ROME — Pope Francis expressed compassion for men who have left the priesthood to marry, reportedly saying he understands their “suffering,” but he stopped short of saying that those ex-priests should be able to return to active ministry.
The pontiff’s remarks reportedly came during the annual meeting between the pope — in his capacity as as bishop of Rome — and the city’s parish priests, when an Italian named Giovanni Cereti, a former priest who was dispensed from ministry after getting married, asked the pope about the possibility of being re-admitted.
Cereti cited the example of the Eastern Catholic Churches, where married men can be ordained priests, to question why the married priests of the Latin Rite cannot celebrate the Mass and the other sacraments of the Church.
Although the Vatican hasn’t yet released an official transcript of the pope’s response, Italian media reported that Francis acknowledged the ex-priests’ “suffering.” He reportedly said the issue was difficult to resolve, but one that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy is studying and that the Church has at heart.
Reports say that Francis told his Rome priests that last week he celebrated his daily Mass with seven priests who were celebrating 50 years in the priesthood, and that five men who had left the ministry to get married were also present.
Francis was quoted after that encounter as saying that the issue of priests who left to marry being able to come back was “on his agenda,” but a cleric who took part in the Thursday session said Francis did not indicate that he was inclined to take dramatic steps.
Instead, the priest, who declined to provide his name because he’s not authorized to speak for the group, told Crux that the pope simply expressed great sympathy over the difficulties of former priests.
In other matters, the cleric said that Francis also spoke about his experience as a pastor and about the importance of preparing a good homily.
“He told us that our words need to reflect the word of God,” the priest said.
The priest described the two-hour encounter as “very beautiful” and found particular resonance with Francis’ call to be priests with the “gift of tears,” able to cry over other people’s sufferings, with an attentive and compassionate heart.
In his introductory remarks, the pontiff discussed the ars celebrandi (the art of proper celebration of the Mass) and the special “challenge” every priest has during the Mass: Delivering a good homily.
Talking to Vatican Radio, Italian Cardinal Agostino Vallini said the pope asked priests neither to “improvise” nor to be showmen during their homilies, since that can tarnish the spirituality the faithful should experience.
According to Vallini, Rome’s vicar general, a priest who celebrates the Mass has to be “conscious of being a minister of Christ and as such, is an aid to the experience of the ministry of God.”
To prepare for the Thursday meeting, Rome’s clergy received a document written by then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina about the art of celebration, presented to the Congregation for the Divine Cult and the Sacraments, of which the future pope was once a member.
In it, the pontiff talks about the “stupor” and the “beauty” of the encounter with God and his ministry.
“When we find priests who celebrate in a sophisticated manner, artificially or abusing gestures, it’s not easy to get to that stupor, this capacity of entering the mystery,” Bergoglio wrote.
Sharing a personal anecdote with the clerics, Francis reportedly said that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) once told Francis that his text lacked something important, which was the “feeling of being in front of God.”
“And he was right,” Francis said. “I didn’t talk about that.”
Thursday wasn’t the first time Francis gave an opinion on celibacy. In the book, “Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio” (an interview book published before he was pope), the future pope was asked about the Church changing its position regarding celibacy.
He began by saying he doesn’t like playing mind-reader, but, assuming the Church does, in fact, change its position, it wouldn’t be for lack of priests, but to confront a cultural problem in a particular place; it would not be a global issue, or a matter of personal choice.
“Right now,” Bergoglio added, “I stand by Benedict XVI, who said that celibacy should be maintained.”
Talking about the impact eliminating celibacy would have, he said that he’s not convinced that abolishing this tradition would cause an increase in those called to the priesthood.
Bishop Erwin Kräutler, of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, had a private audience with the pope on April 4, 2014. He’s the head of one of the country’s largest dioceses, with 800 church communities, 700,000 faithful, and only 27 priests.
Kräutler said in an interview with Austrian daily Salzburger Nachrichten that the question of ordination of viri probati, that is, of proven married men who could be empowered to serve as priests, had come up.
“It’s up to the bishops to make suggestions,” Kräutler claimed the pope had said.
In Catholic theology, celibacy is not dogma, which means it’s not an unmovable policy instituted by Jesus. It is a tradition, becoming a staple of Catholic practice in the 10th and 11th century.
Francis discussed celibacy in a second book, “On Heaven and Earth,” which as cardinal he co-wrote with Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
“I’m in favor of celibacy, with the advantages and disadvantages this has, because it is the object of ten centuries of positive experience more than mistakes. Tradition has a weight and validity,” the future pope wrote.
He conceded, however, that celibacy is a matter of discipline and not faith that could be changed.
“Personally, it never crossed my mind to get married,” he said.
Bergoglio revealed that he once dealt with a priest who impregnated a woman, saying he tried to “calm him down” and then make the cleric understand that natural law was more important than his rights as a priest. As a consequence, he was asked to leave his ministry and tend to his child.
“That kid, just as he has the right to have a mother, [also] has the right to have a father with a face,” Bergoglio said at the time. “I’ll deal with the administrative details with Rome, but he has to leave his ministry.”