Priesthood in Two Forms: Priests and Elders?

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2009 »Volume 46 2009 Number 3 »Priesthood In Two Forms Priests And Elders

By Bp. Fritz Lobinger

Bp. Fritz LOBINGER, a retired bishop presently residing at Mariann-hill, South Africa, has a doctorate in missiology at the University of Münster, Germany. He wrote and edited the series “Training for Local Ministries” at the Pastoral Institute of Lumko (1971-86). His latest book is Every Community Its Own Ordained Leaders (2008).


Whenever bishops meet, you can be sure that they will soon discuss the topic of the shortage of priests and the future of priesthood. Soon you will also discover that half of the bishops feel there is no other solution than admitting a new kind of candidate to ordination, while the other half will be against that, saying such a step would endanger rather than rescue the present priesthood.

This happens so regularly that at several Synods of Bishops and at other meetings a special plea had to be made at the opening of the synods, not to raise this issue – and yet it keeps on coming up again and again. Too many of the bishops feel that besides praying for a return of our former high rate of vocations we also have to discuss the possibility of other solutions.

A great weakness of these informal discussions is that they lack precision. It was only at the Synod of Bishops of 1971 that the topic had been placed on the agenda a year before the synod, that preparatory symposiums had been held on the subject, and that the greater part of a whole synod was devoted to the consideration of this difficult topic. Since then the topic is only touched in a superficial, brief way on the sidelines.

Even on the level of theological publications, the topic is hardly ever considered as the main theme.1Theological writers are usually only voicing a demand for change without considering in detail what concrete steps would be needed to put such proposals into action. Most writers seem to be of the view that the whole issue has to be left to the pope. He is not only expected to say the last word on this question but even the details are expected from him.

Leaving even the details to the pope is something strange because everybody knows that the pope can only say the last word if there had been thorough reflection before the matter is coming to him. If the whole Church remains silent on the issue, it will not become clearer and the time for the last word will also not come nearer.

The Year for Priests is a time when all this has to go through our mind. It is a time when we not only renew our commitment to priesthood and pray for God’s help and guidance. Over and above this we also should discuss in detail whether it is really true or not true that there is no viable alternative to the accustomed form of priesthood.

The Alternatives

What are the alternatives that are presently mentioned? Whenever one listens to bishops, priests, and others discussing this issue one can usually hear the same suggestions. They can be put into three categories:

  1. Imitate what the Eastern Churches, the Ethiopian Church, or the Anglican Church does.

  2. Ordain some of the highly educated married Church employees that are already serving the parishes in some countries.

  3. Ordain some of the many voluntary proven married local leaders that we find in great numbers in our parishes.

The ordination of women is also suggested, but in a different kind of setting. In the discussions among bishops and priests, this suggestion is presently omitted because it is regarded as something that can at this moment not be expected realistically.

It is deplorable that the alternatives are not discussed in detail. If they were discussed, it would quickly become clear that the above listed first group of proposals is ruled out by our determination to become a participatory Church.

Exploring the Alternatives

Imitation of Other Churches

In the Eastern Churches the members of the monasteries are all celibate while the priests of the parishes are practically all married. There is no real shortage of priests. The first obstacle against following that pattern is that the liturgy of the Eastern Churches may be very beautiful but the people have no active role in the liturgy and the clergy see their role as a mainly cultic one. This obstacle could be avoided because we would only copy their structure, but not their liturgy. There is, however, the much bigger problem that not only part but practically the whole of the pastoral clergy is married. The Eastern Churches are no example for a professional pastoral clergy that consists of celibate priests working next to married ones. To try and imitate the pattern of the Orthodox Churches would mean to abandon celibacy altogether and this suggestion would, in the present situation, split the Church. Celibate parish clergy have proven to be of enormous value in our Church. A large part of the Church would absolutely reject the idea of confining celibate priesthood to the monasteries. An attempt to copy the pattern of the Eastern Churches would lead to chaos.

The same applies to the Ethiopian Church. That Church has an incredibly high number of married pastoral priests, next to the monastic clergy. The pastoral clergy are of low education and they partly support themselves through a trade or through agriculture. It is a priesthood that is easy to maintain economically. It is, however, a priesthood that does not value a participatory parish life. Even if we would refrain from copying this aspect of low participation, the main difficulty would again be that an attempt to copy their system would mean to completely abandon a celibate, totally committed priesthood.

