Use the Gifts God Gives
last Testament of Monsignor John J. Egan
published in the National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001
I am 84 years of age, and as seminarian and priest have served the Catholic church and the Chicago archdiocese for 66 years. I look back at my life with gratitude for the great mentors I had and for the opportunities I was given — to work in marriage education, in ecumenical affairs, in race relations, in social justice, in community organizing, and as a pastor — in serving the needs of a great city and its people. In most of these positions, I was able to assess problems as I saw them and to propose solutions and remedies.
Now at this late point in life, I look at my church and I am troubled. I see a great incongruity, and I feel I must speak out. Why are we not using to the fullest the gifts and talents of women who constitute the majority of our membership throughout the world? I realize that even to raise aspects of this question, I label myself a dissenter — for the present church leadership sees no reason to change or even to ask this question. Yet prayerful, responsible dissent has always played a role in the church; it is part of who we are, who we have always been, who we need to be.
The position of women in society has changed radically because they are now seen almost universally as equal, no longer subservient, inferior beings. When I was born, women were just beginning to get the right to vote. Today they are heads of their own companies, chief administrators of hospitals, presidents of nations. Yet in my church at a time of real need, women are still invisible in positions where they could contribute the most.
Recently amid great celebration, Pope John Paul II elevated 44 men from all over the world to the rank of cardinal. Yet for all the ceremony, they have one mission — and only one — and that is to assemble in Rome when the Holy Father dies to select a new pope. This new pope will make decisions that affect the universal church, the majority of whose members are women. Is it so farfetched to have some distinguished and competent women in this conclave of men? Are there any theological reasons against such a bold step — or is there only the tired reply that we never did it that way before.
In early March, my archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, gave a retreat to the pope and some 160 members of the Vatican curia. I was proud that he was chosen for such a task. The men in the curia are the people on the inside; they control the workings of this immense church; their decisions affect millions. Couldn’t the curia benefit greatly from the insight and wisdom some distinguished women would bring to their important discussions as equals?
Now to address the most sensitive matter regarding women in the Roman Catholic Church. As just about everyone knows, we are in a period of crisis because of the decline of male clergy in the United States, in Europe, South America and elsewhere. I have come to believe the church must consider the ordaining of women (and most certainly married men) as priests in order to meet an essential need that is not being met. I say this because of Pope John Paul’s repeated insistence, reflecting the Vatican II decree on the sacred liturgy, that the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit is the liturgy, the Eucharist, the Mass. If this is the source and it cannot be obtained because of the priest shortage, then the true Christian spirit is lost. And this is a disaster.
In the Chicago archdiocese in 1999, we lost 31 priests in death and 20 more through retirement. In that same year, just six priests were ordained for the archdiocese. To the best of my knowledge, in the New York archdiocese, five priests were ordained in 2000; in San Francisco, one; in Los Angeles, seven; in Detroit, five; in Boston, 11; in San Antonio, three; in Davenport, two; in Newark, 11 (only one of whom was native to Newark; of the 10, nine will serve a special movement); in Washington, four.
Last year for the first time, the U.S. bishops at their meeting formally looked at the problem of fewer priests. A study they commissioned showed that between 1950 and 2000, the U.S. Catholic population increased by 107 percent, while the total number of priests grew by only 6 percent. The average age of the present priest population is about 60. Right now, there are far more priests over 90 years of age than under 30.
The result is that 15 percent of the parishes in the country do not have their own resident priest pastor. I’m aware of the great number of laypersons (both men and women), of sisters and of deacons (men only), who have come forward to serve the needs of our parishioners. Their emergence speaks volumes about the good will and generosity of our people. But in Catholic theology and practice, only an ordained priest can celebrate Mass — the primary source of the Christian spirit. So the Mass is becoming less and less available.
I find it interesting that the bishops at their meeting considered the use of foreign priests to fill the gap. Such a solution is unrealistic. The areas from which these priests are recruited all have larger numbers of Catholics per priest than we have in this country. Are we going to import priests from Africa, Asia and South America to the detriment of Catholics living in these needy areas?
Are we even taking into consideration the cultural adjustment and competency levels in the English language required of such foreign priests? In addition, foreign priests simply do not understand how to navigate the governmental and neighborhood structures in our society. Today’s parish requires that the priest be able to relate to the whole community.
Despite the good will of these men from foreign lands, such importation is not the answer to the crisis.
The bishops’ study did not even mention the ordination of women or married men as a possibility, and the two or three bishops who raised this question in the general discussion were met with stony silence. In the early church, women served as deacons, and there may be evidence they even presided at what we now call celebrations of the Mass. Tradition does not stop at a designated point in history; it embraces the present also. And we are fortunate to live in this era when women’s equality with men has at last come to be recognized as a God-given truth.
It is time to present this matter to a wide audience in order to learn the sense of the larger church. The arguments that women cannot be ordained because Jesus selected only men to be his first apostles or because tradition has restricted the priesthood exclusively to men are no longer persuasive to the majority of Catholics. They are no longer persuasive to many theologians, and perhaps to many bishops.
Even if there were no shortage of priests, even if we had an overabundance of quality male priests, the Catholic church would still be required to rethink its exclusion of women from Holy Orders. It’s not just a question of using women to fill in during an emergency. It is a matter, I believe, of social justice that all Catholics must come to terms with.
At 84 I have not retired, but realize I have a limited number of years left to serve. A great part of my priesthood has involved working with other religious bodies on thorny problems of justice — social, economic, political. Now, I have to ask our church to open its eyes and lift its voice on behalf of another justice issue — the church’s commitment to the broadest possible inclusion of women in positions of leadership and authority in the church, including further study and discussion of the ordination of women.
The church has the obligation to use all the gifts God has given it to fulfill its mission. My plea and prayer on behalf of the church I deeply love is to affirm this commitment and to act upon it.
John J. Egan
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