June 20, 2019

Viri probati, the discussion was already settled

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis leads the introductory prayer and delivers his greeting on the opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops - Credit Daniel Ibanez / ACI Group
Pope Francis leads the introductory prayer and delivers his greeting on the opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops - Credit Daniel Ibanez / ACI Group

The working document of the upcoming Special Synod for the Pan-Amazonian region does not have any mention to viri probati. However, the text speaks about the possibility of ordaining married people, old and respected in their community. It seems just different wording for the same issue.

The Latin viri probati stands for “respected people,” or people o proven faith. Respected people of faith can already deliver the Eucharist and even lead the Liturgy of Word. Viri probati formula implies a step forward towards the ordination of a married man. 

The excuse to push for the ordination of married priests has always been the lack of priests. In particular, the issue was raised for some places in Amazonia where priests barely can get once a month to bring Eucharist to people. 

In the end, the final goal of the discussion seems to be the optional celibacy for priests. Celibacy of priests is a prerogative of the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis defended celibacy many times, the last tone coming back from Panama. 

The Catholic Church also includes Churches of Eastern Rite. These Churches consent priests to marry. The fact that they are part of the Catholic Church shows that it is not true that the Catholic Church has no room for married priests.

The attack is then generally moved to the Roman Catholic Latin tradition, to change the tradition of the Church. 

The debate on viri probati is old. It sharply broke in South America together with the spread of Liberation Theology. John Paul II closed the discussion. 

John Paul II spoke about the issue of viri probati in two particular occasions: during his trip to Peru in 1985 and at the 1990 Synod of Bishops on “The formation of priests in the current circumstances. 

Speaking Feb. 5, 1985, to the representative of the Amazonian people in Peru, John Paul II underscored there was much Christian laity among the Indios, the so-called “animators of the Christian communities.” They “share the responsibility of the catechesis and the evangelization with bishops, priests and religious brothers and sisters.” 

John Paul II then spoke o the lack of vocation, but he did not propose to ordain old and married people. John Paul II instead invited the community to open up “to the call of God that invited his sons to the full ecclesial service, to priestly service and consecrated life.” 

The Polish Pope also asked that “families, sanctified with the sacrament of marriage, will be places of prayer and Christian life, domestic Churches, where it is possible to hear the voice of the Lord with the religious and priestly vocation.”

Some days before, on Feb. 1, 1985, John Paul II celebrated Mass in Plaza de Armas, in Lima. The homily he delivered also touched the issues of celibacy. The Pope reminded priests who are lonely in remote places and asked the priests to “cultivate the Eucharistic dimension and to continually and joyfully renew the gift of celibacy.” 

St. John Paul II kept this clear line in his final speech at the 1990 Synod, that was delivered Oct. 27, 1990. The address is published on the Vatican website, unfortunately only in Italian and Latin. 

John Paul II stressed that the solution of viri probati “must not be taken into consideration and the issue must be faced otherwise. As is known, the possibility to use viri probati is too often recalled in the framework of propaganda averse to the priestly celibacy. This propaganda finds support and complicity in some mass media.” 

St. John Paul II asked instead to “look, with no hesitation, for other solutions to this distressing pastoral program. Should not every bishop, and with him his diocese, be more profoundly aware of his mission to evangelize the whole world?” 

The Pope underscored that he was going to encourage “the intensification of the help given by dioceses with more priests to those that lack priests. In front of the grave threat coming from same sects, we will take care that communities of faithful that cannot attend Mass every Sunday because of the shortage of priests will be able to strengthen their faith listening to the word of God, the access to the Holy Communion, the prayer and the fraternal union.” 

St. John Paul II also noted that “the Synod confirmed, with no possibility of misunderstanding, the option for the priestly celibacy, that is typical of the Latin rite.” 

The option for celibacy, the Pope added, “reveals a profound spiritual and ideological intuition, which understood the sacramental consecration to the priesthood as the foundations of a gift, a charism freely received and authenticated by the church.” 

That is “the gift of chastity in celibacy because of an exclusive and joyful dedication o the priest to his ministry of service and his vocation of the testimony of the Kingdom of God.”

John Paul II concluded: “By reaffirming without equivocation its fidelity to the priestly celibacy and deepening its motives for that, the Synod, in the name of all the Church, made a great act of faith in the grace of the Holy Spirit. We know that the Holy Spirit leads the Church.” 

John Paul II’s words echoed the Synod’s discussion. The issue of viri probati was closed. However, the debate is reignited nowadays. As if there was no discussion before. As if the debate was never really settled. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.