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Tomorrow sees the re-convening of bishops in Rome to consider marriage, divorce and sexuality. Last year’s meeting brought bitter disagreements out into the open and the rows have continued to simmer ever since
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A bishop who met with Pope Francis in a rare private audience on 4 April has said in an interview that the two men discussed the issue of the ordination of “proven” married men – viri probati – in a serious and positive way.
Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, spoke to the Pope about Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the environment, and the treatment of indigenous peoples but the desperate shortage of priests in the bishop’s huge diocese came up in the conversation. According to an interview the Austrian-born bishop gave to the daily Salzburger Nachrichten on 5 April, the Pope was open-minded about finding solutions to the problem, saying that bishops’ conferences could have a decisive role.
“I told him that as bishop of Brazil’s largest diocese with 800 church communities and 700,000 faithful I only had 27 priests, which means that our communities can only celebrate the Eucharist twice or three times a year at the most,” Bishop Kräutler said. “The Pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions,” he explained. A bishop should not act alone, the Pope told Kräutler. He indicated that “regional and national bishops’ conferences should seek and find consensus on reform and we should then bring up our suggestions for reform in Rome,” Kräutler said.
Asked whether he had raised the question of ordaining married men at the audience, Bishop Kräutler replied: “The ordination of viri probati, that is of proven married men who could be ordained to the priesthood, came up when we were discussing the plight of our communities. The Pope himself told me about a diocese in Mexico in which each community had a deacon but many had no priest. There were 300 deacons there who naturally could not celebrate the Eucharist. The question was how things could continue in such a situation.
"It was up to the bishops to make suggestions, the Pope said again.”
Bishop Kräutler was then asked whether it now depended on bishops’ conferences, as to whether church reforms proceeded or not. “Yes,” he replied. “After my personal discussion with the Pope I am absolutely convinced of this.”
Last September the Vatican Secretary of State, then-Archbishop Pietro Parolin – who was then Apostolic Nuncio to Venezuela – answered a question put to him by El Universal newspaper by stating that priestly celibacy “is not part of church dogma and the issue is open to discussion because it is an ecclesiastical tradition”. “Modifications can be made, but these must always favour unity and God’s will,” he said. “God speaks to us in many different ways. We need to pay attention to this voice that points us towards causes and solutions, for example the clergy shortage.”
In 2006 Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes issued a clarification in the Holy See Bollettino reiterating his support of church teaching and tradition just hours after telling a Sao Paolo newspaper: "Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma of the Church … Certainly, the majority of the apostles were married. In this modern age, the Church must observe these things, it has to advance with history."
The topic of ordaining "viri probati" was raised with a question mark over it in a speech by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, at the October 2005 Synod on the Eucharist – the first synod of Pope Benedict XVI.
“To confront the issue of the shortage of priests, some ... have put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue, the so-called viri probati,” he said. Cardinal Scola, who read his speech in Latin in the presence of Pope Benedict, did not say which bishops from which countries had suggested discussing the ordination of older married men.
Above: Lay Catholics have become familiar with the sight of married priests who were formerly in the Anglican or Lutheran Churches, or who minister in international dioceses of Eastern Rite Churches such as the Maronite Church (pictured). Photo: CNS