My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In answer to our prayers, God has blessed us with an increase in candidates for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Twenty-nine women from around the country recently participated in a fall retreat hosted by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George (the Alton Franciscans) for a weekend of prayer and discernment. Also, this past Aug. 15 three young women entered their novitiate and two made first vows. The Alton Franciscans' next scheduled vocation retreat will be from Thursday, Jan. 5, beginning at 6:30 p.m. until 9 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012. More information and registration forms are available online at www.altonfranciscans.org. It is encouraging to see this increased interest in the life of consecrated women religious.
Last weekend another transitional deacon was ordained for our diocese, our third this year, which means that these three men are scheduled to be ordained priests next spring. Scott Snider received the sacrament of holy orders at the hands of His Eminence, Francis Cardinal George, at Mundelein Seminary on Oct. 29. Deacon Snider's vocational journey to priesthood did not take the usual path. Scott is a married former Protestant minister who served in a congregational church in Quincy. He and his wife were received into full communion with the Catholic Church a few years ago. Scott then explored the possibility of continuing pastoral ministry as a Catholic priest. My predecessor, Archbishop George Lucas, asked for and received permission from the Holy See for Scott to enter the seminary.
Upon Scott's completion of his seminary studies, I forwarded to the Vatican documentation sent to me by the rector of Mundelein Seminary, certifying that Scott Snider had completed the formational requirements of the seminary and the studies required for reception of sacred orders, and deferred to the authority of the Holy Father to grant the necessary dispensations from the canonical impediments of ordaining a man who has a wife. On Oct. 7, Pope Benedict XVI granted the requested grace for Scott Snider to proceed to ordination.
During my recent visit to Rome, I had the opportunity to meet with an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican dicastery (department) that handles such requests. He explained that the dispensation to ordain a married former Protestant minister is a grace given primarily for ecumenical reasons to facilitate his entry into full communion with the Catholic Church along with his wife. He emphasized that this must be viewed as an exception to the church's long-standing tradition of priestly celibacy and not as an indication for anyone to anticipate changes in the church's practice in this regard. In fact, he noted that permission would not be given for more than two such exceptions for a diocese of our size.
There is a very good article that is helpful to understanding the Catholic Church's tradition on priestly celibacy that was published in the September 2011 issue of The Priest magazine. It is entitled, "Prayer and Celibacy: The Apostolic Origin of Priestly Celibacy," and was written by Father Wojciech Giertych, O.P., a Polish Dominican friar who currently serves in the Vatican as Theologian of the Papal Household and teaches at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (the Angelicum) in Rome. It is well-known that some of the apostles were married. The Bible tells us that Jesus cured the mother-in-law of St. Peter, the first pope (see Matthew 8:14-15). In the early days of the church, priests, deacons and bishops were chosen among married men. Regarding these practices, Father Giertych notes in his article, "The married priest or bishop, however, — and this has been discovered by recent historical research — was bound from the moment of his ordination to refrain from sexual activity with his wife ... . From the moment of the ordination, their mutual bond was treated as a brotherly and sisterly relationship."
The basic motivation of this practice, known as priestly continence, was liturgical, as explained by the Synod of Carthage in 390 A.D. In the celebration of the sacraments, the continence of the priests was said to have an impact on their prayer. This was not to suggest that sexuality is intrinsically impure. Rather, sexual activity engages not only on the body, but also the psyche, drawing the attention of the emotions and the imagination, whereas the priest had to be focused directly upon God, so that he would obtain from God the granting of his prayers.
The foundation of this teaching can be found in the Old Testament, where the priests did not approach their wives during the time that they were serving in the Temple. Father Giertych argues that the "priesthood of the New Covenant requires more." He cites the Gospel of St. Luke, where Jesus is quoted as saying, "There is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not be given repayment many times over in this world and, in the world to come, eternal life" (Luke 18:28-30).
Having said this, however, Father Giertych notes that the "teaching of Vatican II and of the post-conciliar magisterium does not bring back the discipline of the ancient church on priestly continence for those Catholic priests who had been ordained while being married. The dignity and validity of such priests (Eastern and occasionally Western) and of their ministry is not questioned, even if they have fathered children after ordination ... . There is therefore a congruity but not an absolute necessity between continence and the priesthood."
This may seem confusing or even contradictory to some, but it helps explain why the church upholds the value of celibacy while making occasional exceptions. God's call comes in many and varied forms, so St. Peter wrote, "As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:10).
May God give us this grace. Amen.