At the very center of Roman Catholic life is the Eucharist. In large and
small communities, hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics throughout the world
gather on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, and in this they find their
Integral to the Eucharistic community is the priest pastor. He gathers the
community, he preaches the word, and most importantly, he is the one who leads
the community in the celebration of the Eucharist.
The parish pastor is charged to enter into collaboration with members of the
parish in building up the body of Christ and proclaiming the good news of the
gracious and inclusive love of God. He is not the only parish minister, but
his ministry is unique and central to the identity of a Catholic parish.
The pastor is not a circuit rider, he lives in a parish community, shares
life with that community, mourns and rejoices with the community. He is present
at birth and death, victories and defeats. He is an integral member of the
parish community. When he gathers the community for Eucharist, he stands in the
midst of a community in which he is both nourished and challenged.
In the past 25 years the number of Roman Catholics in the United States has
dramatically grown by 14 million people, that is a 27 percent increase. At the
same time the numbers of Roman Catholic priests has dramatically diminished
from 58,500 to 45,700, a decrease of 21 percent.
Parishes are larger and more diverse, and the number of priest pastors is
smaller and aging.
What is at stake is the ability of the Catholic Church to remain a
Eucharistic community: a community that gathers each Sunday at the table of the Lord; a
community which is nurtured and nourished on the book and the cup; a community
in which a local priest pastor shares life with a congregation and gathers a
congregation in the mystery of Christ.
In the main, Catholic clergy are celibate males; although one third of the
Catholic clergy of the archdiocese are married men -- deacons of the church, so
constituted by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Priests and bishops, so cons
tituted by the same Sacrament of Holy Orders, are celibate males.
It seems to me, that for the sake of Catholic identity, for the sake of
Eucharistic identity, it behooves the Catholic Church to seriously discuss the
shrinking number of priests and the pastoral demands of the church.
For Roman Catholics there is no value higher and more precious than the
Sunday Eucharistic gathering, and there can be no Eucharist without the ministry of
a parish priest.
In growing numbers, funerals take place without a parish priest and the
celebration of the Eucharist. More marriages are solemnized without the presence of
the parish priest and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In many places the
opportunities to gather for daily mass is lessening, and in some places in the
United States Catholic communities gather on Sunday, but without the celebration
of the Eucharist.
I submit that there are hundreds, thousands of great, large souled, deeply
committed, faith-filled married men who are eager to offer themselves as
candidates for the Catholic priesthood.
Some hold that the demands of parish ministry are too much for a man
committed to his family. I submit the same can be said for tens of thousands of physici
ans, police officers, firefighters and many others who are called upon in all
circumstances to serve the needs of a community. Life is not easy, but it
works; and the life of a married parish pastor can work too.
A celibate priesthood has been and is a great blessing to the Catholic
Church. The preceding remarks are in no way intended to denigrate or lessen the
value of celibacy and the gift of celibacy to the priesthood.
Yet, the Eucharistic identity of the Catholic community is far more important
and far more central to Catholic life than a celibate priesthood.
It is past time for the church, bishops and laity, to seriously, creatively,
boldly open a far-ranging discussion on the future of our Eucharistic