For over a year I have been helping a family friend get well by driving them to and from the Binghamton area for various doctor’s appointments, often multiple times per week.
The countless journeys down Route 12 have added many miles on my odometer, but the drive also offers plenty of time for thinking about topics of Wednesday columns.
One sight along the way which always has my thoughts wandering is the former parish house that was once called Saint Rita’s Catholic Church in Chenango Forks.
I’m not exactly sure when the Syracuse Diocese closed this little brick church, nor am I certain what the current use of the building is?
At one time Saint Rita’s would draw parishioners from Greene to Binghamton filling the parking lot alongside the railroad tracks.
This lonely, once holy edifice hasn’t heard a mass, celebrated a wedding or conducted a funeral for many years. Similar to the analogy of “which came first, the chicken or the egg” is the Catholic Church; is the dwindling followers causing a lack of priests or is the lack of priests causing the diminishing flock.
In Norwich, only a few years ago there were multiple Sunday masses offered by two priests at two separate churches helping all the local Catholics receive their sacraments.
Now the two Norwich parishes receive one Sunday mass each offered by the same pastor, the Rev. Ralph Bove traveling between the two parishes.
Having two distinctly different Catholic churches in a town as small as Norwich is the exception to the rule.
Many communities larger than Norwich are struggling to keep a priest in one remaining Catholic Church. Some small communities consider themselves lucky to share a priest with two or more nearby towns.
One of the reasons the number of priests is dropping like a rock, particularly in the US is the required vow of celibacy. If the Catholic Church allowed married men to wear the collar and vestments, this would undoubtedly increase the number of parish priests available for assignments.
This, in turn, might give some renewed interest in the church and draw new members, or return former members. Of course, it would probably drive away some of the more conservative church members, too.
The vow of celibacy for viri probati or men of proven virtue does not have to be done away with altogether. The vow could be optional for those men who choose to devote all of their worldly attention to the church instead of sharing it with a wife and family. But having a priest who is a husband and a biological father also has merit.
The first Pope chosen by Jesus, Peter the Apostle, was married. In the 2000 years since there have been several married popes and priests with children. Many popes were the sons of priests and in at least one case a pope was the son of a pope.
The ordaining of priests from only unmarried men didn’t begin until around the 11th century. The church’s reason for this was their search for men of piety, purity, and devotion only to God.
There were also stories of particularly greedy popes who didn’t want priests giving their inheritance to family members. The thought was if a priest had no family, upon their death the church would inherit the dead priest’s wealth. Again, that is a story with more rumor than fact.
Last week in The Vatican, Pope Francis was overseeing a conference of Bishops from South America, which is the most densely Catholic place on Earth. (Pope Francis is from Argentina) One of the items on the conference agenda was whether or not to ordain married men as priests to help with the shortage.
Some bishops complained the most Catholic place on Earth does not have enough priests to conduct ceremonies for the most sacred times in a devout Catholic’s life; baptism, confessions, weddings, and funerals. The last news heard from this conference was a quote from the Pope saying the church must "open new roads for the proclamation of the Gospel."
Just the rumor of married priests is setting up a schism in the church like never seen in our lifetime. Traditional “Latin Mass Catholics” are uneasy with even the slightest changes to their religion because they feel the foundation of the church will crumble.
The nay-sayers should be reminded the Vatican and the Pope oversee as part of the worldwide Catholic Church, a group known as the Eastern Catholics with over 17 million members. The Eastern Catholics allow their priests to marry, and that they do.
Having been a life-long Catholic, I’d rather see a married priest offering Sunday mass than having no mass in a closed church because of a priest shortage. I was part of an organization that is steeped in longstanding traditions; the US Marines, whose motto is “A Few Good Men.”
The foundation of the Marine Corps is the individual rifleman. A few years ago, I was witness to the first female Marine rifleman and the Corps did not crumble into oblivion. It seems to me the Catholic Church should be able to survive with a few married priests.