Toward the end of February 2019, Pope Francis met in Rome with about 124 church leaders, focusing on the sex-abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. The purpose of this long-awaited summit was to provide a teaching moment to the hierarchy that addressed the scarring pain of the victims, to hear testimony from some survivors, to review the church’s obligations to act against abuser priests and bishops and to pray, seeking forgiveness for the church’s horrible failures.
After a summer of sickening grand-jury reports and ongoing news of abuse and cover-ups nearby and worldwide, ordinary Catholics had grown tired of waiting to see how the church leaders would respond.
Catholics are taught early on that “we are the church” but never seemed to really believe it or act on it. The need for reform was evident, but the laypeople or ordinary folks in the pew have a responsibility to demand it and to work for it. The sex-abuse crisis will not be solved by hierarchy alone. Sadly, it is known that this is a human sin and will never completely be eliminated. However, its history in the Roman Catholic Church is statistically intolerable.
But what could be done?
Seeking to brainstorm some changes the church could enact that would increase the safety of the young and vulnerable, a group of lay Delaware and Maryland parishioners met in late summer.
Among other proposed changes, they considered the need for a continued celibate priesthood. They explored a rule change that would make more people eligible to be ordained to be priests. These folks proposed that making celibacy optional would broaden the pool of clergy candidates. It is apparent in hindsight that the scarcity of priests led some bishops to not report criminal sexual activity by priests to the police and to quietly transfer these offenders to another unsuspecting parish. This evil secrecy compounded the horrors of the abuse.
Another proposal considered was to do as other faith communities do and ordain women.
This group, calling themselves Concerned Parishioners, designed a survey to see if a majority of other church-going Catholics agreed with them that the acceptance of married men, and also women as candidates to the priesthood and the diaconate, would be a positive change for the future.
On the weekend of Oct. 20-21, 2018, more than 850 people at St. Ann’s and Our Lady of Guadalupe, at five English masses and one mass in Spanish, answered a brief five-question survey with yes or no.
They showed strong support for a return to the early church custom of having both a celibate and married priesthood and women deacons; 83 percent said the church should welcome back to priestly ministry men who were ordained, and left and then married; 80 percent said the church should open ordination to the priesthood to married men; 76 percent supported opening ordination to the diaconate to women.
In addition, 81 percent believe the laity should be more involved in making decisions regarding church personnel (assignments), and 63 percent agreed they would welcome women in the priesthood.
Knowing that Pope Francis has recognized the need for courageous dialogue among all the stakeholders, results of the survey have been sent to the Pope, bishops, pastors and other church leadership. The responses have been sparse, but those that have come have been encouraging, More importantly, we have received the endorsement of the local laity as the church faces the need to change to continue to be relevant.
By Jeannie Bennett Fleming