Very different is the pattern of the Anglican Church. During the last fifty years they have introduced a second form of priesthood, usually called "self-supporting priests."2 While for several centuries the Anglicans had only fulltime working, fully theologically trained married priests, this eventually proved difficult financially. The smaller congregations found it impossible to financially maintain a highly educated priest. The Anglican Church therefore introduced self-supporting priests. These were men and women who often were teachers and office workers who had for many years, besides caring for their families, assisted the congregation through their voluntary work. They then received theological education through distance learning methods and were ordained. The scheme was so successful that by now about half of all Anglican priests are self-supporting.

This scheme of self-supporting priests has nothing to do with the question of celibacy because practically all of their priests are married, whether Church-supported or self-supporting. When the Anglican Church split away from the Catholic Church they abolished celibacy altogether. Although in recent times they made some attempts to re-introduce forms of monastic, celibate priests, this never gained ground and the number of such celibate priests is insignificantly low.

What we can learn from the example of the Anglican Church is that such an effort of creating a voluntary priesthood can easily lead to a rather new type of clerical priest. These voluntary priests wear clerical collar like the full-time clergy, are addressed as "Reverend," and they are transferred almost in the same way as the full-time priests. They usually work next to an overburdened full-time priest, almost like an assistant priest although they are not called by that term. It is usually one self-supporting priest working next to one full-time priest.

It is further interesting that this was not the original intention of the Anglican Church. They had originally intended to create a distinct, different type of ordained person. The original target model had been the elders of the early Church. In the early Church, each tiny Christian community, even a small community like that of Philippi, of Thessalonia and of Ephesus, had not only one presbyter but a group of elders who, together with a presiding elder, called "overseer"(episcopos), were leading the life of the community. The Anglican theologians who introduced the self-supporting priests wanted to re-create that pattern of teams of elders. They wanted to create teams of voluntary priests who lived very much like all other members of the community and surely were no "clergy," did not wear special dress, and were not called by a high title. We can learn from them that an excellent vision may get lost unless it is pursued with determination.

The strategists of the Anglican Church had intended to create two distinct types of priests, the full-time ones and the part-time ones, whereby the two types would work together and complement each other. None would imitate the other. They did not succeed because the accustomed traditional pattern of being led by a "clergyman" was too strongly embedded in everybody’s mind. The moment the self-supporting candidates were ordained, they had to follow the old pattern of the existing clergy. They now have two forms of priests which are financially different but in their clerical image are very similar.

Would such a pattern lead to a participatory Church? Only to a small extent, because participation is established only in so far as one person now works in a voluntary way at the side of the full-time priest. Yes, that one person now does an enormous amount of voluntary work for the congregation, but for the other parishioners this does not mean an increase in participation. They see one inspiring example, but this pattern could not be called "a new way of being Church."

Ordination of Educated Married Church Employees

A second type of suggestion can be heard whenever in Catholic circles there is a search for ways of overcoming the shortage of priests. It can be heard especially in countries where the Catholic dioceses have introduced highly trained full-time pastoral workers in their parishes. They are married but have often completed the same theological courses as the priests. They are a great asset to the parishes and their priests, although they cannot administer the sacraments. Ordination is ruled out for them because they are married.

These highly trained and well remunerated married pastoral workers can naturally only be found in the parishes of Europe and North America. The young Churches could not afford financially to employ such persons.

When parishes of Europe and North America suffer from a severe shortage of priests, the suggestion naturally arises to solve this problem by pleading for a change of canon law, so that these already trained persons could be ordained as priests. What speaks against this kind of suggestion?

The problem is that this would lead to a mixture of two types of full-time priests, some being full-time celibate priests while others are full-time married priests. It has been pointed out several times that celibacy is a discipline which we can only keep together. In our present public climate, it is impossible to expect half of the priests to remain celibate while this is not expected of the other half, although they do exactly the same kind of pastoral work. We have seen this in the above examples of the Eastern Churches and of the Anglican Church. In both cases the parish clergy is not mixed. It is not just half that is married, it is all of them. The half that is not married is found in the monasteries, not in the parishes. In other words, it is impossible in our days to make celibacy optional.

