tightened standards of well-rounded formation.
But the system is still not working.
Just in the past several weeks, two priests from archdioceses in the United States and England were charged with sexual abuse of minors. One of them was ordained five years ago and the other only four. The Englishman has been sentenced to four years and three months is prison. Both will likely be booted from the priesthood.
How did they ever make it to ordination? Who discerned they had a vocation to the priesthood? Was the community involved in this decision in any meaningful way?
The recurrence of sexual abuse – even if it involves only a small percentage of the clergy – is just one proof that the system of selection and formation remains inadequate.
There are other indicators, as well. Among them are pathologies that stem from deep-seated tendencies – not only towards homosexuality, but also and especially towards clericalism; even when the candidate for Holy Orders tries to deny or hide them.
Synodality could lead to communal discernment of the charisms
Pope Francis is trying to implement synodality at every level of the Church. And why should that be any different for identifying the best candidates to serve the community in various ministries and positions of leadership?
But rather than focus on the ministries or the leadership roles themselves, the work of a community engaged in group discernment might aim to do something even more profound. It would seek, through the help of the Holy Spirit, to identify those persons who have been graced by the same Spirit with charisms proper to the various ministries.
“There are many different gifts, but it is always the same Spirit,” St. Paul tells the Christian community in Corinth.
“There are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord… The particular manifestation of the Spirit granted to each one is to be used for the general good” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12).
Paul tells the Romans:
“Since the gifts that we have differ according to the grace that was given to each of us: if it is a gift of prophecy, we should prophesy as much as our faith tells us; if it is a gift of practical service, let us devote ourselves to serving; if it is teaching, to teaching; if it is encouraging, to encouraging. When you give, you should give generously from the heart; if you are put in charge, you must be conscientious; if you do works of mercy, let it be because you enjoy doing them” (cf. Romans 12).
Bishops confirm what the community has discerned
In a synodal Church the entire body of believers would engage in communal discernment to identify those with specific gifts. The pastors (bishops) would then ratify and “ordain” these people to exercise their charisms – God’s gifts – for the general good.
“To some, his ‘gift’ was that they should be apostles; to some prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers; to knit God’s holy people together for the work of service to build up the Body of Christ” (Cf. Ephesians 4)
As it is now the presbyters and the bishops are expected to fulfill almost all the tasks. But there are currently non-ordained people – men and women, celibate and married – who clearly have the charisms of preaching, presiding over prayer, being in charge, healing and so forth.
However, the authorities of the Church, the bishops, rarely allow these people to officially share these charisms with the rest of the community because, for centuries, they have been reserved to the ordained.
The Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church says the bishops “know that they were not ordained by Christ to take upon themselves alone the entire salvific mission of the Church toward the world.
“On the contrary, they understand that it is their noble duty to shepherd the faithful and to recognize their ministries and charisms, so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one mind” (Lumen Gentium, 30).
But the bishops cannot and must not take upon themselves alone the task of recognizing the ministries and charisms of the faithful, either. That is something for the entire Church.
As Pope Francis told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square right after his election: “We take up this journey, bishop and people.”
It is a journey that must be made together.
It was heartening to read Archbishop Pascal Wintzer of Poitiers (France) say similar things in an essay he penned several days ago for La Croix, which we translated and re-published.
“The exercise of a decision-making role, which is the prime responsibility of the bishop, with priests as his co-workers, cannot dispense with the calling and training for other ministries in the Church,” he said.
“Men and women receive – or would receive – ministries of charity, preaching and presiding at common prayer. These would not be conferred by substitution, but by right; not by delegation, but in view of worthiness. And the community must be the first to recognize this, not in subordination, but in full and complete responsibility,” he added.
The Holy Spirit lavishes the diverse charisms among the entire body of the baptized. And it is the responsibility of the entire body – not just the bishops or priests – to discern which of its members have been given the various spiritual gifts for service and leadership.
More and more Catholics (including some bishops and priests) are seeing this. They join a growing chorus of faithful believers in Christ that clamors for more creative ways of envisioning Church ministry.
Indeed, this is one of the Signs of the Times.