Response from Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
Never will I forget processing into the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist last year to be greeted by hundreds and hundreds of concelebrating brother priests, exuberant, smiling, embracing, applauding. Their welcome has not let up this past year. My admiration for them is so high, enhanced by the challenges they face at this time in the history of the Church, with the sting of scandal, the burden of administration in tough economic times, the scrutiny and criticism of so many, and the increasing demands caused by declining numbers. I have said it so often to our priests that they tease me about it, but I say it again: I love them and I thank them.
I want to listen to them, and certainly have tried to do so this first year, as they have approached me individually, through the presbyteral council, at our clergy days, at district meetings, at our assembly of priests last May, and in luncheons and gatherings I have hosted at my home. They speak to me with candour, trust, and conviction.
So when 160 of them speak, I want to listen with special respect, interest, and attention. A few weeks ago, as you may know, a letter signed by 28 per cent of the priests of the archdiocese was sent to the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, expressing the opinion that the Church allow optional celibacy for future candidates for the diocesan priesthood. His reply is found on Page 5 of our Catholic Herald. I am very grateful for Bishop Gregory's thoughtful and compelling response, and concur with it wholeheartedly.
It is most appropriate for me to weigh in now with my own observations
on this exchange of correspondence.
I was never asked my thoughts on the letter. The first time I saw it
in its final form was on the pages of our local newspaper when I was on
vacation. The initiators were not under any obligation to consult with
me ... but I wish they had done so.
The discussion over celibacy is not new. That 28 per cent of our priests ask for a re-thinking of the discipline is hardly shocking, as the polls have told us this for decades. As one priest wrote me, "The problem is not that we don't talk about optional celibacy; the problem is that we've talked it to death the last 40 years." Bishop Gregory correctly observes that the charism has been reaffirmed by all recent Popes: Blessed John XXIII, Paul VI, and today, often and eloquently, by John Paul II; it was extolled and renewed at the Second Vatican Council; and subsequent synods of bishops and individual national conferences of bishops, including our own, have accepted the teaching with conviction and gratitude.
The Church, of course, listens intently to many voices, and loud voices are not lacking today. She listens to petitions, committees, authors, advocacy groups, even columnists and editorial writers in newspapers, all free with advice. But she first and foremost listens to Jesus, His Word, and, as my teacher and mentor Msgr. John Tracy Ellis used to say, she listens "not to the voice of today as much as to the voice of the centuries." That voice: of saints, scholars, and faithful of the past, speaks eloquently in praise of celibate chastity for priests, a praise admirably echoed by the signers of the letter as well.
Four, I am very happy that Bishop Gregory invited the signers to engage
in a dialogue, not about celibacy, but about some of the urgent pastoral
issues that are affecting priesthood and the Church today, especially
the decline in vocations (characteristic, as the bishop notes, not only
of our Catholic Church, but also of other religious bodies who allow a
married ministry), the place of religion and the Church in a society that
more and more acts as if it can get along just fine without God and religion,
and the call for renewal in priestly life within the Church. We have been
doing this well in the archdiocese, but can probably do it better; this
initiative may prod us to do so.
This is the spirit of hope and confidence I gratefully sense in our priests,
both in those who signed and those who did not. It is also obvious in
our wonderful seminarians, now close to 30 strong, the largest number
in years, who tell me that celibacy was actually part of the appeal of
the radical call to priesthood, and who have thought long and hard about
the joys and demands of this celibate vocation, having to defend it to
family, friends, and even former girlfriends!
The most exciting invitation in Bishop Gregory's letter is that we use
this moment in the life of the Church to promote the interior renewal
of our priests, leading to a purified, even more committed priesthood.
As one priest wrote, "While I did not sign the letter, and while
I am not supportive of the call for optional celibacy, I do share in the
desire of my brothers to tackle head-on the array of problems facing us
in contemporary ministry, especially the need for renewed holiness, joy,
confidence, and faithfulness.
Original material copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.