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Swiss bishop rebukes Germans: Laity cannot replace priests in running parishes

'There is no living parish without the Holy Eucharist,' Bp. Marian Eleganti wrote, 'and there is no Holy Eucharist without priests.'
Tue Aug 18, 2020 - 10:13 am EST
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Bishop Marian Eleganti, auxiliary of Chur, Switzerland.

CHUR, Switzerland, August 18, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Following the publication of a Vatican instruction in July that emphasizes that only priests can lead a parish, numerous German bishops criticized the document and vowed to disregard it.

Bishop Marian Eleganti from Switzerland, where he serves as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Chur, in turn wrote a response to the German bishops (reproduced in full below), explaining that the laity can only assist the priest, but not replace him.

“The priest’s private person is taken into possession by the person of Christ, in whose place he stands and whose voice he is,” Eleganti wrote. From this it follows that the priest is the image of Christ.”

He emphasized that priests are essential by pointing out that “there is no living parish without the Holy Eucharist, and there is no Holy Eucharist without priests.”

Pope John Paul II had already addressed similar questions of lay leadership in parishes and the role of the priest, according to Eleganti.

“The term ‘pastor’ is reserved for the priest, because the ordination is the indispensable and inevitable condition for this,” the bishop said. “Certainly, the faithful (and charisms) can assist him as collaborators, but they cannot replace him as Pastor, because, as John Paul II points out here, they have not received the ordained ministry.”

Eleganti, referring to the Second Vatican Council, explained that the sacramental priesthood of any ordained priest “differs ontologically and not only in degree from the common priesthood of the faithful. It must therefore not be understood in purely functional terms (functions can be delegated and transferred at will, but not the priesthood).”

Pointing to the distinct roles, responsibilities, and duties of priests and laity, Eleganti concluded, “Unfortunately, it must be said that since the Council, these fundamental ecclesiological truths connected with the priesthood and the sacramental structure of the Church have been widely offended against throughout the world.”

Indeed, many German bishops issued statements saying they will not comply with the Vatican’s instruction, prepared and published by the Congregation for the Clergy, as well as explicitly approved by Pope Francis.

Among others, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, vice president of the German Bishops’ Conference, admitted that the instruction allows lay people leading a parish “only as a temporary ‘emergency decree.’” He added, “I am of the opinion that this emergency will be permanent in some places.”

His diocese of Osnabrück already employs five lay people as leaders of parishes. Bode failed to explain that there are fewer than 80 parishes in his diocese and more than 330 priests, with some priests already retired.

“Unfortunately this ‘instruction’ is such a strong brake on the motivation and appreciation of the ministries of lay people that I am very concerned about how we are to find new committed Christians under such conditions and how we can continue to accompany and support our pastoral workers well,” Body said.

“We are in a time in which there are notoriously too few priests who can be pastors also under today’s conditions,” he continued. “We are dependent on the intensive cooperation of all those who have been baptized and confirmed. Otherwise there can be no conversion to evangelization and mission.”

For Bishop Eleganti, the attitude exemplified by Bishop Bode and others is “fatal for the priesthood, for the sacramental nature of the Church as universal sacrament of salvation, and for priestly vocations.”

Full text of Bishop Eleganti’s statement:

Lay people can assist the priest, but they cannot replace him

The clericalization of the laity is not a solution but the core of the problem

A statement on the recent instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy

Auxiliary Bishop Dr. Marian Eleganti, O.S.B.

The priest acts “in persona Christi.” So says the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium (LG 10) and in Presbyterorum Ordinis (PO 2). [1] St. Ambrose writes: “… but at the moment he prepares to celebrate the venerable sacrament, the priest no longer uses his own words, but makes use of the words of Christ: it is therefore the word of Christ which brings forth this sacrament” (De Sacramentis IV/14: SC 35). The priest’s private person is taken into possession by the person of Christ, in whose place he stands and whose voice he is. From this it follows that the priest is the image of Christ. “By virtue of the sacrament of Orders … they are consecrated in the image of Christ” (LG 28). The Council speaks in PO 2 of a special, indelible mark and in LG 10 of a difference in nature – and not only in degree – with regard to the lay faithful. “The ecclesial community has an absolute need for the ministerial priesthood to have Christ the Head and Shepherd present in her.” [2]

The latest instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy is therefore a defense of the sacramentality of the Church and has nothing to do with regression and clericalism. The accusation of being centered on the priest misses the essence of the matter, because there is no living parish without the Holy Eucharist, and there is no Holy Eucharist without priests. Priests exercise the ministry of Christ, Head and Shepherd, according to their share of authority. In the name of the bishop, they gather together the family of God, which, as a community of brothers and sisters, desires unity, and lead them in the Spirit through Christ to God the Father. “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1).

