La Croix. An internationally renown group of reform-minded priests in Austria has criticized the world’s bishops for not capitalizing on Pope Francis’ openness to make significant changes in Church ministry and pastoral practice.
The Austrian Priests’ Initiative (API) is urging the bishops to take up the leeway the pope has given them to look at such issues as the possibility of ordaining married men of proven virtue (viri probati) to the priesthood, women to the diaconate and allowing remarried divorcees to receive the Eucharist in certain cases.
At a press conference in Vienna on May 4th, the API, which was founded in 2006, said Francis had opened door after door for a new way of dealing with these urgent questions in our Church.
But it said that while the pope has invited the bishops’ conferences to make “courageous suggestions” the bishops “have, for the most part, failed to respond”.
“We would like to wake up our bishops and encourage them to take up the pope’s suggestions,” said API initiator, Fr Helmut Schüller.
The 64-year-old priest, whose group includes more than 400 members, previously served as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s vicar general in the Archdiocese of Vienna. A former head of Caritas Austria, he led a “call to disobedience” in 2011, which led to the Vatican (under Benedict XVI) to strip him of the honorary title, “monsignor”.
However, he has remained a priest in good standing in the archdiocese and has continued to lead calls for Church reform.
At the recent press conference in Vienna, the Schüller-led API said there was little understanding for mandatory priestly celibacy in the parishes, especially since some parishes now have married (Greek-Catholic) priests.
While Pope Francis’ openness to ordaining viri probati was initially intended for “remote” areas where the priest shortage was drastic, the API said the Austrian bishops should also actively discuss this possibility for their Church.
The reformers then recalled the so-called “Lobinger model” put forth some two decades ago by Bishop Fritz Lobinger of South Africa. In a book titled, Like his Brothers and Sisters (Crossways, 1999), the now 88-year-old bishop suggested that mature married men should only gradually be introduced into committed parishes.
According to the “Lobinger model,” these married priests would have jobs in the outside world, offering part-time ministry without pay.
Celibate priests would be entrusted with the formation of the married clergy and would become “animator” priests who traveled from parish to parish supervising and training these new local leaders.
In his book, Bishop Lobinger argues that having two kinds of priests would not be a problem but part of the solution. At the time of its publication, the now-retired bishop suggested intensive dialogue and more studies on the subject.
Regarding the question of divorced and remarried Catholics, Fr Schüller pointed out that Pope Francis has encouraged an attitude of openness and mercy. He said in the document Amoris Laetitia, the pope has opened the possibility for remarried divorcees to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist based on an individual decision of conscience.
The API leader noted that the Maltese, Argentine, and German episcopal conferences had published guidelines for their clergy on the issue. But he lamented that most other bishops’ conferences, including Austria’s, had not yet done so.
Turning to the issue of women deacons, Fr Schüller stressed that this must be considered “not on account of the shortage of priests, but because men and women are equal and both were created in God’s image”.
He noted that the Orthodox Church recently ordained six women deacons in Africa, calling it a courageous step forward. The priest said he hoped the Catholic Church would follow suit.