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Bishops ask pope to allow married priests: faith life in peril among Inuit, Dene in Northern Canada.

Faith life in peril among Inuit, Dene in northern Canada

VATICAN CITY - Bishops from western Canada, in Rome for a week of ad limina visits, asked the Vatican to consider allowing married priests for the native populations of the northern provinces.

The bishops said afterward that Vatican officials, including Pope John Paul II, listened to their presentations but gave no indication that there would be a relaxation of the rule against the married priesthood in the Latin-rite church.

Several bishops said the topic was a dominant one and reflected a major pastoral concern among the episcopate in western Canada. They said they were worried about the diminishing number of clergy in northern regions and its effect on the faith life of local Catholics. In their meetings Sept. 13-18 with several Vatican congregations and in private sessions with the pontiff, the bishops asked that Rome be willing to grant an exception on cultural grounds and allow married priests among the Inuit and Dene peoples of northern Canada.

"The idea is that these peoples have a family value in their culture where, unless you are married, you're not a leader and people won't listen to you," said Bishop Denis Croteau of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.

The prevailing view is that "if you have married and raised a family, then you're an elder, a man of experience. Then you can talk and people will respect your position," he said.

Bishop James Mahoney of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said marriage is considered important for the survival of native peoples in the sparsely populated regions of the north, where communities may number only 20 families. In these areas, he said, the "holy man" may call the community to prayer every night; his wife is considered essential to their culture.

He noted that some northern Canadian areas have not had priesthood vocations in more than a century. "We fully support celibacy, of course," he said. But the bishops feel there is room for exceptions, he added.

Bishop Paul O'Byrne of Calgary, Alberta, touched upon the problem briefly in his speech to the pope during a group meeting, saying that the bishops "face general acceptance by laity and some clergy for married priests in particular areas of some of our dioceses."

Some bishops brought it up with the pope privately, as well. O'Byrne said: "The pope listened very carefully to the problem and is very much concerned with native life in Canada. ... It was obvious he was not closing us out."

But Vatican congregations gave no hope for a change in the policy, several bishops said. According to Croteau, for example, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said he was afraid that an exception granted in Canada "could not remain an exception," but would become the focus of media attention and open up a floodgate of similar requests in Africa, South America and elsewhere. Tomko said the Vatican is therefore much less likely to grant the request, Croteau said.

Croteau added that the pope has a "very spiritual" approach to the question, believing God will provide the priests the church needs without changing the celibacy rule.

Croteau said he agreed it was important to give the celibate priesthood a chance among native peoples. "We had two native priests in our diocese, and they lived their celibacy really well. They were respected and loved and admired by their own people. So I don't think we can make any fast rules," he said.

Croteau added that even if the married priesthood were allowed for native peoples, it would be a few years before he would have a prepared candidate. But another bishop reported that he would have several possible vocations under a relaxed rule.

The bishops said they were satisfied that the Vatican made an effort to understand their position. "We weren't lectured; they listened," Mahoney said. Croteau said he thought the discussions were useful even though no headway was made.

"If there is a change to come, I think it is through these presentations," he said.

The best route for the bishops to follow now, Croteau suggested, is to find an ideal married candidate for the priesthood hood and "present the case to Rome and see what they do with it."

All the bishops interviewed emphasized that a warm atmosphere prevailed in their talks with the pope and other curial officials. "There was a familial and unconditioned relationship which allowed for any subject of concern or interest to surface," O'Byrne said of the papal meetings. He added that all the bishops had received "a boost" from the visits.
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Author:Thavis, John
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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