Pope John Paul II, in his address to the Congregation for the Clergy already quoted, emphasized in 2001 that it is fundamental for the parish to have a priest as its own pastor. [3] The term “pastor” is reserved for the priest, because the ordination is the indispensable and inevitable condition for this. Certainly, the faithful (and charisms) can assist him as collaborators, but they cannot replace him as Pastor, because, as John Paul II points out here, they have not received the ordained ministry. [4] It is therefore a question of making Christ, the Good Shepherd, present. The Church is built around the bishop, the parish around the priest, who are in close communion with one another, as already Ignatius of Antioch tirelessly emphasized in his farewell letters. “The priest’s relation to the Church is inscribed in the very relation which the priest has to Christ, such that the ‘sacramental representation’ to Christ serves as the basis and inspiration for the relation of the priest to the Church” (Pastores dabo vobis 16). The ecclesial community needs the priesthood so that Christ may remain present in it as High Priest, Head, Shepherd, Teacher and Bridegroom. Without Christ’s presence, which the priest communicates in his person and through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the parish would not be a complete ecclesial community, according to John Paul II. This fundamental relationship which the priest has with Christ (because he is his sacramental presence) constitutes the priest’s special profile and nature. His priesthood therefore differs ontologically and not only in degree from the common priesthood of the faithful. It must therefore not be understood in purely functional terms (functions can be delegated and transferred at will, but not the priesthood). This means it is a sacrament: a real symbol and reality.

Already John Paul II warned against the dangerous error of giving in to the difficulties caused by a lack of priests and pretending to be prepared for a future without priests. The priest is definitely not a phase-out model, but constitutive of the sacramental character of the Church, in other words, of the presence of Christ in the Church. The priest is irreplaceable.

Even if the priest can be surpassed individually by other non-ordained faithful in many things (intelligence, eloquence, leadership qualities, personal charisma, etc.), what remains unaffected by this is that he and only he can be the sacramental presence of Christ, Head and Shepherd. This is shown above all in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, but not only. From this follows the unity of his ministries, namely to guide, to teach, and to sanctify. Everything that undermines or fragments this unity and leaves only a sacramental torso of the priesthood must be avoided.

The Council explicitly wanted the unity of the tria munera. This must be preserved in pastoral models. Those who deviate from it stand no longer on the foundation of the Second Vatican Council, despite assertions to the contrary. The priest is the actual minister of the Holy Eucharist. But he is not only the servant of the liturgy, but in the Eucharistic celebration and beyond it, as I said, also shepherd and teacher (prophet). He therefore has final and supreme leadership competence (pastoral and teaching authority) in the leadership of the parish or “large parish” (pastoral association or unit) and exercises it in dependence on his bishop. As pastor, he must “not lose his face” (cf. “I know my own and my own know me,” Jn 10:14) by being replaced with an abstract pastoral team which feeds the flock without making the priest visible or accepting him as the good shepherd in its midst who has the final responsibility.

From this follows that because of the sacramental nature of the Church, there is no unordained ministerial office. Already the Council of Trent wanted the unity of leadership and ordination. With the term “actuosa participatio” the Second Vatican Council did not have in mind the clericalization of the laity, nor their activism in the sanctuary. The genuine task of the laity is rather to be prophetically at work in all areas of society as leaven, salt of the earth and light of the world. This is also where their true Christian vocation lies (categorical collaboration in pastoral care).

Unfortunately, it must be said that since the Council, these fundamental ecclesiological truths connected with the priesthood and the sacramental structure of the Church have been widely offended against throughout the world. Instead of the lay faithful being involved in all areas of society with prophetic charisma and their own competences on the basis of their baptism, they have been clericalized and entrusted with priestly leadership tasks. The priest was even downgraded to their so-called “priestly co-worker"” in many places – namely in those places where lay people have fully assumed the leadership of the congregation, among them also women. The so-called (lay) community leaders, which should not exist at all as an alternative model to the priest, have partly displaced or marginalized the priest. They sometimes even prevent him from carrying out his genuinely priestly tasks such as the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Sundays and holy days of obligation. They themselves want to go before the congregation, preach and distribute Holy Communion. In our country, this happens in part also where priests are available. This means that lay people do the same on the basis of a missio (a church mandate issued by the bishop) that priests and deacons do (may do) only on the basis of their ordination: for example, the proclamation of the Gospel and the homily. This is subversive to the sacramental structure of the Church and de facto undermines it. In many places the priest is tolerated only as co-worker and minister of the sacraments. The games of reducing the priest to the administration of the Holy Eucharist and confession, which have already been partly implemented in our parts of the world, are fatal for the priesthood, for the sacramental nature of the Church as universal sacrament of salvation, and for priestly vocations. We must confront them with all our strength, because they are in no way covered by the apostolic tradition in West and East.

[1] SC 33; LG 12 and 28; PO 2 and 12.

[2] For my essay, I use the theological considerations of Pope John Paul II, as he presented them in a 2001 in an address to the plenary session of the Congregation for the Clergy (November 23, 2001: AAS 94 (2002), p. 214-215)

[3] cf. Pope John Paul II, Address to the plenary session of the Congregation for the Clergy (November 23, 2001: AAS 94 (2002), p. 214-215)

[4] Pope John Paul II, Address to the plenary session of the Congregation for the Clergy (November 23, 2001: AAS 94 (2002), p. 214-215). Cf. Instruction by the Congregation for the Clergy “The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community” (August 4, 2002).

Translation from German original by Martin Bürger.


  anticlericalism, catholic, german bishops conference, laity, marian eleganti

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