10/10/2019, 14.36
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Amazon Synod: Are married priests really a solution? (Part One)

by Martìn Lasarte

For Fr. Martìn Lasarte, a Salesian, the "viri probati" proposal risks being a response born of imbedded clericalism. The Church’s history is rich with examples of fruitful evangelizations carried out by baptized lay people, without any priests (Korea, Vietnam and today many African nations). One contribution to the debate that is inflaming the Extraordinary Synod on the Amazon.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The proposal to ordain married laymen ("viri probati") to guarantee the Eucharist to the Catholic communities dispersed in the Amazon basin, has been continuously pointed to during discussions at  the Extraordinary Synod currently underway in the Vatican. Besides being present in the Instrumentum Laboris, the proposal emerged in the report of Card. Hummes and in every daily press conference thus far.

As a contribution to the debate, we present the thoughts of Fr. Martín Lasarte, a Uruguayan Salesian, a missionary in Africa, member of the worldwide missionary animation team of the Salesian Congregation. In particular, he is responsible for missionary animation in Africa and America. Father Martin was appointed a Synod Father by Pope Francis.

In this article - which we present in two parts today and tomorrow - Fr. Lasarte judges the campaign to ordain married lay people as "clericalism" and cites the many examples of fruitful evangelization by lay people in Korea, Japan and Africa. In addition, Fr. Lasarte expresses the doubt about the type of evangelization poured into the Amazon thus far, which has not been attentive to nourishing local vocations.

Here we publish extensive excerpts of a much more voluminous article, offered to us by the author, entitled A ordenação sacerdotal dos “viri probati” será a grande solução para a evangelização da Amazônia? ". The full article appeared in Italian in "Settimana News" on 12 August 2019.

It is said that the priestly ordination of lay people in distant communities is necessary, because of the difficulty encountered by ministrants in reaching them. In my view, the setting of the problem in these terms reveals  engrained clericalism. It seems that where there is no "priest" or "nun" there is no ecclesial life. The basic problem is much more serious. A Church has been created where the laity do not see themselves as protagonists and where there is little or no sense of belonging, a Church that, if there is no "priest", does not work. This is an ecclesiological and pastoral aberration. Our faith, as Christians, is rooted in baptism, not in priestly ordination.

Sometimes I have the impression that we want to clericalize the laity. First of all we need a Church of baptized protagonists, disciples and missionaries. In various parts of our America, one has the impression that it has been sacramentalised but not evangelized, that water has been mixed with vinegar, but not water with wine. A "functional" vision of the ministry, which does not revitalize the entire Christian community as a protagonist of evangelization. Thus having ordained laymen, will not solve the problem, the Christian baptismal commitment will remain the same.

We need to broaden the horizon and look at the life and experience of the Church in its universal context. The Church of Korea was born from the evangelization of the laity. The layman Yi Seung-hun, baptized in China, spread the Catholic Church throughout the country, baptizing himself. For 51 years from its foundation (1784-1835), the Korean Church was evangelized by the laity, with the occasional presence of a priest. That Catholic community flourished and spread far and wide, despite the terrible persecutions, thanks to the protagonism of the baptized.

The Church of Japan, founded by St. Francis Xavier (1549), blossomed vertiginously for three centuries ebven under persecution; the missionaries were expelled and the last priest was martyred in 1644. Only after more than 200 years could priests (French missionaries) return. And when they did they found a new Church formed by kakure kirishitan (hidden Christians). In Christian communities there were various ministries: a person in charge, catechists, baptizers, preachers. The criterion that the Christians guarded until the arrival of the new priests in the 19th century is interesting: the Church will return to Japan and you will know from these three signs: “the priests will be celibate, there will be a statue of Mary and they will obey the Pope sama of Rome”.

Allow me to move on to something more personal, to my 25-year missionary experience in Africa (Angola). Once the civil war ended in 2002, I was able to visit Christian communities that, for 30 years, had not had the Eucharist, nor seen a priest, but remained firm in the faith and were dynamic communities, led by the "catechist", which is a fundamental ministry in Africa, and by other ministers: evangelizers, prayer leaders, the pastoral care of women, service to the poorest. A living and secular Church in the absence of a priest.

In Latin America there is no lack of positive examples, such as among the Quetchi of central Guatemala (Verapaz) where, despite the absence of priests in some communities, lay ministers have living communities, rich in ministries, liturgies, catechetical itineraries, missions, among the which the evangelical groups have been able to penetrate very little. Despite the scarcity of priests for all the communities, it is a local Church rich in indigenous priestly vocations, where even female and male religious congregations of totally local origin have been founded.

