Why formulate the heading in such a careful way? Why start by saying it “ can be” that viri probati1 become an enrichment while so many think it will automatically be a positive development? As the situation is at the moment, there are two opposing camps, the one fearing that such ordinations would endanger the Church, the other camp hoping they would be an automatic enrichment. The strange thing is that neither of the two sides have, until now, presented details, nor have they presented the fears or hopes connected with this new kind of ordained ministry. Both sides simply feel sure they are right. Even at the recent Synod for Asia neither side tried to substantiate their stand. One side simply stressed that they need viri probati ordinations while the other tried to silence these voices. It was a repetition of what was going on during the past decades2 where we witnessed both sides constantly stressing their view without attempts at clarifying the controversial issue.
To clarify the issue, this is exactly the aim of the study which the present author undertook and which was published under the title Like His Brothers and Sisters: Ordaining Community Leaders (henceforth referred to as LHBS)3. It is summarized in these pages in order to invite many others to engage in the discussion. The matter is of such vital importance that it would be irresponsible to judge it before it is properly clarified.
Before we even begin looking at the details of the idea of viri probati we should keep in mind that much depends on the situation from which we view this issue. There are countries that are so well provided with priests that the thought of ordaining part-time priests seems completely absurd. On the opposite side, there are parishes or dioceses which - perhaps unconsciously - have prepared the ground so well for such ordinations that this step would appear as something quite normal.
Most church leaders who talk about viri probati assume that everybody means the same thing when using this term. It is only after a careful research that one discovers that they have several different models in mind. We have grouped them into three main options: ordaining employed pastoral workers, ordaining one lay leader at each place, and as the third option the ordination of a team of lay leaders in the parishes (LHBS 57-75).
In the young churches we are mainly faced with the two last options. The more common one is option two which means to ordain, in places of a great shortage of priests, one proven voluntary lay leader. The less common one we listed as option three, which means ordaining always a small team of local community leaders, never one alone. The difference between these two models seems small but it is enormous.
Those of the majority, who understand viri probati ordinations as one-person ordinations, simply presume that this is the only way viri probati can be introduced. They are not aware that there could be an alternative. Because they are not aware of any alternative, they have, until now, never presented arguments why their suggestion is the best one among several others. They did not present reasons simply because they were not aware of alternatives.
It was only this version of viri probati as one-person ordinations which was in the minds of all when preparatory discussions were held in the dioceses of the world for the Synod of Bishops of 1971, the synod which was to decide on the possible introduction of viri probati ordinations. As is well known, that synod decided by a narrow margin against it. This negative decision was, however, based on only one understanding of viri probati (LHBS 102 ff).
We are now realizing that there is an alternative to the one-person ordination of viri probati. It is the ordination of a small team of local leaders for each community. There are several other alternatives which appeared in the various publications (LHBS 57 ff) but our choice is practically only between these two, ordaining only one voluntary lay leader or a team of them in each community.
The consequences of this choice are absolutely crucial, because the two versions lead to two very different visions of Church. The many minute details of this choice have been considered elsewhere (LHBS 66-75) but we must keep in mind the major difference between these options.
One-person ordinations will perpetuate the present model of the providing Church with its deplorable passive consumer attitude of its members. The parishioners are waiting for a substitute for the missing full-time priest and when a substitute appears in the form of a part-time priest they will assume that the providing Church will continue as before. The experience of other churches has shown that such substitutes merely lead the people to an attitude of hoping to get a “ real priest” as soon as possible.
A further serious disadvantage is that this method may cause uncertainty among the present priests. They see a married person ministering in a part-time capacity what they have dedicated their whole lives to and this makes them unsure of who they are. It may well lead to many defections and much bitterness. Furthermore, the viri probati substitutes will in many cases become overburdened and will then try to become full-time priests. This type of ordination will therefore eventually lead to full-time married priests although it begins with unpaid, voluntary viri probati. It will indeed perpetuate the model of Church which is there to “ supply the people with sacraments.”
