by Anthony Stevens-Arroyo
On Faith/Catholic America blog on Washingtonpost.com
There is no such thing as a part-time Catholic priest: the sacramental character of Holy Orders is permanent. However, a priest can work part-time in ministry, and that may prove a solution to the lack of priests.
Working part-time is not something new: as long as I can remember, priests who taught in high schools or who sat at desks in the chancery during the week celebrated Mass on weekends. That idea can be enhanced by a little twist. Why not expand the pool of priests by ordaining men for a definite period of time, say 7 year tours of ministry? It might be that celibacy would be accepted by more if it were not a life-long commitment. There could also be recruitment of new clergy from those who are married, but whose children are grown. Of course, if celibacy were not required, the largest standing reservoir of priests working part-time would be the Church’s married deacons, and they could become the weekend priests.
The dilemma for parishes would be steady management. If the clergy work during the week in schools and offices, who is left to man the fort at the rectory Monday through Friday? Providentially, just as the Eastern Churches have the tradition of married priests, the Latin American Church has the experience of letting lay persons manage many aspects of the ministry. My late father-in-law, for instance, was a rezador. In the mountains of his native Puerto Rico, he went from house to house to lead a prayer service, especially at times of sickness or death. He had memorized many of the sanctioned prayers, understood the catechism very well and had a clear singing voice to command respect. When he could not address a specific need, he would refer people to the parish priest in the town. This was how lay ministry served Catholicism in a priest-poor country.
When don Benito migrated like so many other Puerto Ricans to New York City in the 1950s, he and his daughters continued their ministry to their compatriots. In a U.S. city where only a limited number of priests spoke Spanish, lay people took up the slack by preparing children and parents for the sacraments, visiting homes to bring piety and catechism. In her award-winning book, Oxcart Catholicism on Fifth Avenue, don Benito’s daughter showed how these Latino traditions -- once necessitated because of the homeland's lack of priests -- eventually have become a model for all of US Catholicism, whether Spanish-speaking or not.
Training would be the major problem for ordaining priests working part-time. Would the equivalent of 4 years of study for the ministry make a 7 to 10 year ministry too long of a commitment? Would it be better to start with a married deacon in ministry, then choose the best of these for priestly ordination for part-time apostolate? It may also be time to consider inviting back to ministry priests who resigned 10 or 20 years ago in order to get married. They are already trained, and if married men would be accepted into the priesthood, many of them provide willing volunteers. As vexing as these questions may be, the increase in the number of priests would seem to be worth the risks. It would help chase the 800-pound gorilla from the sanctuary.