The priesthood: a special relationship with Christ

The priesthood: a special relationship with Christ

Fr Pat Stratford

Not long ago our parish received a request to sign a petition to allow all priests to marry. It offered no proof or compelling evidence that this strategy would increase the numbers of vocations. I do not believe that it would.

The two other large denominations in Australia are the Anglican Church and the Uniting Church. They have married clergy yet they do not appear to have a better ratio of ministers to people than we do. In fact, it appears to be worse according to my observations.

There is also the suggestion that those priests who have left the priesthood and married should be allowed to practise once more as priests - I do not think that many would be interested.

Many who have left have not married - probably over 10 percent for whom celibacy was not the issue. Very many who were married have since divorced - estimated at over 30 percent. If they couldn't practise as celibate priests, could they possibly practise as divorced priests?

Many who are married have indicated that they are no longer willing or able to accept priestly responsibilities. For some their families may be opposed to a change in family lifestyle

Mention is sometimes made of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. Their priests can marry before ordination. But not all of their priests are married. At the last Synod of Bishops in Rome, one of the Eastern Rite bishops presented a strong recommendation that the Latin Rite Church retain its law on priestly celibacy.

The idea of this Online petition to Rome overlooks a number of important facts. The number of Catholics in Australia represents about 0.5 percent of the worldwide total (five million out of about one billion plus).

In fact worldwide the number of men training to be priests increased by 73 percent from 63,882 in 1978 to 110,583 in 2000 during the reign of Pope John Paul II. As a result there was an increase in the number of priests in the world after 1988.

Africa and Asia have had the greatest rate of increase in the number of priests - 79 percent and 69 percent respectively. In Eastern Europe the growth rate has also been dramatic. However, Oceania, which includes Australia, saw an overall decline of 12 percent over the same period.

The Online petition we were asked to support assumed far too direct a connection between celibacy and the vocations decline in Australia. More to the point, it assumed that the universal Church would alter a rule that has served it well in most parts of the world in order to suit a small country like Australia. It most certainly will not - and should not.

A vocation to the priesthood involves a special relationship with Jesus Christ so promoting vocations to the priesthood should obviously focus on helping men develop such a relationship.

Promoting priestly vocations should give top priority to:

1. Encouraging young men to pray.

2. Encouraging them to find out more about Jesus Christ by reading the Gospels and speaking to him in their own words in prayer.

3. Teaching them to put his teaching into practice in their daily living.

4. Providing young men with the opportunity of being involved in the charitable works of the parish or the wider community.

5. Ensure that in our Catholic schools they are taught their religion by practising Catholics who accept the Church teaching on priesthood and ordination.

6. Recruit priests to speak to secondary school boys about the priesthood and their experiences as priests.

I believe that, for the last 20 years, almost all presentation on vocations to the priesthood in our secondary schools has focused on the possibility of married priests and the ordination of women.

What we do know is that the moaning about celibacy by a small percentage has not encouraged any priestly vocations. It has been fruitless.

When speaking to young men celibacy needs to be presented in a very positive way. It will not have much meaning for those with little or no faith.

But for those young men with faith, vocations to the priesthood would be encouraged by presenting priestly celibacy as something very positive and Christ-like - celibates for the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:12).

Fr Pat Stratford is the parish priest of Sacred Heart Church, Sandgate, in the Brisbane Archdiocese.

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