MEXICO CITY – A Mexican bishop is bucking Vatican orders to erase a phrase in his pastoral plan that notes the desire among his indigenous communities that married permanent deacons be ordained priests.
The phrase is not fanning the hopes of a married priesthood, but simply reporting the feelings of many indigenous Catholics, said Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel of San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico’s Chiapas state.
The phrase remains in the pastoral plan “because the faithful have the right to be heard by their pastors. To listen is not the same as to approve,” he said, in a Jan. 24 statement posted on the Web site of the Mexican bishops’ conference.
Bishop Arizmendi said he does not support a married priesthood.
He issued the statement after several Mexican news organizations reported on a Sept. 26 Vatican letter complaining that the diocese still had not eliminated the phrase nor had it made changes in its program for training married men to be permanent deacons.
The Vatican made the letter public in mid-January. It was signed by Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. It said that the phrase, which is found in the Diocesan Pastoral Plan and the Diocesan Directory for the Permanent Diaconate, can no longer be used by the diocese.
The Vatican suspended the diaconate program in 2002 and no permanent deacons have been ordained since 2001. Bishop Arizmendi has been trying to get Vatican officials to reinstate the training program.
The cardinal’s letter was a follow-up to an Oct. 26, 2005, letter in which the Vatican official denied the bishop’s permission to reinstate the diaconate program. The 2005 letter said problems forcing the 2002 suspension had not been resolved. It said it is “feeding in the faithful” the expectation that a married diaconate is a step toward married priests and an “underlying ideology” promoting an autonomous church.
Bishop Arizmendi, in his Jan. 24 statement, told Vatican officials that “we sincerely ask your forgiveness for the headaches we give you.”
He noted that he is not the only bishop reporting requests for married priests from Catholics and added that popes have made exceptions to the celibacy rule to allow married priests.
The bishop said that the 2006 Vatican letter negates the 2005 changes he made in the phrase after the Vatican raised initial objections. The revised phrase added wording saying that the church “will continue to admit only celibate men to the priesthood.”
The phrase to which the Vatican objects is in paragraph No. 58 in the Diocesan Pastoral Plan. It initially said:
“Enlightened by the Spirit and guided by the universal church’s magisterium, we listen with attention and we evaluate the request of some communities that married indigenous deacons be admitted to priestly ordination after adequate formation and disposed to accept in faith the decision of the Holy See.”
The 2005 revision said:
“We listen with attention to the request that some communities are making so that married indigenous deacons can be admitted to the ordained priesthood. And we help them evaluate their request, enlightened by the Holy Spirit and the universal church’s magisterium, clearly cautioning them that there is no hope that the church changes its practices, which come from the Gospel and many centuries of tradition, and that it will continue to admit only celibate men to the priesthood.”
Bishop Arizmendi said that the revised text was sent several times to the Vatican.
“We didn’t change the first part of the text because we must continue listening to our people. But we insist (on) the necessity of the celibate priesthood,” he said.
Bishop Arizmendi said that he is also revising the diocesan diaconate directory so that it conforms more with the universal church norms and the Mexican bishops’ national directory.
Meanwhile, vocations programs have caused nearly a doubling of candidates for the priesthood, he said. In 2000 there were 16 seminarians and now there are 31, he said.
In a 2006 interview with Catholic News Service, the bishop said that ordaining married indigenous men as permanent deacons was a vital part of evangelization efforts in his diocese in which the origins of 75 percent of the population are completely indigenous.
The bishop told CNS that there is an urgent need to restart the diaconate program as his 335 permanent deacons and 84 priests are not enough to minister to the more than 1.5 million people in his diocese.