Celibacy and renewed understanding of priesthood at heart of conference, says cardinal

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Priesthood conference
Pope Francis holds the text of his opening talk as he concludes his address at an international symposium on the priesthood at the Vatican Feb. 17, 2022. Also pictured is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the recently retired prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, has launched an international movement to revitalize the collaboration between ministerial priests and the priesthood of the faithful.

In his opening remarks to a symposium held in Rome on Feb. 17-19, 2022, Cardinal Ouellet said, “In this search for synodal conversion, there is room for a vast theological endeavor which should offer a renewed vision,” which is “a way of valuing all vocations while respecting what is specific to each.”

Inspired by the Rome based-event, Cardinal Ouellet has organized a gathering for American theologians, priests, seminarians and laity that will be held May 16 at The Catholic University of America. More than 150 people are expected to attend. The gathering is co-sponsored by the Centre de Recherche et d’Anthropologie des Vocations, the Thomistic Institute, the Institute for Human Ecology and Theological College.

So what will the symposium do? While acknowledging that the symposium is not able to offer answers to every pastoral challenge the Church faces, Cardinal Ouellet insists that “it can help us deepen the foundation of the Church’s mission.” Cardinal Ouellet recently responded to questions about the event from Our Sunday Visitor and highlighted his hopes that the symposium will inspire, among other things, new cooperation among priests and laity and a new appreciation for priestly celibacy.

Our Sunday Visitor: How was the International Theological Symposium on the Priesthood received at the Vatican in February 2022?

Cardinal Marc Ouellet: The symposium was very well received in the Vatican both at the time of the event and, subsequently, at the time of publication of the Acts of the Symposium. All the sessions were chaired by heads of dicasteries who shared messages published in the official acts. The Paul VI Audience Hall was offered to us free of charge by the Holy See to facilitate wide participation and to ensure appropriate safety measures.

Our Sunday Visitor: What was the Holy Father’s reaction to the proposal for such a conference? Do you have a sense of his appreciation for the project, particularly after his delivery of an address to participants?

Cardinal Ouellet: Pope Francis originally encouraged the initiative and agreed to participate in June 2020 at the beginning of our efforts to organize the event. Then he spontaneously changed the modality of his participation by offering to open the event. As he is used to surprises, he gave us the longest speech of his pontificate, speaking for more than an hour! He thus raised the audience profile for the whole event; we ended up having more than 700 registrants and thousands participating virtually.

Our Sunday Visitor: How has the symposium been received in other countries? I know, for example, that there was a gathering in Spain, but perhaps there have been others.

Cardinal Ouellet: A major world tour is underway to present the Acts of the Symposium and to encourage local reflection on the theme. An enthusiastic reception was experienced in Madrid, Paris and Abidjan. Study days are planned in Washington, Rome, Manila and in four major cities in Brazil, others are being organized in Africa and Latin America, and a large participation is planned for the World Youth Day in Lisbon. We have found that the theological and pastoral approach to vocational renewal involving the whole People of God is appreciated everywhere.

Our Sunday Visitor: What are your hopes for the upcoming gathering in Washington, D.C.? How do you think the Church in America needs to be thinking about the priesthood today?

Cardinal Ouellet: Society in general but also the Church in the United States are struggling with strong polarizations which can be overcome through a better understanding and renewed collaboration between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the baptized. A synodal Church well rooted in the grace of the two forms of priesthood offers resources of participation and communion that can revive the Church’s evangelizing mission in the midst of a wounded world in search of hope.

Our Sunday Visitor: What are the greatest challenges to the priesthood today?

Cardinal Ouellet: The great challenge of the priesthood is to ensure a relational quality in the community by means of the Word of God, the witness of unity around the bishop and the presbyterate, and the charity that gives priority to the most needy. May priests dream of converting their parishes as the holy Curé of Ars did! Holiness must be virtuous, but above all, missionary.

Our Sunday Visitor: Recognizing you have done much research on the question, including penning the book “Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy,” what is needed to come to a fuller understanding of priestly celibacy? How can priests better live celibacy? And what does the gift of priestly celibacy offer the Church?

Cardinal Ouellet: Priestly celibacy is a treasure of the Latin Church which energizes its missionary openness. A dominant culture says it does not understand this gift and can multiply criticism, but over the centuries, the witness of priests has been fruitful. For it is above all a testimony of faith in the divine Person of Christ which precedes and accompanies the ministry of preaching and the sacraments. This witness of a life totally given to Christ bears abundant fruit even where it is less understood.

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickMaryOP.

Father Patrick Briscoe

Father Patrick Briscoe, O.P., is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Along with his Dominican brothers, he is host of the podcast Godsplaining and a co-author of "Saint Dominic’s Way of Life: A Path to Knowing and Loving God." He is also the author of the OSV seasonal devotional, "My Daily Visitor."