Dear Holy Father,
Dear Brother Francis,
In just about two weeks, we will again celebrate Our Lord’s victory over death. For me it is a special kind of personal celebration, because this year I will celebrate my seventy-third birthday on Easter Sunday.
In two years, if all goes as planned (although as you will see I have some doubts about that) I will be sending you, or your successor, my “reached-the-age-of-seventy-five” letter of resignation.
Lent 2016 has been particularly poignant for me. It is not just that I realize that I am now an old man, with all the normal old-age infirmities. I also look at our church and see not the animated and life-giving institution to which I have given my entire life; but a church that has lost credibility and continues to live with an antiquated view of human reality. It is a church that is collapsing.
I often think about Jesus’ words about bread in the Gospel of Matthew. People are turning to us, asking for bread, and we continue to give them old stones.
In my little diocese, the median age of our priests is sixty-eight. Each year I am now burying more priests than I am ordaining. Yet, I will refuse to close parishes. There has to be a better way.
Another part of my Lenten reflection has been about today’s young priests. Not just in my diocese but across the country. They don’t inspire me. They frighten and discourage me. So many of them are arrogant young clerics more anchored in the ethos of 1950 than that of the third millennium. Our seminaries used to be vibrant centers of contemporary life and enlightenment. What happened?
Holy Father, I respect you. I enjoy your well-publicized inspirational words. Nevertheless, Holy Father, we need to do something more than make wonderful statements that make headline news.
When I last met you in Rome for my ad limina visit, you complimented me on my excellent theological formation. I chuckled and said “yes I am a Louvain-trained theologian and some of my professors were the formative theologians of Vatican II.” I told you I was concerned about the shortage of priests and that we should start ordaining young married men with proven ministry skills. We once called them “viri probati.” I told you that I probably have fifteen such young men in my diocese. They are bright, idealistic, well-educated, and burning with zeal for the Gospel. You smiled and said “the time is not yet ripe for such a change.”
You are a very busy man so I will keep this short. A few days ago, when I was sitting on a city bus, as you once did when a humble diocesan bishop like me, I looked at the faces of the young and old people around me. They looked so hungry for God’s bread, not hard old stones. I said to myself “it is time for a new Resurrection in our church.”
Hold on to your zucchetto Holy Father…..By the time you read this letter I will have ordained six young married men as Roman Catholic priests and six wonderful women as Roman Catholic deacons. They will join me and preside with me in our cathedral for Easter Sunday Eucharist. Twelve contemporary apostles, Holy Father! It fills me with great joy and consolation; and I see this as just the beginning.
On Pentecost (if I survive that long) I plan to ordain twelve women – some married, some single, representing all age groups – as Roman Catholic women priests. Wonderful pastoral women. One of them in fact is married to a fine young lady, who teaches social studies in a public school. (I told her, when I met her at their wedding reception, that she is probably lucky she teaches in a public school rather than a parochial school. Who knows what kind of bishop will follow me?)
We need to move forward with faith, hope, and courage Holy Father. Contrary to what is daily proclaimed in some contemporary political rhetoric, truth is stronger than fiction, love is stronger than hatred; and life is stronger than death. We need to practice what we preach.
You know as well as I that we do talk about many progressive ideas, but still behind closed doors. It is now time to move out of our theological closets (of all kinds) and walk proudly and courageously in the sunshine. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew: “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light. What you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops.…” The message of Jesus is indeed our way, our truth, and our life.
I send my fraternal affection and every good wish for Holy Week and abundant Easter joy. Alleluia is still our song…..
Your brother bishop,
+ John W. Greenleaf