The word "optional celibacy" is easy to say but not easy to implement. This "option" is not like an option in other professions. Among dentists it is of course optional whether one is married or not. There are many other types of option which are easy to implement. But with regard to pastoral work it just would not work. The early Church had ordained elders who were all married, but after some centuries they were all celibate. Some individual exceptions are possible, but it will soon lead either to an all-celibate or to an all-married priesthood, as the examples show.

Although we all know that the discipline of priestly celibacy is fraught with some great difficulties and problems, we also know that it is a very high value. Just compare the married ministers of non-Catholic churches with the Catholic priesthood. Therefore, the suggestion to endanger it cannot even be tabled.

Ordination of Proven Local Leaders

This third proposal is of a different nature than the other two. At first glance, it looks like another emergency solution, like the two other suggestions discussed above. In fact, it is something different because it is the proposal to bring to completion a success story of which our Church can be proud. During the past fifty years, Catholic parishes and their priests have reacted in an astonishing way to the shortage of priests. The thousands of priestless communities, instead of sinking into a mood of despair, have brought forth a ministry structure which can only be admired. They developed into "self-ministering communities" whereby most of what the priest had been doing for the community in olden times is now done by voluntary leaders of the community. At the same time the priests of those multiple-community parishes have managed to train the hundreds of voluntary leaders of those communities. The priests had to develop these training methods and strategies by themselves. They had to invent all this and they did it well.

In the "self-ministering communities", two new things have happened: a sizeable team of local leaders have become a new kind of de facto pastors, and the priests have assumed the new role of formators for these many local leaders. These two new factors have changed the whole approach to the question of ordination.

The third proposal means the completion of this admirable development. It is the completion of something that is already ninety percent achieved. It is much more than an emergency solution. In concrete terms, this proposal means that for those well developed priestless communities, permission should be granted to confer priestly ordination on teams of their proven local leaders.

This is not a theoretical suggestion. It builds on something existing. The teams of leaders are conducting a Service of the Word every Sunday, except for the few Sundays when the priest can come to them. The leaders meet during the week to prepare a homily and in rotation a team of three of the leaders lead the service. Other members of the community are trained for catechesis and for visiting the sick. A church council organizes the life of the community and settles difficulties. There are faith-sharing groups in the neighborhoods which also try to make the faith relevant to the local situation.

We can therefore say that the project is already almost completely implemented. The local teams of leaders already exist. The acceptance of these leaders needs not to be proved because the communities have already accepted them. The sifting out of suitable leaders from less suitable ones is already happening. The sharing of the burden has already been done so that nobody is overburdened. A participatory Church already exists and the ordination of a team (not just one person) of local leaders would further increase this already existing high degree of participation. It would not just be a stop-gap measure to keep things going, but it would increase and deepen the degree of participation that has grown during the last decades.

If local leaders are ordained in this way, there would also be no danger of a "clericalization of the laity," as it is often called. Since it is not one person that is ordained, they would rotate in their work. No one would be exposed as the single substitute for the missing priest. Some of the ordained team would periodically be off-duty and would then mingle with the congregation. They would not officiate every Sunday and would not cease to live like other members of the community. After being ordained they would not appear as "mini priests." Those ordained would not claim any title and would not wear clerical dress. They would not be ordained for service in the whole diocese, would not be transferred and would only officiate in their own community. They would receive jurisdiction for periods of three years in order to make sure that there is regular ongoing formation and continuous contact with the bishop and his priests.

A second important feature of this proposal is that in this case the existing priests would not become insecure. They would not feel redundant but would feel sure that they will be needed even after the ordination of local leaders. The reason is that such self-ministering parishes always consist of ten, twenty or more scattered communities, each with a team of lay leaders. It is the priest who trains these teams of leaders and who insists that all of them would receive ongoing, unending formation through him, their priest. In those areas the leaders cannot be sent away to a diocesan centre for training. They must be trained locally and this is why the priest has, during the past decades, assumed the role of a formator of the local leaders. If the Church would introduce the ordination of these teams of leaders, the priests would know that they would be needed even more after the local leaders were ordained. They would have to continue giving ongoing formation and they would have to train additional candidates. They would have to help to sort out difficulties. The priests of such a cluster of communities would definitely not say that they fear becoming redundant.

While we said above that it is impossible to mix full-time celibate priests with full-time married priests, we realize that such a mixture will not happen if teams of local leaders are ordained. The two types of priests are then so different, that they will need each other and will complement each other instead of competing with each other. The key issue is that they are very different. It is this difference that is the solution.

