Last week, the Universal Church celebrated Holy Thursday. That day is especially important in the Church because on this day we mark both the institution of the Eucharist and the ordained priesthood. Pope Benedict XVI chose this day to chastise those priests who have called for the ordination of women and the end of priestly celibacy. There is little doubt that his remarks were occasioned by an organized call for disobedience in these areas in a number of countries, especially Austria.
No one should be surprised that the pope would take such a stand in view of the long established Church law regarding these issues and while the pope has ever right and even a duty to maintain long-established traditions in the Church, we still have the problem that somebody has to come up with a solution. The number of priests being ordained has been declining for half a century. In those five decades, we were shored up by short-term pastoral solutions – the diaconate, increased utilization of laity in leadership and pastoral roles, merging the parishes so that one priest could cover two or three parishes, etc., etc.
It seems, however, the tragic priest shortage in Europe and North America is of recent origin and the decline continues. Of more grave consequences was the failure to ever develop an adequate clergy in Latin America. With priests as the kingpin of the Church’s pastoral structure, their absence in adequate numbers leads to a failure of proper development and the lessening of membership. This has certainly been going on for years. A number of countries, such as Guatemala and Brazil, have lost a huge percentage of their Catholic members to Pentecostal and other groups. This is truly tragic.
This may be the largest issue facing the Church in the 21st century. In one way or another, a solution must be found.