Just imagine. Sunday after Sunday going to church yet only getting to celebrate the Eucharist once or twice a year. Or sitting with something weighing on your conscience and longing to hear the words of absolution – but there is no priest available for the next few months. Just imagine you are sick or dying and want to be anointed but can’t be. Isn’t the comfort and power of the sacraments at the very heart of what it means to be Catholic? Of course, our faith has many dimensions, but the sacraments sustain us in our mission to spread the Good News.
The people of the Amazonian region don’t have to imagine. For many of them, this is and looks set to remain their reality. Distances are vast and there are few vocations.
This week the Pope’s much anticipated post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Amazon Synod held 6-27 October 2019, entitled Querida Amazonia (“Beloved Amazon”), was released. This is the letter that traditionally follows a synod and the document released by the Synod. There was hope that some of the recommendations of the Synod document would usher in change so that the people of the Amazon (and in time potentially other places too) would have regular access to the sacraments.
Despite the fact that the possibility of ordaining suitably trained married men as priests (so-called “viri probati”) was voted in favour of by two-thirds of those with voting rights, Pope Francis has not made changes to allow for this – even as an experiment limited to the Amazon. Women run 70 per cent of parishes in that region. If they were ordained to the diaconate, they could witness marriages, conduct funeral services, baptise and preach. It seems clear, however, that they will not be ordained to the diaconate anytime soon. Many women are, in reality, already doing many of these things without the grace of the Sacrament of Orders.
The issues of allowing married priests and the ordination of women to the diaconate are ones on which we as Catholics, sadly, have starkly divergent views. In recent days conservative groups have been extremely vocal about maintaining mandatory celibacy for priests. Pope Francis may feel that he cannot move on these issues and still preserve the unity of the church.
The Pope may, understandably, be trying to keep the focus firmly on the key issue of environmental concerns and protection of the Amazon, not wanting these critical issues to be overshadowed by other “hot-button” issues. Nonetheless, the fact that these other issues have become focal in the Catholic media shows their profound impact on people. They will not go away.
Lay leadership must be developed and encouraged but, ultimately, only ordination allows one to confer the sacraments. There are committed married men and women who feel called by God to minister sacramentally. People are longing to encounter Christ regularly in the sacraments, but there are not enough ordained priests to minister to them.
Should their longing for Christ not be our sole focus?