Two Distinct Forms of Priesthood

If we would try to solve the shortage of priests by ordaining substitutes which are as similar as possible to the existing priest, then this similarity would make the present priests feel insecure. A celibate priest would start asking himself: if leaders who have not gone through a seminary and who are married can do the same as I do, why should I continue to remain celibate? One cannot demand two different preconditions for the same priestly role. What we have to do is to create a new, different priestly role. This is easy because it already exists, especially in the young Churches. In these large parishes consisting of many self-ministering communities the priests already exercise the role of formators. If the two types of ordained persons are different, if they constitute two distinct types of priests, then the present priests remain secure in their vocation. They are not endangered.

In other words: we have to create two types of priests, two forms of priesthood. The one type dedicates his whole life to his priestly work, just as Jesus did, as St. Paul did. The other type remains very similar to the other members of the community, having a family, having a secular profession, being addressed like anybody else. In order to distinguish the two forms we will below use two different terms for them, Priests and Elders. Both Priests and Elders are ordained by the same sacrament of the ministerial priesthood. There is no difference in their sacramental definition, but there is a big difference in their role.

The difference in role is important. It explains the difference in preconditions. For the role of the full-time spiritual formators, for the Priests, we expect total commitment, including celibacy, full theological training of university standard. For the role of Elders we only expect an average education, similar to the level of the particular area, and we expect that they have proven over several years that they give a Christian example and can lead the community. The difference in role explains the difference in preconditions.

In order to protect the Elders against unrealistic expectations we should use a different term for them and this is why we use the term "Elders". We should not call them "part-time priests" or "community priests" or by any other term that includes the term "priest". The reason is that the use of the word "priest", in any form or combination, will lead to unrealistic expectations. "Are you a priest or not?" some would say, "and if you are a priest you must be available at all times…" The use of a completely different term will be a protection for the Elders.

The big difference between Priests and Elders will also be reflected in their number. The number of Elders will be far higher than that of Priests. The ratio between Elders and Priests will not be 1:1 but at least 20:1. This is a result of their very different roles. One priest would accompany ten to twenty self-ministering communities, or two priests about forty. Each community would have their team of four, six, eight ordained Elders. Then there would be a ratio of 20:1 and even higher, between the Elders and the full-time Priests.

There is still the question whether the present priests will be willing and able to assume the new role of formators. When we discussed this question with groups of priests, we found that many of them were initially reluctant to agree to this change in role. They said they were trained to be priests, not to be formators. Only gradually it became clear to them that most of them were already exercising the role of formators. For many years each one of them had been training the leaders of these "self-ministering communities." Each of them was constantly giving ongoing formation to fifty, hundred, and more leaders. To prepare these leaders for ordination would not be a completely new and highly specialized task. It would only mean a rather small change. It would be possible for most of the existing priests.

When the practical implementation of such a proposal is discussed in detail, then it also becomes clear that the change would not be a sudden one. It would be a slow and gradual one. Initially only a few of the priests would change their role, and even these few would not change their role completely but only partially.

Let us take a concrete example. Let us take the example of a diocese of thirty parishes and six hundred communities, with fifty priests, a very common example. Presuming that Rome had given its overall permission for the ordination of local leaders, we now imagine that such a diocese, after a long time of discernment, decides to implement the ordination of teams of Elders. The bishop and his priests will probably come to an agreement that as a first phase only five of the thirty parishes should make a start. The five parishes might comprise about one hundred communities but not all of these are large enough and not all are prepared sufficiently for such a step. Only a quarter of the communities, only about twenty to thirty of them, might be selected for the first phase. The priests of the first five pilot parishes would therefore serve both the communities where Elders are prepared for ordination and the other communities in which pastoral work would continue as before. Thus even the role of the few priests of the pilot parishes would therefore not change completely. For the majority of the priests of the diocese, nothing at all would be changed initially. It would take a few years before they could decide who of their number were ready for a second phase of training candidates for Elders. The change would be very gradual, and it would give priests time to decide when to enter the next phase of the process. It can therefore be expected that a gradual process of this kind would be something acceptable to the priests.

