By now it is clear to anyone interested in the Catholic Church that there are no longer enough priests to celebrate Mass in many parishes. In rural areas and in the poorer neighborhoods of the great cities, parishes are being closed not only for economic reasons, but also because priests cannot be found to serve as pastors. The great religious orders, Franciscans, Jesuits, Redemptorists and Benedictines, are handing over to local bishops parishes they have staffed for decades. Some say that their "charism" no longer includes parish work. Others bluntly admit that they just do not have the men.
On both sides of the Atlantic, lay people, frequently women, now preside at prayer services on Sundays. In place of the Mass, which had been offered weekly and even daily for many years, there are now some Bible readings, a few hymns and possibly a homily and distribution of previously consecrated Communion hosts.
Many loyal Catholics are astonished that this has happened so quickly and that communion services would be considered an appropriate solution. After all, did not the teaching of centuries up to and including the Second Vatican Council insist that the celebration of the holy Eucharist was at the center of our religious life, defining us as Catholic Christians? Are we not a eucharistic people, for whom this sacrament is much more than a mere symbol or reminder of the Lord? It is his very presence given to us for our spiritual nourishment and refreshment. Are we not invited to a joyful banquet of sacred food and drink, a living memorial, the representation of the very death and resurrection of the Lord for our time and place?
If all this is more than pious fantasy and theological speculation, if it is indeed defined dogma, it is no wonder that so many find it strange and even scandalous that this sacrament should be allowed to disappear from the religious life of large numbers of Catholics.
Numerous Catholics find it supremely difficult, even impossible, to receive sacramental absolution for sin, the anointing of the sick and, most importantly, the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Mass.
Certainly millions of Catholics in Latin America have long experienced this situation. Consider, for example, the little village of San Miguelito in Mexico, which is like many other places in Mexico, Central and South America. In the late 16th century two zealous friars somehow found their way to this remote spot in the mountains. They stayed to evangelize the people and give basic religious instruction. Before long San Miguelito had its own impressive baroque church and a lively devotional life. The friars baptized, offered daily Mass and celebrated the liturgies for marriages and burials.
When political changes took place, the friars were called back to the city. Yet each year on the feast of St. Michael, one of them would make the journey, baptize many babies, hear confessions, solemnize marriages, celebrate Mass and finally lead a procession with the statue of the patron of the town through the streets and plaza. Exhausted, he would then ride his horse back to the city. As the years went by, this holy day developed into a colorful and rowdy fiesta, the religious and social high point of the year. But it was, after all, only one day out of 365. And with fewer vocations to the Franciscans and even fewer to the diocesan priesthood, the possibility of a resident pastor became even more remote.
One day a Protestant missionary team from Texas arrived in the village. They rented a house and went from door to door making friends and handing out literature, especially nicely illustrated copies of the New Testament. Since most of the people had trouble reading, they also offered Christian songs, which they taught to the children and broadcast in the evening over their loudspeakers.
But these industrious and vigorous young Americans had no intention of remaining in the village forever. They quickly made the acquaintance of Pablo, a young married man, the father of two sons, who clearly was intelligent and personable. His neighbors recognized his obvious leadership qualities. Pablo, with his wife and children, became the first persons in town to accept the new religion, reading the Bible every day, giving up the potent local "firewater" and leading the prayers and hymns at the Sunday service and Wednesday night Bible study. The Americans then arranged for Pablo to attend an Assembly of God Bible college in the capital for some intensive courses in Scripture and in preaching. A simple but attractive little chapel was built at the edge of town. When Pablo returned with his certificate in Bible studies, he was named the pastor.
Thus a new Assembly of God congregation, one of hundreds, came to be established. With a resident pastor who was rooted in the community, educated (but not overeducated), zealous and involved in the life of the village, preaching sermons in the local dialect, it is not a surprise that this new Protestant congregation would quickly grow. When the Catholic priest next came to San Miguelito for his yearly visit, there was a clear lack of interest in what he had to say.
Even if a celibate priest could be found to go and live in a remote village like San Miguelito, he comes as an outsider, an "intellectual" with a university and seminary training. He has read Aquinas and Bonaventure, perhaps Rahner or Ratzinger. With whom can he talk? Where is the intellectual stimulus? With neither a wife nor children, how long before boredom and loneliness leads him to alcohol, eccentricities or sex? Pablo, on the other hand, "fits in." His sermons may be rather thin theologically, fundamentalist and naive, but he is accepted and content with his little flock.
In Peru and Bolivia, in Guatemala, Brazil and Mexico, wherever there are few priests or where the priests are arrogant or indolent, the story of San Miguelito has been repeated. The bishops of Latin America meet and discuss this, but they seem powerless to halt the march of converts into evangelical Protestantism or Mormonism. One Mormon "elder" (all of 20 years old) told me that in the United States their most successful area for conversions is the Southwest. They are finding so many converts among Hispanics that they hardly have resources or time to process them all.
In Latin America even very small villages will have an Assembly of God or other evangelical church. A town of any size will also boast a large white Mormon "church" with a gleaming spire pointed like a needle into the sky, a religious education building and a tidy sports field for soccer and American basketball. For several decades now, it may well be that the most effective preachers in Spanish or Portuguese are not Catholic. In many places, the Catholic clergy are not only outnumbered, but they seem to lack the fervor and evangelical passion of the Protestants. All this has been the price, a very high price, for the Catholic unwillingness or inability to supply sufficient and effective pastors for the people.
The problem in Latin America, of course, goes back several centuries. Even in colonial times under the Catholic monarchs, with flourishing religious orders and governmental support, there were never enough clergy to preach and celebrate the sacraments.
In Europe and North America, the crisis is much more recent. The use of married priests and perhaps women priests has been offered as a solution and rejected. Rather, the challenge is met by downplaying, in practice, the necessity of Sunday Mass and the recruiting of nonordained men and women to conduct a prayer service in lieu of Mass.
Martin Luther and John Calvin dreamed of a church without holy orders, a sacrificial liturgy, confession and anointing of the sick. Now, in many places, regular access to the sacraments is not possible. Will the next generation continue to see them as important? Will even the Eucharist, like confession, become a disappearing sacrament?