Thursday, April 13, 2017
Due to the Catholic priest shortage, women stand at the altar in Portuguese churches
April 11, 2017
In some villages of southwest Portugal, the Catholic priest shortage had led several women, simple believers, to celebrate the Sunday encounter themselves to facilitate the religious life of these communities that are aging but open to change.
In the tiny church of Carrapatelo, a village of fifty houses set on a hill that looks out over the vineyards of the Reguengos de Monsaraz region, Claudia Rocha (photo), dressed in black with sneakers, addresses a dozen faithful, mostly older women.
While her leather jacket and smartphone are waiting for her in the first pew, the 31-year-old woman easily handles this "Sunday assembly in the absence of a priest."
After the prayers and the liturgical songs, she herself comments on the biblical readings of the day as any other priest would do.
At the end of the ceremony, she distributes communion like at Mass, the only difference being that the hosts she is giving out have been consecrated earlier by a priest and she doesn't drink the wine that represents the blood of Christ.
"If I weren't here today, this church would be closed. It matters little whether it's a woman, a deacon, or a priest. What counts is having someone who belongs to the community and keeps the ties with the priest, including when he's not there," she explains to AFP.
She's a divorced social worker without children. She is part of the group of 16 laypeople -- eight women and eight men -- chosen by Father Manuel José Marques to help him keep a regular church presence in the seven parishes he's in charge of.
"It might seem strange and new, but we haven't invented anything. This is a tool the Church has provided for a long time, for the cases where it's absolutely necessary," the 57-year-old priest points out.
In fact, other countries have such celebrations without an ordained minister, such as Germany, France, Switzerland or the United States, due to the lack of Catholic priests.
They first appeared in the 80's, but the Vatican and numerous clerics refuse to encourage them for fear of a trivialization of the Mass.
Father Manuel José, for his part, doesn't look at them askance. In Reguengos de Monsaraz, a place in the Alentejo region near the Spanish border, these kinds of Sunday assemblies, which have been celebrated for more than a decade, are necessary.
The faithful, between 24 and 65 years old, who help him voluntarily, "are people who have experience of faith and the encounter with Jesus, and they know how to talk about it," he says, specifying that "no distinction" is made between men and women.
Reliance on laywomen exists in other rural areas of Portugal, a country of ten million inhabitants of whom 88% are Catholic, according to Church estimates, and one that only has some 3,500 priests for 4,400 parishes.
Last August, Pope Francis created a study commission about the role of women deacons in the dawn of Christianity. And while he denied having "opened the way to women deacons," his initiative is perceived as a potentially historic gesture of openness on the role of women within the Church.
"It's a very delicate matter, but we made it simple. In this little village, we've taken the lead over the Vatican," says Claudia Rocha on leaving the church.
Showing a progressive spirit, Father Manuel José thinks "women would be very good priests and deacons." However he warns, "it's not the opinion of one priest or ten that makes theology." The parishioners, for their part, approve of the presence of a woman in the pulpit. "In the beginning we found it strange: 'A woman saying Mass?' But then we got used to it," explains Angélica Vital, a 78-year-old retired worker.
"And if priests are lacking, I think they should be able to get married...they're men just like the rest," she states with a mischievous smile.