An Enhancement of Priesthood

Eventually, after a good number of years, it can be expected that an ever greater proportion of the priests would work as formators and spiritual guides of the Elders and their communities while at the same time an ever greater number of communities would have teams of Elders. How would such a setup compare with the Church of today? And how would that future two-form priesthood compare with the uniform priesthood of today? Dare we say that it would be an enhancement of priesthood?

There is no doubt that the role of formator-priests would be more demanding than priesthood is today. The bishop, the priests, and the communities would be determined that in the future, only such candidates would be accepted for priesthood of whom they can be sure they will be willing and able to work as formator priests. This may mean a certain reduction in the number of priests but it would be balanced by their greater efficiency.

For the two forms of priesthood, this would mean that both move in a certain direction. The priesthood of the Elders would move closer to the side of the community. The priesthood of the formator-priests would move closer to the side of the bishop. Their role would become more similar to that of an overseer. It would be a more intensive participation in the role of the bishop. The formator priests will have a greater need to sit down with their bishop and plan together. They will become even more intimate co-operators of the bishop. Some bishops may even prefer to appoint many of them as Episcopal vicars for the areas where they act as formators. It will certainly and in several ways mean an enhancement of their priesthood.

Pilot Projects as the Best Way to Start

The issue is a complicated one. Although we have taken pains to point out that in the above described way, priesthood is not endangered but even enhanced, there will still be many who have fears about it. It is therefore unlikely that a Synod of Bishops or a Council could come to a unanimous decision to permit the ordination of teams of Elders. It will be impossible to achieve a fairly large consensus. It therefore seems advisable that the bishops should not even try to achieve a decision of a Synod or a Council. They should rather aim at the permission to start several pilot projects.

A few dioceses which are well prepared for such a step should ask the Holy See for the exceptional permission to ordain teams of Elders. In their application they should clearly and in great detail indicate in what way they would implement this project.3 In this way the other dioceses could more concretely see that this step is not endangering the present priests but it is an enhancement for them.

Several times the fear has been expressed that such a permission could not be confined to one particular area but would affect all the other areas. Bishops of dioceses with many priests have objected to experiments of this kind because they feared that such innovations would necessarily spill over into their diocese and would cause harm to their priests. There is no fear of this kind if the proposal is implemented in the way described above. In this case the change is confined to one particular diocese. Priestly commitment remains unaffected. It is a sound type of pilot project.

In this Year for Priests it is our task to consider such a proposal. It is far more than an emergency solution to the shortage of priests. Yes, we are finding ourselves in an emergency and this emergency must be solved, but we should go much further than that. Yes, the rarity of the sacraments must not be allowed to remain as it is. It is like an open wound in the body of the Church and this wound must not be left unattended. It must be healed. The pope and his co-workers are often considered as the stumbling block that prevents a solution to the shortage of priests. However, the pope is surely keen himself to overcome the absence of the sacraments in so many communities. He needs proposals that are thought through and do not present a danger. Then we can expect him to agree to pilot projects and eventually to two forms of priesthood.

During this Year for Priests we pray for God’s guidance with regard to the future of the Catholic priesthood. We pray as Jesus himself prayed: Not my will be done, but Yours. We are not telling God what the solution is. We accept divine guidance. We cannot tell God that the only solution is that the number of vocations must return to what it was a hundred years ago.

We began by referring to the many all too brief conversations about solving the shortage of priests. The above comparison between the three main types of proposals for solving this shortage was also still too brief. We are dealing with an issue which has many implications and which appears in many different ways according to the local circumstances. We certainly need a more widespread and more thorough discussion of this important topic.




1. The few exceptions seem to be W. Burrows, Ministry. The Global Context (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1980); J. Kerkhofs (ed), Europe without Priests (London: SCM, 1995). The author has himself presented details of this proposal in F. Lobinger, Like His Brothers and Sisters (Manila: Claretian Publ., 1998); Priests for Tomorrow(Manila: Claretian Publications, 2004); ibid, Teams of Elders: Moving beyond Viri Probati (Manila: Claretian Publications, 2007); Every Community Its Own Ordained Leaders: A Picture Book for Discussing the Shortage of Priests (Manila: Claretian Publications, 2008). There are many other publications on this subject but they present only the need for such a step but no details of an implementation.

2. Other terminology is also in use, e.g., "OLM" (Ordained Local Ministers) or "NSM"(Non-stipendiary Ministers).

3. See the model application in F. Lobinger, Teams of Elders, 29-43.

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