A few months ago, the Pope held a synod – a meeting of high-ranking clergy – to discuss spiritual issues in the Amazonian region of the world. One of the topics that came up was the question of whether married men should be ordained to bring the Eucharist and the Mass to tribes far-flung and hard to reach deep in the rainforest. Only a priest can consecrate the Eucharist, turning the bread and wine into the very body and blood of Christ. Some of these tribal Catholics could count on receiving the Eucharist only twice a year, so few priests are there to minister. This is tragic.
Whether the change was reasonable or not, Pope Francis has this reputation for being a more progressive Pope, and the more conservative wing of the church was suspicious. Open the door to married clergy here, and where else will tradition change? Let a few married men be ordained in the Amazon and before you know it, we look just like Protestants!
They have a point. There is a beauty and logic to the idea that a priest be married to no one but the church. It’s a long-standing tradition, and it works much more to the benefit of the church than to it’s detriment. But the Pope (and the Amazonian bishops who first floated the idea of married clergy) were not asking for a change in worldwide tradition. They were asking for a specific change to address a specific crisis they saw in their part of the world. Not to mention, we have married priests in the Catholic church anyway who were allowed to be so under certain circumstances.
No matter. Tradition!
Fast-forward a few months, and here we are, in the throws of the Coronavirus. All over the world, Catholic churches cancelled their public celebrations of the Mass. Catholics everywhere had to go without the Eucharist for weeks, then months.
The stink over here in my parish over the whole situation has been fierce. Fellow parishioners started calling the Bishop something like a “spineless coward” for closing the doors on them. Many even went to a conservative priest who bucked the system and began offering public Masses anyway in people’s homes. Oh, how the tables had turned!
To be fair, I can’t pinpoint a particular person who was against the synod’s inquiry into married priests and then, just a few months later, started howling about not being able to go to Mass, but I can say for sure that it was the same, solid demographic in both cases: conservative, right-wing Catholics.
Conservative, right-wing Catholics, of whom I am one. We love the Latin Mass! Oh, the sacraments and sacramentals of our dear faith! Lent is practiced just so. Certain hymns are done only at such times. I make fun of it only slightly because I love the rich tradition of the church.
Yet there is an ugly side to conservatism: legalism. How will Jesus respond seeing how many of us, for the sake of our tradition, were content to leave our fellow brothers and sisters in the Amazon without spiritual nourishment for months on end? One brother here, when the churches were closed and the Masses livestreamed, described the experience as something akin to forcing starving children to watch as their parents eat a feast. Just so.
When Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, the religious leaders became angry with him. Why couldn’t he heal on a different day? The Sabbath was meant to be a holy day of rest. Work should not be done on a day like that. But Jesus asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or evil?” (Mark 3:4)
What is the point of a tradition if that tradition keeps us from loving others fully? What is it there for if it becomes a barrier between people and God?
I don’t know if Pope Francis should allow married priests in the Amazon. It’s not my job to decide. But he, and the Amazonian bishops, are right to try and do everything they can to bridge whatever chasm stands between Jesus and those he loves. Even if it means ordaining priests. Even if it means healing on the Sabbath.
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