Introducing teams of viri probati may appear more difficult but will lead to different results. It will lead the minds away from the model of a provider-Church and will instead lead to an enormous increase in the involvement of the members of the community. Not only the few who are actually ordained but the whole community will have to become more involved in order to establish teams of this kind. Long before a community can get an ordained team of this kind, it has to go through awareness programs; it has to begin with many lay ministries; it has to get used to continuous formation and evaluation of all leaders. The whole community must become active before a small team of leaders is ordained.
A further advantage of this model is that the present celibate priests could at the same time begin to assume a new role. Their new role could be described as “ animator-priests.” As the role of presiding over the sacraments is more and more taken over by the ordained local team, the role of the present priests would not clash with them. The animator priests then become the formators and unifiers of the great number of ordained teams in a cluster of parishes. The present priests would not feel insecure because they would assume a clearly determined new role.
What immediately strikes us in this cursory comparison of the two models is the vast difference between the consequences. It also strikes us that the proponents of the one-person option will achieve something which actually they do not want to achieve. They probably do not aim at perpetuating the provider-Church nor do they wish to endanger the present priests, yet this would be the outcome.
Another aspect to be kept in mind is that this is a one-way street. There will be no way back. Besides we would not be able to take the one-person ordinations as a first, easier start in order to move on to the team ordinations at a later stage. If we begin with the one-person model we will remain with it and with its consequences.
Some may doubt whether the two types of ordinations will really lead to such contrasting consequences. This again proves the need to urgently reflect more carefully about these questions. We surely need more clarification before we take a stand for or against this innovation. We need publications and we need study groups which carefully consider the most likely consequences of each type of viri probati.
At the end of this section let us be aware that the very terminology may make the dialogue difficult. The term viri probati is by no means the most suitable term. It is, however, the term by which the whole issue became known and for this reason we choose to continue using it, at least for some time. In the future this term may not be useful and it may put many people off. In the study under consideration we made more frequent use of the term “ ordained community leaders”. The search for the most suitable terminology will surely continue (LHBS 75-78).
Practically all publications give as motive for introducing viri probati priests the shortage of priests and nothing else. There is hardly any exception. This is, at the same time, the reason why the proponents of the one-person model are by far the majority. The shortage of priests automatically narrows the focus on the one single question: how to find anybody who can administer the sacraments. It almost appears as if it would not matter who can administer them. The publications are completely dominated by the statistics of the dwindling number of priests and the shocking reports of how long the faithful have to wait to get the sacraments. In a similar way the theological considerations concentrate only on one aspect, on the discrepancy between the importance of the Eucharist and the rare celebration of it, on the right to the sacraments, and on the affirmation that it is theologically possible to ordain proven local leaders.
It is very understandable that the shortage of priests has become the main concern. Great sacrifices have been made to build up a complete sacramental life in all the parishes and it is true that this should remain a key aspect of our work. It should, however, be seen within the wider vision.
The Second Vatican Council has presented a much wider view of what the priesthood is, what the Church is, and what the local Christian community is. This wider vision should be our guide as we become aware that the concrete model of viri probati we choose will determine the whole image of the Church, not only the frequency of the sacraments.
A first cursory look at these other motives (LHBS 85-98) shows us that there are indeed other motives why we should ordain local community leaders. We should ordain them because a mature community should have presiders who come from its own members. We should ordain them because their ordination helps to symbolize that it is this community who celebrates, not only a person sent to it. We should ordain people fully immersed in this world in order to show that God is everywhere in the world. Being convinced that the local community is a family of believers we should ordain local leaders so that this local family should not have to wait for somebody from elsewhere in order to celebrate its liturgies.
There are certainly more motives for ordaining local leaders than the need for more frequent celebration of the sacraments. St.Paul surely had more motives than that when he ordained leaders in all communities. His frequent absence was surely not his main reason. His theology of community life certainly led him to see that there must be a sound balance between the ministries exercised by the apostle who comes from outside to the community and those exercised by the local leaders. He surely had theological reasons why the local leaders should accept the responsibilities of ordination in order to lead and serve their community. We also know that the early Church Fathers had more motives than the lack of ordained priests to celebrate the sacraments. They wanted some of the believers to preside because of their outstanding witness to Christ. When some believers were ready to die as martyrs and survived the ordeal, they were asked to preside even without ordination.4 What a contrast to those of today who want to use ordination only where absolutely unavoidable and therefore opt for the one-person ordination instead of that of a team. Theologians have to go much deeper into the question of why local leaders should be ordained. The present argumentation which is confined to the narrow aspect of the scarcity of leaders to officiate the sacraments is surely not sufficient.
