Quand LES PRETRES viennent à manquer,
Repères théologiques et canoniques en temps de précarité,
Médiaspaul 2017 – 203 pages – 17 €
With this book, Fr. Alphonse Borras, a Belgian priest from the Diocese of Liège, invites us to have a good look at the lack of priests at the service of Christian communities. He feels we should not criticize this shortage, because this has always been a characteristic of our Church. Faced with the limitless generosity of the love of God, we will always experience a ‘want.’ And it is from “the heart of this ‘want’ that we need to communicate the Gospel” (p.12). We need to face up to this shortage of priests, which is a challenge for our faith and a pathway towards a Pascal Spirituality that will allow us to navigate and take on board the situation.
How do we deal with this shortage? We know that priests are necessary. However, for what kind of mission? The author relentlessly poses these questions (p.47 and p.194). In Chapter 2, he proposes some theological reference points. He invites us not to consider the priesthood as a function at the service of the community but as “being, an existence.” We are challenged by a priesthood of existence that is more radical than a priesthood confined to functions (p.61). The priest and all ordained ministers “represent the apostolic aspect of ministry.” The Parish Priest can ascribe ministries and services (of laypeople) in line with the apostolic role of the Church (p.81 and p.92). We must avoid “communities, obsessed by their survival, from drifting towards a purely pragmatic solution” (p.88). All communities should live out the Pascal mystery by “new birth or a renaissance of faith (p.90)
The Church is there where there are the baptised; the parish is there where there are parishioners! (p. 64). However, there is a crisis surrounding the idea of the parish (p. 104). If the rural parish is in decline, other church realities are emerging such as the new budding communities which could become authentic places of Church (p.100 and p.108). Therefore, we need to articulate a true communion between these different entities, not with a view to creating a more efficient administration but to enhance the vitality and influence of these communities (p.110).
Chapter 4 considers the absolute instability regarding the supply of priests. The author gives a solemn warning: pay attention to the risk of an unthinkable rupture between faith and worship in the direction and the conduct of the Church or an erosion of the sacramental understanding of the ministry of presidency at the Eucharist (p.159). To compensate for these eventualities, he foresees some possible solutions:
Appealing for priests to come from elsewhere. In a dozen pages, he underlines the problems that the local communities could meet when receiving foreign priests. He notes that attention needs to be paid to the memory of the local church, the democratic spirit, the unity of the presbyterium. The author touches a little bit too briefly on an important point which needs further investigation. One could profitably consult the « Document Episcopat n.1/2 – 2017, entitled “Priests coming from other countries – Typology and Stakes” published by the General Secretariat of the Conference of French Bishops.
Another solution would be the ordination of “viri probati” (approved men). Permanent deacons are already included in this group. They would have a triple function, Word-Liturgy-Charity. As such they would not be ordained as Pastors. However, if it happens that they are asked to take charge of pastoral work, it would be better to ordain them priests. We need to be on our guard against the “attraction of the altar” by which deacons are considered as incomplete priests (p.175).
Concerning the “viri probati” not already deacons, one could abolish the rule of celibacy. However the author underlines that the supporting circumstances would need to uphold this step. It could create prejudice regarding the unity of the Church and might be seen as an attempt to sell off or reject a precious asset. Therefore it might not be felicitous or opportune to call into question the common discipline (p.184). Nevertheless, the Church could admit to exceptions and could respond to the needs of the local community (but not to personal requests) if there was an urgent need or an obvious value.
Alphonse Borras does not bring any definitive solutions to the question. However, he presents elements of reflection in view of a solution. And for that, his book is very illuminating and fruitful. It challenges us in our faith. It also challenges the missionary congregations especially, who can contribute to a better welcome for these priests “coming from elsewhere” (or other countries). They should never be considered as stop-gap or mere auxiliaries but real partners in a common priestly witness.
The conclusion of the book gives some orientations for the future (pp. 201 to 205):
- “With few or no priests, who will support the missionary momentum of Catholics? It is difficult, trying to inhabit the present – the future is of itself to come – it will be given to us in its own good time.”
- “Faith is an act of trust needing to be renewed constantly – Have the courage to face the future.”
Gilles Mathorel, M.Afr.