A Lebanese archbishop’s practical argument for married priests

Archbishop George Bakhouni of Tyre. (Nancy Wiechec/CNS)

TYRE, Lebanon — Heading a southern Lebanese diocese that goes from the sea then east two-thirds of the way along the border with Israel, the one problem Melkite Archbishop George Bakhouni of Tyre says he doesn’t have is finding priests.

In fact, the archbishop said, he’s surprised bishops and other leaders of the Latin-rite church aren’t more interested in the Eastern Catholic churches’ experience with ordaining married men.

“Christianity survived in the Middle East because of the married priests,” the bishop said. Because they are married with families and homes, they tend to stay even when conflicts and hardship send many celibate priests fleeing to safety.

The archbishop met Saturday with a small group of Catholic journalists visiting Lebanon with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a North American agency supporting Christians in the region.

For the archdiocese’s 10 parishes, “I have 12 priests. Eight of them are married and four are single, but two of the singles are serving in Italy,” the archbishop said.

“We always propose this to the Latin church because you are Catholic and we are Catholic, but we always feel a lot of reticence when we mention this issue to the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t know, but I think it could be helpful to allow a married person to be a priest.”

A cross at the Melkite church in Yaroun, less than a mile from the Israeli border. (Nancy Wiechec/CNS)

The celibacy rule for priests in the Latin-rite church has always been defined as a church discipline, not a theologically or scripturally based dogma that is unchangeable.

The archbishop knows all the arguments against relaxing the celibacy requirement in the Latin church, but in his experience, ordaining married men is the most naturally pastoral response to every Catholic’s need for regular access to the sacraments.

In little villages where there may be only 20 or 30 families, he said, it would be hard to find a single, celibate priest who would be happy to live and minister there. And that handful of families would not be able to support him.

The Eastern tradition, he said, is “to choose someone who has his own work in the particular village, a good man, a faithful man, a Christian man. He will study a little bit, some theology and philosophy, and he will be ordained.”

The archbishop said it doesn’t matter that it’s impractical to send a married man to the seminary for six years. “We don’t want all of them to be doctors or theologians,” but witnesses. Priests don’t all have to be well spoken orators; they could even be fishermen, like the Apostles, he said.

The important thing, he said, is that they live exemplary lives among their fellow villagers, know a bit of theology and the Bible and that they are available to celebrate the sacraments.

Pope asks Spanish Catholics to defend human life

BARCELONA, Spain — Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics in Spain to resist every attack on human life and promote the natural institution of the family.

During a Mass Nov. 7 in which he consecrated the still incomplete church dedicated to the Holy Family of Nazareth, the pope pronounced his strongest words yet against Spain’s drift away from its Christian roots.

Under the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who came to power in 2004, Spain has relaxed its divorce laws, eased restrictions on abortion, legalized gay marriage and allowed gay couples to adopt.

Barcelona marked the second and last day of the pope’s 18th trip abroad, which brought him first to the ancient pilgrimage shrine of Santiago de Compostela. In his homily in the Barcelona’s Church of the Sagrada Familia, the pope praised the technical, social and cultural progress of modern Spain.

But he said a country must also advance morally, “such as in care, protection and assistance to families, inasmuch as the generous and indissoluble love of a man and a woman is the effective context and foundation of human life in its gestation, birth, growth and natural end.”

The pope said the church advocates social and economic policies that let women find “their full development” both at home and at work and let families “receive decisive support from the state.”

He asked that courts, legislative bodies and society respect and defend the sacred and inviolable life of the child from the moment of conception. “For this reason the church resists every form of denial of human life and gives its support to everything that would promote the natural order in the sphere of the institution of the family,” he said.

More than 6,000 people filled the church, which the pope elevated to a minor basilica during the Mass. Another 50,000 people followed the event outside on 33 jumbo screens that dotted the surrounding streets and squares.

A “kiss-in” protest of about 200 people happened along the pope motorcade route, as gay rights’ advocates kissed as the vehicle passed. At least 200,000 people lined the streets of the city to see the pope, according to city authorities.

The church, begun in 1882 and expected to be finished by 2026, is the masterpiece of Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, a Catholic whose beatification cause is underway.

The pope incensed the main altar, sprinkled it with holy water and rubbed chrism oil into the immense, roughly-hewn block of rose-colored stone. The basilica interior was bathed in golden light as Spanish bishops anointed some of the white treelike columns branching out to support the 200-foot-high vaulted ceilings.

Gaudi had renounced secular art in his later years and dedicated much of his adult life to building the church. The pope, in his homily and Angelus address, praised the artist for producing “a hymn of praise to God carved in stone” and creating a visual catechesis that brings the Gospel to everyone.

The massive church with intricate sculpted facades attracts an estimated 3 million visitors a year. It is wrought with symbolism representing the life of Jesus and merges elements of the natural world, sacred Scripture and the liturgy.

The pope said he was happy to learn that Gaudi once said, “St. Joseph will finish this church,” noting that it had been formally consecrated by “a pope whose baptismal name is Joseph.”

He said the church is a visible testament to the importance of basing the family on the Holy Family — “a school of love prayer and work” and service to others – and displays the kind of beauty that results when art and faith come together.

Gaudi accomplished “one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty,” he said. Just as a building needs a solid foundation, individuals and societies need to be built upon solid moral and ethical grounding, he said.

Christians must show the world that God is a God of peace, freedom and harmony, not violence, coercion and discord, he said in his homily.

In a visit later in the day to Obra Nen Deu, a center run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart for children with mental disabilities, the pope urged Christians to keep offering financial support for charitable works even at a time of economic crisis.

Precisely because so many more people are facing economic hardship, Christians “must multiply concrete gestures of effective and constant solidarity,” he said.

The pope noted that science and medicine have done much to bring urgently needed care to those in need, but he said new technological advancements must always respect for human life and dignity. Those who suffer from illness and physical or mental challenges need love and attention, and should not be marginalized because of their limitations, he said.

Before taking off for Rome from the Barcelona airport later in the day, the pope met privately with Prime Minister Zapatero at the airport. King Juan Carlos of Spain, Queen Sofia and other representatives from the national, regional and local governments saw the pope off during a farewell ceremony on the tarmac.

In his remarks, the pope praised the “openness and hospitality” shown him by the Spanish people and said the preservation of their rich spiritual heritage was a sign of their love for their nation and its history and culture.

He said the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela unites thousands of diverse Europeans who travel the Way of St. James and discover their common roots as members of one human family.

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