This is not the place to fully unfold the theological basis for ordination. What we should realize at this moment is that the exclusive focusing on the shortage of priests is harmful. If this remains our only motive, we will go astray. We will opt for solutions that will harm the mission of the Church. This narrow motivation will tempt us to opt for introducing one-person viri probati with all its negative consequences. If, on the contrary, we begin by listing more motives, if we list several aims which have to be pursued at the same time, we will make a more enlightened choice. We do have several aims which have to be pursued at the same time. We want to build living communities, we want to overcome the era of the provider-Church. We want to build communities which serve the world of today and give witness to the people of today. The team-model of viri probati therefore ought to be given preference.
The major consideration which prompted the majority of the Synod Fathers of 1971 to vote against introducing viri probati was the fear that “ to allow the ordination of married men anywhere would almost certainly cause reactions and pressures everywhere” (Magrath 1996: 51-8). The bishops feared an escalation which would be impossible to control. They were at that time witnessing an enormous number of defections from the priesthood because of the increased emphasis on the status of the laity. If that minor change caused such upheaval, how much greater the chaos if married men were ordained priests and were functioning side by side with celibate priests. The fear was understandable.
Things will look quite different if the celibate priests are assured of a new role and are not just officiating side by side with married viri probati. We will even go a step further. Instead we will not just make a vague, theoretical promise of a new role for the present celibate priests. We will make the start only in those places where local community leaders are already conducting liturgical services. There are at this moment already many parishes, especially in the young churches, where two or three priests live together and serve a vast area of thirty, fifty and more communities. In other places one priest serves ten or twenty communities. Among this vast number of communities the present priests are already exercising the role of the animator and the unifier, besides the role of being the only presider over the sacraments. For these priests the major role is already today the formation of the hundreds of local community leaders. The community leaders are already conducting most of the liturgical life, albeit in an incomplete way. It will mean no upheaval and no chaos if some of these local leaders are ordained.
The fear of causing uncertainty among the present celibate priests is a real one, but only for those who have not yet exercised this new role of the animator priest. Where the present priests are still confined to the old role of being the only one who can preside over the Eucharist and the only shepherd over the flock, it must be deeply shocking to suddenly see Mass celebrated by the bank manager, the bus driver, the carpenter. They must feel compelled to say: “ Who am I now, if these who lead lay peopleÕs lives, do priestly work?”
This is why it is important not just to begin ordaining where the need is greatest. If the only motive is to fill the gaps, then we would start ordaining one person here and there, wherever the gaps are great. We would then see viri probati priests next to traditional priests in a confusing mixture, each married priest would see his role as that of providing the sacraments where there was no celibate priest to provide them. This would cause uncertainties on all sides. It will lead to chaos.
There is an alternative which avoids such chaos. It is to make the start not where the need is greatest but where the new role of the animator priest is already established. Fortunately we already find many parishes in the young churches and some in the older churches where both the need and the new role of the priest exist at the same time. These are the dioceses and parishes where the start can safely be made.
Neighboring dioceses will have a special interest to avoid the danger of disorder. They have to assure each other that they will not cause problems to each other when one diocese introduces viri probati ordinations while some other dioceses are still a long way from initiating and when again others are totally opposed to it. It is already an established practice that innovations with such enormous consequences can only be introduced if the Episcopal Conference gives the overall green light for them. The conferences will do so only if some guarantees exist whereby the dioceses which make the start will assure the others that they will embark on this path in a way which will not cause problems to the others. Some examples of such assurances are already presented, such as a list of preconditions which the diocese and each parish will have to fulfill before beginning with the process (LBHS 147-152). If dioceses can commit themselves to such preconditions, then other dioceses which are not yet ready for this step may agree more readily to an overall decision to introduce viri probati in a country.
