Following is the full text of Bishop Pat Power's letter to the organisers of the Petition to the Australian Catholic Bishops which Bishop Power released for publication on 21 August 2007…
Open Letter to Petition Organisers...
Paul Collins and Frank Purcell
Dear Paul and Frank,
I write in response to your letter of 18 June which I presume was sent to the other Australian Bishops as well. Both of you and the other signatories to the letter are people who have made significant contributions to the Church in Australia and I believe that the issues you raise are of concern to the majority of practising Catholics around Australia. Daily, I hear people express such concerns along with the frustration that their voices are being ignored.
At the heart of the issue is the relationship of the local church to the universal church. I nominated this as a possible subject for the last Synod held in Rome, but there was little support for my proposal. However, for a number of years (some people would say since the beginning of Pope John Paul II's pontificate in 1978) there has been a greater encroachment on the life of the local church which has given the diocesan bishop and his collaborators little scope for effective leadership. I clearly recognise the need for the local church to be in communion with the See of Peter but there needs to be much more reciprocity in the relationship. Circumstances vary enormously around the world and many of the issues your letter raises will have differing consequences in other countries and cultures. That was apparent to me at the 1998 Oceania Synod of Bishops when so many bishops of our region highlighted the particular problems they were facing. Unless diocesan bishops are allowed to exercise the powers intrinsic to their office, many urgent questions will be neglected. The ecumenical movement suggests that we should be seeking unity in diversity. Surely such wisdom needs applying to the Church as a whole. The New Testament shows the first disciples' readiness to embrace such an approach.
Where there is the conviction that the Eucharist is at the heart of Catholic belief and practice, there must be questions asked about disciplinary laws in the Church which have the net effect of denying many Catholics regular access to the Eucharist. This was the precise argument advanced by the National Council of Priests in Australia in the lead-up to the last Synod of Bishops which discussed the Eucharist. They argued that there is little sense in pointing to the centrality of the Eucharist when an increasing number of Catholics in many parts of the world are being deprived of the Eucharist because of the scarcity of priests.
On many occasions since my ordination as bishop in 1986, I have pleaded for consideration of the ordination of married men and the possibility of those who have married to be able to return to the active ministry. I wrote a letter to that effect to Pope John Paul when he visited Australia at the end of that year. In the ensuing twenty years, I have publicly canvassed such views on a number of occasions and I gave voice to them at the 1998 Oceania Synod. But consistent with many papal and other Vatican pronouncements, there has been no acceptance of those views at that level. Yet invariably when I have made such statements the overwhelming response I have received from ordinary Catholics has been one of support and a sense of urgency that the official Church needs to act decisively to bring about reform.
In our own Archdiocese in line with the experience of other parts of Australia, parishes generally and priests personally are under added pressure with an increasing load being borne by a diminishing and ageing clergy. The irony is that in this Archdiocese there are between thirty and forty priests who have married and thereby been debarred from active priestly ministry. Many of them and their families are active in parishes and other areas of Church life, but they are unable to celebrate the Eucharist. There was a recent instance where a priest failed to arrive for Mass and a married priest and his wife sat rather helplessly in the congregation while an acolyte and other members of the parish attempted to lead a liturgy of the word with Holy Communion.
Of course, dioceses need to continue in their efforts to recruit men for the celibate priesthood but the limited response must say something in terms of a long-term solution. Many dioceses have recruited priests from overseas with mixed success. Some such priests have fitted very well into the life of the diocese while others have struggled with issues of culture, language and vision of Church. In any case such solutions can only be partial and short-term.
Your fourth point relating to the participation of women in the life of the Church is crucial for a healthy, life-giving and nurturing Church. While women's roles in the family, Catholic education and health-care are obvious, the opportunities for leadership in terms of the universal, diocesan and even parish Church are extremely limited. The 1997 inquiry into the participation of women in the Church in Australia brought out many of the gaps for which the whole Church, not just women, is the poorer. While I recognise the sensitivity to the question at the level of the Vatican, I am also aware that many loyal and committed Catholics want a more open and thorough examination of the issues around the ordination of women and the whole structure of the priesthood. A less clerical model of the priesthood is more in tune with 21st century societal values and arguably more faithful to the practice of the early Christian communities.
The opportunity which your letter gives for the whole people of God to claim a greater share of ownership in the life of the Church in Australia is most welcome. I hope that the spirit of dialogue promoted by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Ecclesiam suam and the spirit and teaching of the Second Vatican Council will be brought to bear on the discussions you seek to engender.
(Bishop) Pat Power
DISCLAIMER: Catholica Australia is providing pro bono promotional support to the organisers of the Petition to the Australian Catholic Bishops.
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