ROME — Pope Francis has denied appeals from a recent Vatican synod of bishops that suitable married men be ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
Last October, the synod released its final document in which participating bishops requested that the pope allow the ordination of married men, a request addressed by Francis in a long-awaited teaching letter called Querida Amazonia (Dear Amazonia), published Wednesday.
“Many of the ecclesial communities of the Amazonian territory have enormous difficulties in accessing the Eucharist,” the synod document stated, noting that some communities in the region can go for months, even years between visits from a priest.
While saying they appreciate priestly celibacy “as a gift of God,” the bishops declared that “legitimate diversity does not harm the communion and unity of the Church, but expresses and serves it.”
The synod fathers proposed the establishment of a process “to ordain as priests suitable and esteemed men of the community, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, having a legitimately constituted and stable family, to sustain the life of the Christian community.”
In Wednesday’s letter, called an apostolic exhortation, the pope offered reasons for denying the bishops’ request, which had stirred up both hopes and concerns in different sectors of the Church.
“Priests are necessary, but this does not mean that permanent deacons (of whom there should be many more in the Amazon region), religious women and lay persons cannot regularly assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities, and perform those functions ever more effectively with the aid of a suitable accompaniment,” Francis said.
“Consequently, it is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist,” he said in a key passage, adding that such “would be a very narrow aim.”
Instead, the pope proposes that the Church in the Amazonian region “requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority and familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life in the different places, but also open to the multiplicity of gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on every one.”
“For wherever there is a particular need, he has already poured out the charisms that can meet it,” he added. “This requires the Church to be open to the Spirit’s boldness, to trust in, and concretely to permit, the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah underscored the importance of maintaining Church discipline regarding priestly celibacy in a recent book titled From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church.
The timing of the book’s publication suggested to some that the two prelates were hoping to influence Francis’ decision in the matter.