Why are there no vocations in the Amazon?

Is the lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the Amazon a pastoral challenge or is it rather the consequence of theological-pastoral options that have not given the expected results or only partial results? In my opinion, the proposal of the "viri probati" as a solution to evangelization is an illusory, almost magical proposal that goes nowhere near to addressing the real underlying problem.

Pope Francis writes in Evangelii gaudium 107: " Many places are experiencing a dearth of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. This is often due to a lack of contagious apostolic fervour in communities which results in a cooling of enthusiasm and attractiveness. Wherever there is life, fervour and a desire to bring Christ to others, genuine vocations will arise. Even in parishes where priests are not particularly committed or joyful, the fraternal life and fervour of the community can awaken in the young a desire to consecrate themselves completely to God and to the preaching of the Gospel. This is particularly true if such a living community prays insistently for vocations and courageously proposes to its young people the path of special consecration".

The Pope touches on the key to the problem. It is not the lack of vocations, but the lack of proposal, the lack of apostolic fervor, the lack of fraternity and prayer; the lack of serious and profound evangelization processes.

Allow me to compare and contrast with two other "biomes" rich in biological, spiritual and ecclesial life: the biome of the Brahmaputra river and the biome of the Congo basin.

In north-eastern India, evangelization has progressed decisively since 1923, thanks to a small Catholic community that did not reach 1,000 Christians. According to data from 2018, this region today consists of 1,647,765 Catholics, with 3,756 religious and 1,621 priests (half of them belonging to local ethnic minorities and the rest missionaries from other parts of India). There are 15 dioceses rooted in ethnic minorities with about 220 local languages ​​(Naga, Khasi, Wancho, Nocte, Jaintia, Apatani, Goro, Ahom, War, Bodo ...). These populations, like the Amazon ones, have remained isolated for centuries from Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, taking refuge in the mountains and forests of the Himalayas, living their ancestral practices. An impressive change took place over 90 years. The ratio between Catholics and Catholic priests today is 1 to 1,000, which is excellent. Many Christians of these "tribal" minorities have occupied significant positions in India's local and national politics.

The other biome is the Congo River, with the surrounding countries: over 500 populations and languages. Christianity has gone through various difficulties, the same as in other contexts, with the added challenge of being considered the religion of colonialism during the period of decolonization (1960s and 1970s). Despite everything, the flowering of the African Churches is evident and promising. In that biome, priestly vocations have grown by 32% in the last 10 years and the trend seems to continue.

We could bring other examples from Vietnam, Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country in the world), East Timor, Oceania ... but certainly not from our secularized Europe. In all geographical regions there are challenges and difficulties in Christian communities; but we see that where there is a work of serious, authentic and continuous evangelization, vocations to the priesthood are not lacking.

The inevitable question that arises is: how is it possible that peoples with so many anthropological-cultural riches and similarities with the Amazonian peoples, in their rituals, myths, a strong sense of community, communion with the cosmos, with profound religious openness ... have vibrant Christian communities and flourishing priestly vocations while in some parts of the Amazon, after 200, 400 years, there is ecclesial and vocational sterility? There are dioceses and congregations present for over a century and which do not have a single local indigenous vocation. Is there an extra gene or one missing, or is the problem something elser? Are the cultural differences so great?

A possible answer is that the Amazonian peoples, culturally, do not understand the demands of celibacy. This problem has been raised by many, perhaps even with good will, but it is impregnated with strong cultural, not to say racial, preconceptions ... Exactly the same problem was posed in India, Oceania and Africa. The encyclical Maximum illud, whose centenary is celebrated during the synod with an extraordinary missionary month, responds to this problem. The document encourages and stimulates the promotion of indigenous vocations in the Churches that were dependent on the European colonies.

Here we can see, by way of example, the magnificent missionary work of the Spiritans, of the White Fathers, who have decisively opted for local vocations, creating thriving seminaries throughout Africa.

Certainly, dedicating oneself to working for vocations is challenging, it involves the investment of resources and the best staff. Sometimes the missionary life has avoided this precious service that in reality is what will cooperate to create a Church with an Amazonian face. Sometimes a life of "itinerant hero" in the forests is much more individually gratifying, than a loving, patient and respectful dedication to the accompaniment and formation of local vocations.

(End part one)

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