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What will be discussed at Australia’s plenary council?

Pope ordains

Ordained ministry: Pope Francis ordains a man to the priesthood in Rome. Ordination of married men is tipped to be a hot topic at the 2020 Plenary Council. Photo: CNS.

NOW that Pope Francis has given his approval for the Catholic Church in Australia to hold an historic plenary council – the first in more than 80 years – what is the biggest hot-button issue up for discussion?

For some, the issue is whether the Catholic Church should allow married men to become priests, a move that would end a centuries-old tradition.

Expect to hear a lot more about the term “viri probati” – it comes from the Latin “viri”, meaning “men”, and “probati”, meaning “proven” or “tested”.

Viri probati has circulated within the Church since the first century, however the exact nature of the test that would prove these men worthy of the priesthood has yet to be formally explored.

The controversial issue of married priests is to discussed at a gathering of bishops Pope Francis has called for next year about the Church in the Amazon.

The Pope is on the record saying the Church must consider whether to ordain married men to help solve a priest shortage in some remote communities in the vast South American region.

A long-time friend of Pope Francis, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, is pressing to allow viri probati in the Amazon, where the Church counts about one priest for every 10,000 Catholics.

In Church terms, could Australia be considered a remote community?

Different to the Amazon of course, but for its own reasons, Australia too is suffering a priest shortage.

Ending the celibacy of the parish priest is something a Pope could agree to without changing doctrine, and there are ample precedents for the move.

Members of the eastern rite Catholic churches already have married clergy, while former Anglican priests have also become married Catholic priests.

Feeding into this debate is the child sex abuse crisis that has rocked the Church in Australia and tainted the priesthood’s image for would-be recruits.

The lack of Australian men willing to join the priesthood has plagued the Church for decades.

In an interview published last month in Germany’s Die Zeit, Pope Francis stressed that removing the celibacy rule was not the answer to the Church’s priest shortage.

However he expressed an openness to studying whether so-called “viri probati” – or married men of proven faith – could be ordained.

“We must consider if viri probati is a possibility. Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities,” he said.

Pope Francis has also said that while he favoured a celibate priesthood, celibacy technically can be up for discussion since it was a discipline of the Church, not a dogma.

The journey towards the Plenary Council 2020 is one for all Australian Catholics to make, and it is not going to be smooth or comfortable.

Some issues are sure to generate hostility and resentment.

Ballarat Diocese vicar general Fr Justin Driscoll offered some sagely words on his diocesan website in a message announcing the plenary council, and providing commentary on the event.

“What is expected throughout all of the stages of the 2020 Plenary Council is that it will be messy, at times chaotic, frustrating, confronting, honest, truthful, inspiring, visionary,” Fr Driscoll wrote.

“Proposals might be easy to express but not easy to implement.

“Throughout the whole journey mutual listening will be required so that everybody learns.

“This means that the humility to listen, even and perhaps especially to difference, will be asked of all who participate.”

Chair of the bishops’ committee for the plenary council Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge has likened the journey to the 2020 Plenary Council to the biblical pilgrimage of Abraham, requiring us to leave some things behind, having the courage to let some things go and imagine new ways, allowing ourselves to be led by a God who dislocates. 

He has said the journey to the plenary council must be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Written by: Mark Bowling
Catholic Church Insurance

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