Retired Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie sought Rome’s permission to ordain married, Indigenous clergy in 2011, but got nowhere with the proposal. Photo by Michael Swan

Married priest debate set to rise again

By 
  • June 27, 2019

When bishops start talking this fall about ordaining married men to serve as priests in their own, remote, Indigenous communities in the Amazon, bishops in northern Canada will be listening closely.

The Vatican put a discussion about married priests on the agenda for the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region. The working document for the Rome meeting calls for “ministry with an Amazonian face” and greater access to the Eucharist in remote communities that rarely see a priest.

Like the Amazon, Canada’s north faces a severe shortage of priests and a complete absence of Indigenous priests.

“The people really do appreciate the sacraments. At this point, they just can’t do that without a priest,” said Bishop Jon Hansen of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.

Hansen’s diocese covers 1.5 million square kilometres and 30,000 Catholics with six parishes, 27 churches and no incardinated priests. Priests currently serving in Canada’s north are on loan for periods of anywhere from six months to two years.

“So I’m constantly on the lookout,” Hansen said.

A conversation in Rome this fall about ordaining married, Indigenous priests for service in their own communities — priests who could offer the Mass fluently in Indigenous languages — has certainly perked up Hansen’s ears.

“I think it would continue to be of interest to me, so I will follow it closely,” he said.

Canada’s bishops have a long history of proposing ordination for married men, making proposals as far back as 1971. The most recent Canadian attempt was offered up by Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie of Keewatin-Le Pas in 2011 when he sent a long letter with supporting documentation asking Rome for permission to ordain married, Indigenous clergy.

“Because we had men who were ready, who had formation already, three years of formation,” Lavoie told The Catholic Register.

Lavoie couldn’t get his plea past Rome’s then-nuncio to Canada Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana. “He basically dissuaded me from even sending it to Rome, so it never left Canada,” he said.

Now retired, Lavoie is happy to see the discussion revived.

“It’s very encouraging that it might be coming now,” he said. “It’s all a process. It develops little by little. Things move slowly in Rome, of course.”

To Lavoie, the logic of ordaining married men in the circumstances of remote, missionary communities is inescapable.

“We’re sacrificing the Eucharist. We’re sacrificing reconciliation and the anointing of the sick,” he said. “Theologically, to me it doesn’t make much sense that we are sacrificing the celebration of sacraments for the sake of a discipline of the Church that could change.”

In the northern Alberta archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas is much more cautious about betting on married priests to make the sacraments more widely available.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a challenge in this,” he said. “I’ve not personally ventured into this thing of ordaining married men. I’ve not promoted it.”

For now, Pettipas is relying on a community of missionary Franciscans from Kenya to help provide stable leadership in a diocese that’s a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. 

When he looks to the Amazon, Pettipas sees hope in how catechists have become effective ministers and representatives of the Church in Indigenous communities.

“Even though they can’t confect (consecrate) the Eucharist, they can do all kinds of things. They reach out and touch people,” Pettipas said.

In surveys, Grouard-McLennan Catholics have told Pettipas that regular celebration of Eucharist is a high priority. Inviting in missionaries from other parts of the world is a good solution, he said.

Though Hansen is not betting on married priests right now, he is very clear that nothing that’s being proposed would in any way threaten the tradition of celibate clergy in the Western Church.

“Whether it’s the Amazon or northern Canada or any other remote missionary place, these are exceptional circumstances that require exceptional responses.” 

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