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ank God for our priests

Last week the Vatican issued a revised version of its “fundamentals of priestly formation”, which guide the training of clergy around the world. The text, known officially as the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, was last updated in 1985 – in the early days of St John Paul II’s pontificate.

Introducing the new document, Cardinal Beniamino Stella noted that “the historical, socio-cultural and ecclesiastical contexts have changed” since the 1980s. That is something of an understatement.

The statistics alone suggest a profound transformation. Between 1980 and 2012, the number of priests worldwide declined by 17 per cent, or 20,547 priests (according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or Cara). In March this year, the Vatican reported that there were 415,792 priests in total, with an increase in diocesan priests in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, and a decrease in North America, Europe and Oceania.

But the differences between the 1980s and today go far beyond data. As Cardinal Stella observed, we have also seen sweeping alterations in “the image or vision of the priest, the spiritual needs of the People of God, the challenges of the new evangelisation, the language of communication, and much else”.

Media reports inevitably focused on the novelties in the updated text. The recommendation that seminarians should be taught about climate change raised eyebrows. The document argues that future priests should be “highly sensitive” to the ecological crisis, but does not suggest this should come at the expense of the essentials of priestly training.

There was also much coverage of the document’s norms on the admission of gay men to seminaries. These are, in

It’s said that the revival of the Church depends on a renewal of the priesthood fact, nothing new. The text says that men who display “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” are unsuitable for the priesthood – a phrase which, in practice, is interpreted differently across the Catholic world.

Church leaders in Britain will be pleased with the text’s endorsement of a “propaedeutic period” for men considering the priesthood. Our bishops have long sent candidates abroad for a year to discern their calling before admission to seminary.

The guidelines also reflect Pope Francis’s concern with clericalism – a term that is seldom defined, but suggests priestly authoritarianism. The text says that seminarians “should be educated so that they do not become prey to ‘clericalism’”, but doesn’t offer practical guidance on how to accomplish this.

According to Cardinal Stella, the new text is necessary because “it seemed that the formation of priests needed to be revamped, renewed and restored to the centre”. He’s right. It is often said that the revival of the Church depends on a renewal of the priesthood. This is just as true in our age as in ages past.

At the closing Mass of the Year for Priests in 2010, Benedict XVI said that, after more than a decade dominated by clerical scandal, we were beginning to see a “new radiance of the priesthood”. This new radiance is especially bright in Britain, where we are blessed to have some of the world’s most dedicated, creative and holy priests. Yet how often do we take them for granted?

This is a busy, taxing time of year for our clergy. Perhaps we can lighten their load just a little by telling them how grateful we are for their service.

False dawn in Kinshasa

The Democratic Republic of Congo is Africa’s largest state. It is rich in resources, and yet one of the least developed countries on earth. It has been wracked by civil wars, the most recent of which, involving numerous neighbouring countries, has accounted for almost six million deaths. A byword for corruption, its former president, Mobutu Sese Seko, is credited with being the greatest kleptocrat of all time. The Congo, with its terrible and tragic history, sums up the woes of Africa.

Back in January 2001, there appeared to be some hope when Joseph Kabila came to power. Mr Kabila seemed to be part of a new generation of African leaders who might just bring about peace and stability. These hopes now seem yet another false dawn. Mr Kabila has served two terms in office, and according to the constitution should step down this month. But fresh elections cannot take place without a population census. Mr Kabila plans to stay on, with this as his excuse, despite the fact that he is loathed by many of his countrymen and women. As in other African countries, the president will not willingly relinquish power.

The Church is trying to broker a peaceful transition of power. In a country where so many institutions have failed, the Church still has a credible profile, and a chance of being taken seriously as an honest broker. We must hope and pray that the Church leadership does not fail in the difficult task that lies ahead, and that the poor suffering people of Congo will be spared a renewal of civil war.


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