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New Models of Leadership in the Catholic Church

New Models of Priesthood in the Catholic Church    Gerry OShea

Kilcummin is a substantial village with a population of close to 3000 people, located about eight miles from Killarney in my home county of Kerry. It has a thriving community with three schools, two retirement homes, a fine football pitch, and according to the village website, just one pub.

Most of the people living there share the Catholic faith, and Our Lady of Lourdes Church always has a good crowd at weekend masses. The only problem is that they no longer have a resident priest. Last June, Bishop Ray Browne, after a number of clergy retirements, announced that Kilcummin, the second largest parish in the diocese, would no longer have a resident priest.

This brought to eight out of the fifty-three parishes in Bishop Browne’s jurisdiction that do not have a local pastor. The people in Kilcummin pleaded with the bishop not to take this severe action against their community but to no avail. He pointed to the serious shortage of priests that he has to deal with. It seems that the locals are appealing their case to Rome via the papal nuncio.

Whatever happens in Kilcummin, the die is cast regarding the scarcity of priests everywhere in the West, encompassing all the European countries as well as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The number of seminarians has dropped dramatically, and the average age of serving priests hovers around sixty.

The two main issues causing this shortage relate to sexual matters. First, the sorry tale of the abuse of children by members of the clergy and, even worse – if that is possible – the reprehensible cover-up of these actions by the hierarchy has caused consternation in the pews. Why would any young man want to volunteer his services or why would parents encourage a son to get involved with such a tarnished organization?

The second reason concerns clerical celibacy. Sigmund Freud wrote that apart from self-preservation the next most powerful human instinct centers on the procreation of the species. The requirement of priests to observe perpetual continence is undoubtedly a major deterrent to recruiting new applicants for the position.

  The priesthood was attractive and prestigious in the past when the faith was deeply ingrained and young men had fewer career options. Today, the culture is less accepting of opaque church dogmas and less open to a lifelong commitment to preaching the gospel.

 The Catholic Church is going through an epochal crisis. A growing number of members sees the need for major radical changes, for new forms of ministry, new kinds of leadership to bring the essential message of the biblical good news to the world.

The priesthood occupies a central place of importance in the church. By tradition, the priest must be male and since the Lateran Council in the 12th century he must be celibate. In a recent national poll of American Catholics conducted by St. Leo University in Florida, 60% of the sample questioned expressed their support for a married priesthood; 66% of non-Catholics replied affirmatively to the same question.

Another 2019 study carried out by CBS and the New York Times found that only a worrying 31% of respondents gave a high rating to the quality of integrity among the Catholic clergy; their Protestant equivalents did a little better at 48%. However, it should be mentioned that this study was completed just a few months after the shocking Grand Jury findings in Pennsylvania which revealed that since 1950 over 300 priests in that diocese were guilty of sexually abusing children.

Forty years ago when the emptying of the seminaries was underway, the late renowned sociologist, Fr. Andrew Greeley from Chicago, suggested the creation of a “Priest Corps” to deal with the shortage. In his proposal, ordination for diocesan clergy would be limited to ten years of service after which the priest would decide if he wanted to continue in the ministry or move on to some other job. He would still be plenty young for marriage, so the issue of celibacy would be largely sidelined.

Last October a three-week special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region held in Rome dealt in detail with the travails of the indigenous communities in the huge region that surrounds that massive river. Their culture and beliefs continue to be disregarded by the rubber barons and other predatory businesses caring only for the billions they can extract from the rich land in the Amazon region.

They also considered the lack of eucharistic services throughout the area and a clear majority recommended setting aside the celibacy requirement to allow the ordination of local married men in good standing – viri probati is the Latin expression that traditional theologians like to use. The decision in favor of this change among the bishops was 128 to 41.

 Progressives in the church are very disappointed that the pope doesn’t seem to be ready to act on this important improvement.

In addition, after a heated debate about allowing women deacons, the bishops voted 137 to 30 in favor of this proposal. Francis promised to re-convene his latent commission on the possibility of a women’s deaconate to re-examine this important recommendation by the synod.

Much of the agenda for the conference on the Amazon crisis came from the base communities common among Latino Catholics. These provide an interesting model for the wider church community. They resemble the assemblies of Christians in the early church during the years after Christ’s death.

 The disciples met in small groups in each other’s homes to call on the spirit they were promised for inspiration and support. While there were no priests, each community appointed people to different leadership positions.  A very strong sense of love and camaraderie permeated their meetings. This feeling of togetherness and mutual support was cemented by the eucharistic breaking of bread and sharing, the high point of each gathering.

The base communities have a different history. Many originated from the liberation theology movement which tried valiantly to provide a meaningful church response to the abysmal poverty which still wracks the countries of Central and South America.

The immigrant Latino community in the United States often find that small group meetings offer them an important chance to pray together and to read the bible and hear each other’s wisdom in dealing with the vicissitudes of their lives.

Some of these groups focus on the social issues that Hispanic men and women face every day: poor wages, gaining legal immigrant status, finding decent housing and, crucially, accessing healthcare and educational opportunities for their children. What does the bible say about these important matters? What does their church preach? How can their own base community help?

Like the early Christians, community support and love are central values of these core Christian groups as they grapple with the often-grim realities of their daily lives. How do they, a marginalized community, fit into the wider American culture which is notoriously competitive and individualistic? How do they adapt to the challenges of this culture while retaining their own moral and religious beliefs?

In the St. Leo College poll the respondents were also asked about their attitude to women priests. 58% voted in favor with just 28% opposed. An esoteric debate about whether women functioned as deacons in the same way as men did in the early church is occupying a papal commission in Rome. Surely, they should be focusing on the multitude of contemporary problems facing the church.

I bet that the Kilcummin community has members who have the background and wisdom to preach the gospel, an important skill that is sadly lacking in many priests. Others with vivid imaginations and a love of nature could certainly develop liturgies that would respond to seasonal rhythms and local needs.

 Community members who have spent time working in the Developing World would be well-qualified to lead discussions on the social teaching of the church. The local sporting clubs have no problem showing transparent records of their financial dealings and the same systems could apply to church finances.

These ideas could provide the outline of a new paradigm in parish development where the local community would play a major role in planning a novel style of inclusive church leadership.

For now, a priest would have to come from outside to celebrate the eucharist until the powers-that-be move – as they surely will have to eventually – to ordain the viri probati and open fully the 21st century leadership door to women.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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