The uncontrolled spread of viri probati ordinations must indeed be avoided and an agreed list of preconditions is the best way to achieve this. It is actually not a legal instrument of control but an agreed vision. It means that the dioceses commit themselves to follow only the vision of team-ordinations based on the new role of animator priests and to avoid the simplistic method of one-person ordinations. If some dioceses of a country would follow this more primitive model of one-person ordinations and would, as a consequence, have many priests who abandon their life commitments, this would surely cause harm to the neighboring dioceses.
If there is no agreed vision, and if overcoming the scarcity of the sacraments is the only motive, then one parish after the other will come to the bishop and will ask for the ordination of one good person. They will impress on the bishop how long they have been without sacraments and point out at the same time that they do have one exemplary candidate for ordination. Without an overall vision it will be difficult for a bishop to avoid a harmful escalation. This again emphasises the need to overcome the narrow focus on the shortage of priests.
Another fear which has often been voiced can be avoided in this way. It is the fear of establishing “ two classes of priests,” an argument which has never been presented in a clear way. The suggestion presented here is to make the two kinds of priests (the viri probati and the animator priests) as distinct as possible. The solution does not lie in making them similar but in making them dissimilar. Chaos and disorder is caused if the two roles are too similar, if the two kinds of priests compete with each other, if one tries to imitate the other. There are some non-Catholic churches who have introduced “ self-supporting priests” and have introduced them as one-person ordinations. These self-supporting priests who continue to follow their secular profession dress on Sundays in clerical dress and try in many other ways to imitate the full-time priests as closely as possible. They want to be a perfect substitute until the “ real kind of priest” can take over again. It is this similarity which will be a problem. It is better to make the two kinds very distinct. Each has its own vocation and its own role. Each depends on the other. They can only function by acting in a complementary way. They will solve the problem by working in an interdependent way, not by being two different classes of priests. There will be areas where the educational standard of the viri probati is quite low, in keeping with the overall level of the population. Even in such areas the viri probati should not try to imitate the animator priests. Neither would therefore be a danger to the other.
When the question of order and discipline is discussed in connection with the introduction of viri probati, many refer to the question of the continuation of celibacy (LHBS 78, 138-145). The first thing to keep in mind is that the introduction of viri probati will demand a deeper spirituality of the present priests, not a reduced one. In order to be the formator of the teams of viri probati one needs more spirituality, not less. This increased demand will be felt by the present priests and in the future the dioceses will still be more careful in the choice of candidates for full-time priests. While at present the dioceses are often looking just for faithful administrators of the sacraments, in the future they will make sure the candidates can be the spiritual animators for the many ordained teams. Is it not true that this is an increased reason, not a reduced one, for choosing those candidates who are following the evangelical counsels? The introduction of viri probati will put the question of the evangelical counsels in a new light. While until now many wrongly presume celibacy to be a precondition for presiding over the sacraments, this mistaken reasoning would automatically disappear when so many married community leaders are ordained. Then it would become absolutely clear that the reason for following the evangelical counsels is a much deeper one. One of the side-effects of this development would be that the term “ optional celibacy” would become obsolete. It is a misleading term and it should be totally avoided in our discussions (LHBS 78-80).
Several authors have suggested that the permission to introduce viri probati should only be granted with a simultaneous emphasis on upholding the law of celibacy for full-time priests. To rely on legal pronouncements will, however, have little meaning and little success. If both kinds of priest - the viri probati and the full-time priests - fulfill the same role of providers of the sacraments then a purely legal enforcement of celibacy for one of the two kinds of priesthood will appear meaningless. Why there should be a difference in life-style between the two kinds of priests cannot be established by legal means alone. It can only become clear through an overall vision which shows how the difference between the two kinds of priesthood is essential and fruitful.
Several additional steps will be needed in order to progress in an orderly way. One of them is the firm establishment of unending, ongoing formation for all kinds of leaders, based not so much on the travel to institutes of formation but on the formation offered locally by the animator priests. If the ongoing formation of viri probati takes place at distant institutes without the local animator priests, then the two roles will not become interlinked but may compete with each other, leading to the problems listed above. Ongoing formation offered locally through the animator priests should be the basis, even if its quality is not as good as that offered by regional study houses. An additional reason is that the viri probati teams should be linked with their bishop (LHBS 164). This link is theologically and practically essential. It will, however, be difficult in practice because the viri probati priests would be fully occupied by their secular profession and the needs of their families. The link can, however, be established through the animator priests and for this reason a major part of their initial and ongoing formation should be provided by the animator priests.
