A priesthood returning to its roots?

Holy Thursday foot washing.jpgToday is Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, as it is popularly know, though that descriptor seems as odd as “Good Friday.” Maundy actually comes from the Latin word mandatum, which refers to Jesus’ words to the Apostles as he washes their feet: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you”) John 13:34.

That is a commandment we’d all do well (bloggers especially, I think) to remember. There is much else to commemorate this day as well: The institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and by extension the institution of the sacramental priesthood (as well as the betryal by Judas in the garden.)


The day thus reinforces the inherent connection between the Mass and the priesthood, but of course there are far fewer priests these days, and so less access to the Eucharist, not to mention pastoral care. Priests and lay people lose out.

Optional celibacy continues to be a promising option without official approval–yet. But as Cardinal Egan noted recently, it’s a matter of church law that can be discussed and changed, not dogma. And besides, most of those fellows at the Last Supper–and beyond–had spouses.

Things will change, I suspect. Interesting is this item from the latest edition of The Tablet of London:


New bishop calls for married priests

A PRIEST who is in favour of ordaining married men and increasing the decision-making powers of women and bishops’ conferences has been appointed a bishop to the bilingual diocese of Bozen-Brixen (Bolzano-Bressanone) on the Austrian/Italian border, writes Christa Pongratz-Lippitt.

Bishop Karl Golser told the weekly church paper of the Innsbruck Diocese, Tiroler Sonntag: “In future we will have a pastoral structure which is no longer as clerical and as concentrated on priests as it used to be. The question of ordaining proven married men – whose marriages have proved stable – and who are respected in their communities will therefore come up more and more often.”


The bishop pointed out that the Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome ordain married men, but added that it was a question of consensus and regional bishops’ conferences should be given more decisionmaking powers because the attitude to ordaining proven married men varied from continent to continent.

Bishop Golser said he also thought that women should be more involved in decision-making in the Church. “The Church will grow wherever women are given more such decision-making powers,” he said.

Good for him for saying what most bishops only whisper. This isn’t a matter of banishing or devaluing priestly celibacy. On the contrary. Rather, it is about elevating the Eucharist to its central place.

[Image above: Vincenzo Civerchio. Christ washing the feet of the disciples. 1544.

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posted April 9, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Wonderful post, David. And thank you for the references. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this holy day…. the new commandment, and the new ways to share the “love one another as I have loved you” admonition!
Not that I’m into sweeping changes and out-with-the-old thinking. But since we are ordaining married priests right now anyway, I see no reason not to include Catholic men who were raised Catholic and who may have a calling to both Sacraments – marriage and the priesthood.
Happy Easter to you.

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posted April 9, 2009 at 2:24 pm

The idea that the celibate priesthood is some how on its way out the door is laughable. The celibate lifestyle of our priests is an indispensable characteristic of the ministry, and the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him recognize that. Opening the priesthood up to married men would do nothing to increase vocations. Instead, it would lead to nothing more than a relegation of the priesthood of Jesus Christ as just another “ministry” within the Church. That type of thinking, in reality, is what has led to a decline in vocations not just to the priesthood, but to the religious life. The blurring of the lines between those who share in the Eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ and those who have the baptismal priesthood is a dangerous development in the modern-day Catholic Church that ought be discouraged. Priests must maintain and reclaim their priestly character, and hold firm to the lifestyle that sets them apart for the Kingdom of God. May Jesus Christ be praised for the celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

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Steve T

posted April 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Why should the priesthood be held to a 9th century invention, intended to prevent priests from having so many babies?

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Phillip Clark

posted April 9, 2009 at 7:32 pm

This Bishop is spot on! If only more leaders within the hiearchy, especially here with our overtly conservative USCCB, would have the courage to speak the truth and realize that many questions such as this one and other issues (including homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and other matters pertaining to human sexuality) will have to be wrestled and answered with a clear, scientifically aided consensus from the Church. Let’s continue to pray for a Spirit guided reform and renewal of our Church!

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Jim McCrea

posted April 10, 2009 at 12:40 am

The idea that the Catholic priesthood has a “celibate lifestyle” is becoming laughable. Africa is rife with concubinage. Ditto for Latin America. Ditto for the US. Celibacy is as much observed in teh breach as it is in the practice. Not being married is not the same as observing a celibate lifestyle!

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Your Name

posted April 10, 2009 at 7:33 am

Rushad’s comments indicate s/he has swallowed wholesale a totally ahistorical and biblically unsustainable understanding of the sacrament of orders. Popes and bishops have quite happily accepted the ordination of married men in the past and in the present. It was John Paul II, with the agreement of the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who authorized the ordination of numerous Episcopal/Anglicans to the priesthood within recent memory. Unless Rushad can offer a justification of more substance than the remarks offered they really don’t warrant further circulation. They also disparage, implicitly and indirectly the the sacrament of orders as it is lived and exercised in Orthodox Churches in communion with Rome.
Charism and canonical requirement are separate categories, the canonical requirement of celibacy can never by any stretch be described as a charism.
I write as a happily vowed, consecrated member of my community of almost forty years. Even acknowledging with thanks the graces that saw me become an SVD, looking back I know that without the support of my confreres would have been a lot harder than they were. To ask celibacy of ordained ministers, a historically and theologically valid description of those in the diocesan priesthood, to ask celibacy without the support of a genuine community is spiritually and psychologically irresposible.
Brendan Kelleher svd, Nagoya, Japan

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Jim McCrea

posted April 10, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I’d love to see some legitimate, non-partison investigation on the degree to which this type of thing is happening in non-Western countries that are supposed to be the future and hope of the church and priesthood:

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posted April 10, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Rushad – The Roman Catholic Church is already ordaining married men as priests. Full priests. Not deacons.
They’re just not ordaining married men who have been Catholic from birth. Who maybe went to Catholic school, served as altar boys, and married in the Church.
They are ordaining Lutherans, Episcopalians and in September 2009 they ordained a married former Baptist Minister.
So, when someone can tell me the dogma and doctrine that supports ordaining married men of other denominations, but not Catholic married men, then maybe I’ll listen to what you have to say about “Eternal priesthood” and “priestly character.”

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