A priesthood for all: Synodal church requires new look at ministry

By Justin McLellan | Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — If the goal of a “synodal” church is to have all the baptized recognize their responsibility for the life and mission of the Catholic community, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet said that necessarily means taking a new look at priesthood.

The cardinal, outgoing prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, organized an international conference on the theology of priesthood in February 2022, which drew some 500 priests, religious and theologians to the Vatican.

Yet one year later, he and other conference organizers said that coming to grips with the clerical abuse crisis and trying to promote a real understanding of the vocation of all the baptized — priests or laity — is an exercise that cannot be limited to priests and theologians.

The English-language cover of “A Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood” was released by the Vatican Feb. 20, 2023. The volume, edited by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, contains the texts of speeches and related essays from a 2022 Vatican conference on the priesthood. (CNS photo/Courtesy of the Holy See Press Office)

To that end, the Vatican presented a two-volume book, “For a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood,” cataloguing the conference’s articles and providing complementary academic documents that contextualize its main themes.

Salesian Sister Linda Pocher, a contributor to the book’s second volume, which compiles academic papers supporting the conference’s main documents, told reporters Feb. 20 that varying perspectives on the realities of the priesthood worldwide must be still studied, and not only by the clergy.

“It’s not the same thing to be a priest in Rome, Ukraine, Romania and Australia,” she said. And “it’s not the same thing to be a priest before or after the explosion of the sexual abuse scandal. This can’t be denied.”

At the book presentation, Cardinal Ouellet said that while the abuse crisis was not the focus of the conference, the subject of clerical abuse “was not ignored” in its considerations.

In his opening remarks at the conference last year, he had said a discussion of priesthood today must begin with expressing “our sincere regret and asking again for forgiveness from the victims, who suffer for their lives destroyed by abusive and criminal behavior, which has remained hidden for too long and treated lightly out of a desire to protect the institution and the perpetrators instead of the victims.”

Sister Pocher said the conference underscored the need for an “interdisciplinary study” of the ministerial priesthood as a vocation “realized in the fragile and wounded humanity of men, who are and remain human beings, like their brothers and sisters in the faith.”

Cardinal Ouellet said the book “fills a gap in the current theological literature” on synodality because a “synodal church cannot progress without the commitment of conscious and personally involved actors to follow Christ in the church.”

With the book’s publication, Cardinal Ouellet called for a “renewed co-responsibility between pastors and the lay faithful” in carrying out the church’s mission and the developing of a theology of the priesthood “deeply rooted” in the Second Vatican Council.

The council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests stressed the role of priests as members of the baptized faithful and affirmed the laity’s participation in the mission of the church, effectively reducing the distinction between the clergy and the laity.

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, outgoing prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, speaks to reporters at the Vatican Feb. 20, 2023, about the release of a two-volume book on the theology of the priesthood and the need to promote a better understanding of priesthood in a “synodal” church. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

Among the texts included in the book is one that asks whether the priesthood should be “desacralized,” removing the “divine aura” that surrounds priests and which some people argue enables them to commit abuse with impunity. Another analyzes the connection between celibacy and the sacrament of holy orders.

One of the conference’s contributors, Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, said that by reflecting on the vocation of ordained priests, laypeople will better understand their own priestly vocation, which they receive in baptism.

The baptismal and ministerial forms of the priesthood are “not only complementary, but reciprocal,” said Cardinal Ghirlanda; “they are all necessary and ordered toward each other in a circular relationship.”

“If synodality means walking together,” he said, ” we must keep in mind that ‘together’ means diversity and at the same time unity, a diversity of vocations.”

Bishop Gianmarco Busca of Mantua, Italy, said one way to strengthen the relationship between clergy and laity is to involve more laypeople in priestly formation, particularly in seminaries.

The church, he said, should consider the possibility of allowing “figures that are not only priests, but also laypeople, couples, female figures” to be members of formation communities.

The structure of many of today’s seminaries, he said, creates “worlds incapable of interacting with the culture” and form priests “with a weak gauge for the people they must minister to.”

Cardinal Ghirlanda added that he has encountered many young priests who, due to a lack of strong relationships, have felt “totally abandoned, even by their own bishop.”

“They are in difficulty, and they don’t know who to turn to,” he said.

In his speech opening the 2022 conference, Pope Francis emphasized the theme of closeness in priestly life and said that every priest must work to be close to God, to his fellow priests and to the people he serves.

“It is important today to be closely involved in people’s real lives, to live alongside them, without escape routes,” he had said.

For Cardinal Ouellet, the publication of the book is just the beginning of a discussion about understanding priesthood and helping priests minister better to their fellow Catholics. Study initiatives will be launched to continue discussions on the priesthood in Spain, France, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Colombia and the United States, among other countries, in the coming months. A group will also travel to World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, to host conferences on vocations with bishops and young people, “to give the event a vocational slant.”

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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