Tensions and disorder could also arise through those who will remain opposed to the whole idea of diversification of the priesthood. The problem could at least be reduced by open dialogue meetings before the decision is made about introducing viri probati and during the process of introducing them. There are some who suggest to introduce viri probati in an almost unnoticeable way, with as little publicity as possible. This may flow from good intentions but it remains a fact that the communities are then not consulted at all about a question of such vital importance. Dialogue sessions in all parishes are a better way. This will not be easy because these meetings will surely bring to light many opposing views and will lead to emotional scenes. It is, however, the only honest way and it will give the opposing groups at least a chance to state their case openly.
Many will feel that chaos will be caused by groups of women who will point out that it is ridiculous to talk of proven men while we know that in all parishes there is a much greater number of proven women. Dialogue meetings will definitely often center on this point. Many will demand that the issue of womenÕs ordinations must be solved first before introducing ordinations for proven men alone. We can, however, foresee that men and women will come to realize that it is impossible to solve both questions at the same time. In most cases they will realize that it is counter-productive to oppose the introduction of viri probati on this ground of the inclusion of women. The introduction of teams of viri probati in the parishes, combined with formation sessions of many other kinds of lay leaders, combined with a greatly increased decision-making process in the parishes, is a step which must come first. It will change the image of the parish to a great extent and we must first see how we can manage this first step. At a later stage we can again dialogue whether it is truly impossible or possible to add another one.
Disorder will also be feared because of the fact that a member of viri probati cannot be transferred if some of them become impossible in their communities. This danger is already greatly decreased by having only teams ordained, not one person alone. It will, however, remain a real difficulty. As life is, there will be cases where one of the ordained local leaders will appear totally unsuitable, either for a limited time or permanently. He will, however, continue to live in the same community and will have some friends who insist that he continue in office. Again we should not rely on legal means alone. We will have to introduce various community-based processes. One of them is a periodic renewal season for all office bearers of the parish, not only for the ordained ones. If the parish becomes used to a periodic renewal, to the periodic election of office bearers, to a continuous rotation of office, then the tensions which will necessarily arise will be greatly reduced. The periodic presence of the animator priests and the periodic visit of the bishop or his representative will be a necessary component of all this. We may have to create special liturgies where the existing office bearers of the parish are reaffirmed by the bishop (LHBS 165f).
The list of unnecessary fears is indeed a long one. Another one is the fear of an increased financial burden on the dioceses. It has sometimes been said that this could arise when self-supporting priests or deacons become ill or become unemployed. It has also been argued that, because of their ordination, the dioceses would then have the duty to support them and their families. This is not true. There are dioceses with a large number of self-supporting deacons and they have not incurred an additional financial burden. It is, however, also clear that this danger might be slightly higher in one-person ordinations become the norm. It will definitely not arise when team-ordinations are chosen. On the contrary, the introduction of viri probati teams will mean a decrease in expenses because there will be less need for the full-time priests to make long journeys to the scattered communities in order to preside over the sacraments (LHBS 48, 179ff)
This long list of possible difficulties and causes of disorder should not frighten us. There are ways of dealing with them. If the correct model of viri probati is chosen, they can be solved.
The introduction of teams of ordained viri probati will not be a minor step. It will be a step of enormous proportions. We will be faced with not only one but with several changes. The way the average Catholics experience the sacraments will change. The way they experience the concept “Church” will be different. The way they experience “ the sacred” will change. The present priests and bishops will feel differently. The way young people will experience a vocation will be different. The way decisions are made will change. Religious orders and institutes will see their role somewhat differently. The list of foreseeable changes is a long one. One almost feels the change is too enormous to be faced.
One of the reasons why this study is undertaken is exactly to clarify what is meant by this small phrase viri probati and to make us aware that we are dealing with an issue of enormous proportions. It would be irresponsible to close our eyes to the many consequences involved here.
