Well, not really...not yet...but this article talks about women who are taking on roles as parish leaders due to the priest shortage in Catalonia, Spain, and this should make us very worried since Spain has traditionally been one of the main places that has provided missionary priests to serve in Spanish-speaking parishes in the U.S.
by Pilar Encuentra
Rosa Maria Sanchez admits she was "slightly terrified" when the priest of Alforja (Baix Camp) asked her to lead a Liturgy of the Word, a religious ceremony similar to the Mass, but without the consecration, which is the central act of the Catholic rite. "Can I do it?," she recalls asking him. "If I tell you to do it, it's that you can do it," came the reply from the rector, who was about to be transferred. This woman, born in 1953, is responsible for the Diocesan Secretariate for the Laity in Pastoral Missions in the archbishopric of Tarragona, created "so that parish life would not decline."
The average age of Catalan priests, which is already 70 in the diocese of Vic, Girona and Lleida, and the lack of priestly vocations at the base of the pyramid are making way for lay people, mostly women, who already take care of menial tasks in the parishes. They can not consecrate or administer sacraments — therefore, neither marry nor baptize — instead of priests, but they can lead the Liturgy of the Word, that is, read the gospel and the Bible, and give [preconsecrated] communion.
This, however, is light years away from Catholic women being in the priesthood and, in the future, performing the work of bishops, as happens in the Anglican Church. In Catalonia, there are about thirty non-ordained people who have taken on some of the functions of a priest. The Tarragonan secretariat is composed of nine people, all women: a widow, five single women and three nuns. In the Diocese of Sant Feliu de Llobregat, there are fifteen lay people, both men and women, and two nuns. In Girona, a nun goes four times a month to a parish in Empordà to lead the Sunday liturgy, and the Diocese of Solsona, Sister Maria Teresa Boss has taken responsibility for the Bagà parish.
The phenomenon is growing, but not entirely new. Rosa Maria Sanchez was a pioneer 30 years ago. Rosa Roca*, 58, is also one of the veterans. She has been in charge of the parish of Bonastre (Baix Penedès), her hometown, for 22 years. Every Tuesday she leads the Liturgy of the Word. But that is not her only role, she points out. "There is a lot of work: bringing communion to the elderly in their homes, assisting those in need, managing the accounts, taking care of the cemetery. Everything. The spiritual and the material, from repairing a leaky radiator to replacing the toilet paper." She remembers that when she started, she would remove the pews all by herself in order to scour the church.
Pere Oliva, rector of the seminary in Vic, the diocese with the oldest clergy in Catalonia (the average age is 71), believes that the root of the problem is the lack of vocations, a "complex phenomenon", which he interprets as one of "signs of the times," or a way of speaking about God. "But what does it call us to?," asks Oliva, puzzled. In his view, the solution is not women priests or the end of celibacy that the progressive sectors of the Church never tire of demanding. Rather, Oliva believes that the challenge must be to "bring more vigor to the Christian communities." Because he is convinced that God continues to call young men, that what happens is that they do not respond, which the priest attributes to "the inability to make a commitment. Not only to the priesthood, but also to marriage." On women priests, Oliva admits that this "is an issue that could change," but he hastens to add that "it is not the key element." He also reminds us that this is "a universal issue that is not in the hands of one diocese." Oliva insists, therefore, that the best response to the problem is "to work towards making Christian communities more alive," as they are the breeding ground for new vocations.
Neither does Jose Casella, spokesman for the diocese of Girona, think that a larger female role is the response the Church must give to the priest shortage. He acknowledges that in his diocese the number of Masses has had to be reduced, but hits the nail on the head: "not only for lack of priests, but also for lack of faithful." Casella believes the problem must be solved by continuing to streamline schedules and merge Masses. And meanwhile, he believes that "you have to speculate about what God wants to communicate to us."
For some of the women currently engaged in parish work, God's message seems to be easier to decipher. Rosa Roca, for example, said yes when it was proposed that she assume the leadership of the parish. She accepted immediately. "I thought,'This is what God wants from me.'" Her colleague Rosa Maria Sanchez finds it harder to understand men than God. She believes that in the long run the Church will have to raise the issue of women priests, but it is still 'not ripe'. And she doesn't understand why. "I can't begin to understand why we can't be priests."
An aging pyramid
The average age of active priests in the Catalan diocese is 57 in Barcelona, 59 in Tarragona, 70 in Girona and Lleida, 62 in Sant Feliu de LLobregat, 67 in Solsona, 50 in Terrassa, 57 in Tortosa, 67 in Urgell, and 71 in Vic. Some fear that if the trend doesn't change, many practising Christians will find it impossible to comply with the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.
The most pessimistic believe that based on what they are seeing in many churches in daily Mass, within a few years many parishes will close not just for lack of priests but also for lack of faithful. But the church hierarchy remains stubborn in its opposition to women priests and to making celibacy optional. In spite of everything, Rosa Roca is convinced that, come what may, the Church will never die out.
* M. Rosa Roca is also the author of Cuando el sacerdote no está, a booklet about how to lead a parish in the absence of a priest, which can be purchased from Liturgy Training Publications.