Priests lie prostrate during their ordination by Pope Francis during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 22. CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters

Peter Stockland: How long do we wait to face cold reality?

  • April 29, 2018

Our small English-language parish in a borough of Montreal is hardly a hot bed of serious surprises. Recently, though, we received some rather hard news.

The parochial administrator who for several years has been doing double priestly duty overseeing our church as well as his own parish has advised us he simply can’t continue carrying the load. As a result, a beloved long-time priest who retired several years ago but says Mass most Sundays as an “occasional” has been pressed back to service for the next six months. 

He has made it clear to the Archdiocese of Montreal that he won’t continue in that capacity beyond summer’s end. 

“For now,” he said, “you are being led by an 81-year-old.”

To underscore the significance of that, he noted the parochial administrator who just stepped down is the youngest English-speaking priest in the diocese. There simply are no younger priests to replace our 81-year-old Father when he too leaves.

The ultimate implications for our little church are unclear but tend to the ominous. We already share the building with a Polish parish and count on their organist to be our organist, too. As is the case for a great many churches in Quebec and indeed across Canada, it’s an enormous financial strain just to keep the roof from leaking. Like them, our parish life is being held together with miracles of duct tape. Without a new priest, the prospect of closure is very real.

What’s equally real is that the prospect we face is not ours alone. It’s far more typical than it is rare. It’s also the reality against which the nascent “conversation” about allowing married priests has to be understood. 

As an April 19 Catholic Register story by Deborah Gyapong confirmed, Quebec’s bishops opened that conversation in March. The Quebec Assembly president Bishop Noel Simard took pains to be clear that it was a free discussion, not a decision-making moment by any means.

“We decided to have among ourselves a reflection,” Simard said. “It’s a question that we need to ask, especially, what the Spirit is telling us concerning the lack and the shortage of priests, and also, do we really want new priests?”

I served for a number of years with Simard on the board of the Catholic Organization For Life And Family. I have utmost confidence that under his stewardship the reflection and the process of discernment will be prudent, collaborative, wholly faithful and profoundly pragmatic. As Simard himself, just exploring the issue of married priests raises a host of related issues such as the role of women, the function of deacons and the question of how it would affect elevation to the episcopate. 

Should the debate in Quebec, and by obvious extension Canada, get as far as the same question being pursued in Brazil, where it will be part of the 2019 Synod, it will no doubt be fraught with brow-furrowed legalisms and anguished cries from some quarters that the Church has abandoned Herself. There was a time in my Catholic life when I might even have joined the chorus. Today? No.

A truism insists that perspective is everything. It isn’t necessarily true. Perspective is something, but it’s something that’s as easily a trompe l’oeil as the truth. The distinguishing characteristic is hard, cold reality. 

By a trick of the light, we might be convinced for a little while yet that the self-evident shortage of priests will somehow resolve itself, that the world will turn, the seminaries will attract a new generation willing to answer the call to celibacy and all will be well. 

Even thus persuaded, we would need to ask the fair and necessary question of how long we plan to wait. Until the 81-year-olds called out of retirement are 85? Until there are no churches left because we preferred to satisfy our need to remain a Church that never bowed to change? 

Of course, permitting priests to marry is not itself a panacea. And there must be vigilance to ensure that relaxation of a discipline does not lead to confused dilution of dogma. But if our bishops are persuaded that marriage can open the door to vocations for new priests, then it seems imprudent not to take that step to keep more church doors from closing.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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