Looking at this enormity of change, we should of course keep in mind that this is not the first time such enormous changes have happened in the Church. The change from the priesthood of the Early Church to the medieval one was enormous, and so was the change from the medieval one to the Tridentine one. Several other examples could be added. Changes of this magnitude have happened before and they should be welcome.
The enormity alone is no valid motive for refusing to initiate change. The only valid motive is the truth. Is it true that this change is needed? Is it true that it will mean a great enrichment for the Church? We have to clarify this question.
There are things we have to fear and to avoid. If, for instance, we have valid reason to fear that a wrong introduction of viri probati would lead to a split in the Church, we have to avoid it and look for other alternatives. If, on the other hand, we have valid reason to see that this enrichment of the Church is possible if undertaken in the right way, then the enormity of change should not deter us from taking this step.
While admitting that the overall changes are indeed very great, it will be a consolation to realize that it will not happen overnight. Even if the presbyterate and the diocesan pastoral council of a whole diocese decides to introduce the ordination of community leaders, it will take a few years before even a small number of parishes can actually ordain teams. Most of the priests will remain unaffected for many years. It will take years before other parishes can follow and it may take decades before a major part of a diocese can take this step. Time is needed for an adjustment.
Reasons have been put forward for why we do not have to fear the enormity of this change. It is now our task to clarify what is at stake and how valid the arguments are.
Our study has revealed another interesting aspect. Those who are eager to introduce the ordination of community leaders need not wait idly for the day when this permission is granted. We have realized that for most parishes the road to this possibility is a rather long one. It takes years to go through the stages of community building which the most basic preconditions on which everything else will rest. It takes more years to establish a firm tradition of ongoing formation of many kinds of ministries which do not yet need ordination. After this stage another few years may be needed until community leaders could be ordained. Many seem to think mistakenly that all we have to do now is to wait until the final permission is given by Rome. No, the many preparatory years can start right now. Furthermore, these preparatory experiences are the very tools that enable us to talk about issues of this kind. Without these preparatory experiences, positive and negative ones, we may misunderstand the question of sharing ministry. We can only talk in a meaningful way about these issues if we have dealt with them in some way. Otherwise, they remain unrealistic theory.
Many of the fears of which we spoke above are not perceived as fears by those who have much experience in community building while others view them as overpowering. The joy of sharing ministry is only known to those who do it, while others perceive it as a threat. A meaningful discussion of this subject is only possible for those already involved in the first stages of the process. Lastly, the wide sharing of ministry is our duty and responsibility, even if the whole Church finally decides against the last stage of ordaining community leaders. There is no reason to wait idly.
Making an immediate start does not mean looking for the names of possible candidates or establishing a training center for future viri probati. Experience has shown that the listing of names must be the very last thing to do. The initial steps of community building and participating in lesser ministries must be done without any view of later promotions. The motive of serving God and the community must be the only motive. Only after many years can the search for candidates begin.
In the many private discussions on this subject of viri probati, there was one sentence, which occurred again and again. Invariably somebody would say: “I know a person who could be ordained immediately.” To me these words were never a cause of joy. It indicated to me that people rely too much on a kind of magic solution. It seems to say: “If we have a person who has the power to consecrate bread and wine, our problem is over.” Hopefully it became clear in these pages that the challenge is much bigger and the promise much greater.
In conclusion let us use the comparison with partnership. If we introduce viri probati priests as partners of the full-time priests, it will work. If we introduce them as substitutes, it will not work. Partners need each other, competitors fear each other. If somebody wants viri probati for nothing else than for having additional “ consecrators” he should give up the idea because this way leads to disaster. If, on the other hand, the provider-priests assume the new role of becoming animator-partners of the viri probati priests, it means an enriching change.
Many priests are still hesitant about the idea of ordaining local leaders. It seems too risky because there is no way back. Let them begin on a lower level, without ordinations. Let them begin by becoming partners (enablers) of the many existing lay leaders in the parishes. If this works, even the ordination will work and they have nothing to fear. If it fails, they are on the wrong path in any case and have to change direction. Partnership is our calling and it is possible. It will mean a great enrichment.
1995 Europe Without Priests? SCM Press.
1996 “ The Synod Assessed,” in African Ecclesiastical Review, 1/72 Nairobi, Kenya.