Ad Limina outreach:
Some Bishops Open to Dialogue
(Others, Not So Much!)
By the end of the U.S. Bishops' every five year ad limina visits to Rome (May 2012), over 400 concerned Catholics had contacted 42 dioceses to discuss the severity of the priest shortage, married priests and women deacons. One heartfelt letter from Catholics in a New England diocese was typical:
I am writing on behalf of myself and three other faithful friends of the church to request an appointment to discuss our concerns about local parishes and staffing in our diocese. We have dwindling numbers of priests. We have seen vibrant parishes closing, or being merged while our overworked priests struggle to effectively manage our parishes.
We have record numbers of people leaving the Catholic faith for various reasons. It is difficult to sit idly by and watch these trends and not take any action. We would like to discuss the future of our Catholic sacramental life and specifically what some of the possible solutions might be in addressing these issues.
All told, faithful Catholics, including the above-named New Englanders, succeeded in obtaining meetings in seventeen dioceses. Of these, twelve were held with bishop ordinaries and five with the chancellor or other official representing the bishop. All meetings were cordial and most lasted about an hour.
Optional celibacy discussion outcomes. Six bishops expressed openness to dialogue about optional celibacy with three favoring it and three willing to talk about it. Only one bishop, however was willing to discuss optional celibacy at his Rome ad limina visit. Five bishops and three diocesan officials appeared closed to any consideration of optional celibacy as a way to address the shortage of priests.
Here is a sampling of responses from bishops about optional celibacy:
- Our bishop is sure it will happen, but doesn't believe he'll live to see it.
- The bishop was not supportive of a married clergy because it would be too expensive to support a married priest and his wife and family.
- I invite you to join me for our monthly prayer for vocations and for continued prayers for each of our 22 seminarians in formation.
Women deacon discussion outcomes. Substantially more bishops, eleven to be exact, expressed some level of openness to dialogue about women deacons with six favoring it, and five willing to discuss it, Three expressed willingness to suggest the desirability of extending the diaconate to women in Rome. One bishop and one diocesan official registered no support for women deacons.
Here is a sampling of responses from bishops about women deacons:
- The bishop is open to the reinstatement of ordaining female deacons and is willing to discuss this during his ad limina visit.
- Our bishop has already agreed to take the issue of women deacons to Rome.
- Our bishop said he will consider the possibility if it can be shown that early women were ordained.
- An argument for establishing an order of deaconesses based on ancient precedence and practice is, at best, dubious.
Of the twenty-five dioceses where no meeting occurred at all, six bishops cited time constraints suggesting meeting at a later time and/or providing other avenues for conveying information. Five bishops categorically refused to meet and eleven did not respond at all to phone or written correspondence.
All in all, the efforts and meetings represent a good start. That said, it is quite distressing that of 42 good faith attempts on the part of loyal Catholics to reach out to U.S. Bishops about a matter of grave concern for the future of Catholic sacramental life, 16 bishops either did not respond (11) or categorically refused to meet (5).
This outreach effort could have been considerably more successful had we known in advance the planned dates for the U.S. ad limina visits. This was not widely available until a few months before the New England regions began meetings. Ad limina visits to Rome normally occur every five years, though for this last set of visits, the interim was seven years.
The 2012 experience can help FutureChurch and like-minded organizations prepare more effectively to engage bishops on key problems facing the church in 2016 and 2017. Bishops may be more willing then to engage in dialog because the next five years will move the US Church closer to the looming priest retirement cliff.