We are in the final stretch towards the Synod on the Amazon and, providentially, in these months I find myself teaching theology and philosophy at the Seminary of the Prelature of Moyobamba, one of the two diocesan missions of the Archdiocese of Toledo. The Prelature of Moyobamba practically includes the Department of San Martín, in Peru. Although the city of Moyobamba is in an area usually called a “jungle threshold” because it is already at a certain height above sea level, the Department and the territory of the Prelature are sociologically and geographically part of the Peruvian Amazon, at least if it is understood in a broad sense (as it seems they will do in the Synod).
True, my work here is limited to teaching at the seminary, and so my knowledge of rural reality is very limited. But it can be said I am doing this reflection directly on the ground, although in many cases I rely on knowledge acquired through conversations with priests who reside here permanently.
The most important pastoral challenge in the Amazon, as they have been repeating ad nauseam, is the lack of priests to attend small communities far away from the big cities. When Spain faced the titanic task of civilizing and evangelizing America, it understood from the beginning that it would be impossible to provide adequate attention to the Indians if it was unable to “reduce” them, that is, to gather them in cities of an adequate size in order to develop all aspects of social life. Unfortunately, since Peru (like the rest of America) ceased to be part of the Empire, and much more recently, people have again scattered around the land, this makes it very difficult to meet pastoral needs, particularly sacramental ones.
Furthermore, as is known to everyone, the religious congregations, which have led the missionary commitment with admirable generosity, are now unable to continue fulfilling that role in a predominant manner, due mainly to a lack of vocations and to their aging members. Today, many of these prelatures and vicariates (canonical structure that highlights the indigence of these mission territories) depend to a large extent on the native diocesan clergy, which is numerically insufficient, especially taking into account the great dispersion of the population to which we referred above.
The solution that pastoral fashionistas have taken out of their hat (they were already fashionable in the 60s and have nothing but failed ever since) has been the so-called viri probati, actually an ad hoc euphemism for the ordination of married men in the Latin Church, and eventually, the destruction of priestly celibacy. Curiously enough, this solution has not come from the part of the People of God for whose evils they suggest this policy, but from other sectors that have sought it for decades and are now trying to use the poor (what’s new?!) to promote their ideological agenda.
The official message is clear: after all, celibacy is a mere discipline. It is not a dogma of faith, not even remotely. In the Eastern Church, they have always ordained married people (it is better to hide the fact they also lack an abundance of candidates for married priesthood). Moreover, if the norm has been made official that impenitent adulterers can receive communion (something which, barring a recourse to dark Jesuitical probabilism, constitutes a full-blown heresy), how are we going to become fussy when it comes to preserving a millennial discipline in the Church? He who can do more, can do less.
But what exactly are the viri probati? Are they merely married priests, as happens among Eastern Catholics or members of Anglican ordinariates? I’m afraid not. Judging by the explanations being given on the subject, we would be talking about something very different.
To understand the situation, we must first explain how pastoral work in the Amazon is being carried out right now. The priests normally attend the most populated centers in an ordinary way, but these have many communities attached, which are assigned to catechists or animators. The formation of animators is essential to keep the communities alive, because the absence of a priest makes the Christian community extremely vulnerable to attacks by different sects: Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Presbyterians, Adventists and many others, not to mention national occurrences (look for information about Peruvian Israelites and see how far you can go). Thus, the priests take care of the intellectual formation of the animators, with sporadic formation meetings to which they sometimes go by walking long distances. But they also have to monitor moral rectitude, because the scandalous life of an animator (let alone the priest) is the best publicity for sects.
The animators’ perseverance and delivery is often admirable. In the times of the persecution unleashed by Maoist communists on Peruvian rural populations, many catechists and animators were martyred for their Christian faith. Of course, generally they do not receive any remuneration, unlike those responsible for Pentecostal communities and similar sects, which develop as small branches of highly profitable companies or as marketing networks. However–and this is totally understandable–many times the circumstances of life make their work intermittent.
This is the proposal of the illustrious pastoralists who are guiding the coming Synod from the shadows: given that the fundamental need of communities is participation in the Mass, let us ordain the most reliable male animators as priests and, while paving the way for the ordination of women, let us institute for female animators a pseudo diaconate in the form of a lay ministry that we will call “gyn-acolytes” (a display of progressive snobbism).
They claim that this novelty would change neither the reality of the Church nor the priesthood but only replace a lack of human resources for the sake of pastoral care. But I think that the consequences would be much more serious and suspect that the promoters of such projects would not be caught by surprise.
One of the first factors that comes to mind is training. The great work of the Council of Trent regarding the Catholic priesthood were seminars, boldly promoted by Catholic reformers of the stature of St. Charles Borromeo or St. Toribio de Mogrovejo, among others. Since then, the Church’s insistence on priestly formation is growing. The latest ratio for the formation of priests, recently approved, has even added years to training in the form of propaedeutic. So, are you going to make the viri probati go through the seminary? If we compare them with Eastern Catholics, the answer would be affirmative, because they have a very careful training. But I am very afraid that none of the promoters of these ideas is considering to make the animators of Amazonian communities spend five or six years studying theology or in a formation regime. So, either the viri probati are a kind of second-class priesthood, or this solution is not intended for the Amazon and mission lands but for the countries of the old Christendom, where they have promoted the permanent diaconate for many years with the same intentions. I am very much afraid that these two options are not incompatible.
Indeed, some are already postulating for Latin America a Pentecostalized model of Church. There would be small communities governed by lay people with little preparation (or by viri probati priests) with a pastoral policy that gave little weight to doctrine and much to experience. Years ago, Most Rev. Strotmann, Bishop of Chosica, Peru, proposed this within the framework of a Congress organized in the Vatican by the German Bishops’ Conference.
The problem with this model of priesthood is that it would reduce the identity of the Catholic priest to mere sacramental functionality. The priest, being pastor of the community, source of advice, teacher of Christian life, close presence of Christ, would become a mere (forgive the expression) “consecrator of hosts.” Furthermore, this loss of priestly identity would affect the poor above all: why sacrifice ourselves by sending first-class missionaries to the Amazon when we can give them this kind of second-class priest?
But the thing would not stay in the Amazon. Because since the main interested parties are in Europe, and particularly in Germany, there too the identity of the Catholic priesthood would be transformed and degraded, with great intensity. This would be easy to figure out: Why spend resources on the formation of celibate priests when, for the viri probati, a class of a more or less superior level would suffice? Think of how many resources dioceses should invest in maintaining their seminars (some with zero “productivity”) compared to what it costs, for example, to train a permanent deacon on a European level.
On the other hand, if these second-class priests serve only for a purely sacramental function and we see that in this way we are coping, what need would we have of full-time ministers when their functions could be performed by laity without problems? Furthermore, since in these particular churches people hardly go to confession, what other exclusive function does the priest have in addition to presiding over the liturgy?
In short, and to conclude, the viri probati project, unanimously supported by the ecclesiastical officialdom for the Synod on the Amazon, is the last turn of the screw by a sector of the Church for the destruction of the Church itself. Where is the resistance to this? It is very well to complain about the evils the German bishops operate with the money received through that impious tax they charge the faithful, but the reality is that we would not be talking about these things if the terrifying crisis of vocations and priesthood taking place in the Church were not an undeniable fact. Where are the faithful bishops who cast their complexes aside and govern their dioceses on the only path that has proved fruitful for the renewal of the Church in the spirit of Christ, which is that of Tradition? Do we have to wait until we are stripped of everything, including the priesthood, to start acting?
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