Published in 2011: Still Relevant Today: “Simplex Priests Now!”

Simplex Priests Now!

Michael F. Hull, S.T.D. in HPR makes a passing reference to “simplex” priests without suggesting that we need them now. [“Challenges to preaching Paul” by Michael F. Hull, HPR (July 2008)]. A simplex priest does not have faculties to preach or hear confessions. To require a priest to read a printed and published homily from the bishop’s office might give many of the faithful more content and information than they usually get, at least in the United States. Maybe getting some form of a simplex priesthood back again is not a bad idea. Perhaps through them we could get more of Paul’s preaching.

Under the 1917 Code, faculties for preaching (17:1337) had to be specifically granted to clerics, unlike today  (83: 764) where faculties to preach are automatic upon ordination. Preaching  faculties are only subject to revocation by the Ordinary under specific conditions. Regarding confessions, under the 1917 Code the restrictions on faculties to absolve were stricter than they are today (limited to territories, and sometimes only available after successfully passing an examination [17: 871-878]).

So, under the 1917 Code, a priest might not be granted faculties to preach, and he might not hold an office to which faculties for confession were attached (e.g., pastor); so therefore he could well be without faculties for confession. Such a priest was known as “simplex” even if the term was not used. A simplex priest could celebrate Mass (usually), but because there was no preaching allowed it would more likely be a private Mass with only one server present.

But the revival of the simplex priest, a priest with restricted faculties, quickly becomes political in the Church. Bishops since the Council of Trent are accustomed to “seminary” priests; thus returning to the apprentice model or adopting any other type of training seems foreign. Yet seminaries were not made in heaven, and far too often their products are found wanting. A revived simplex priesthood would not be about “seminary-trained” priests.

Most urban and rural parishes have traditional, pious laymen who are daily communicants. Perhaps we can cite a fictional Dr. Michael McGillicuddy to be our example.

Dr. McGillicuddy was professor of French Literature for decades at the local state university. His beloved Maureen died last year. All six of their children are grown and married, and they have moved away to other cities. Dr. McGillicuddy goes to daily Mass at his parish, and he is what we call a “literate Catholic” who studies. He keeps abreast of various aspects of worldwide ecclesiastical life. He knows something about Hans Urs von Balthasar. He was involved in relief efforts for Mosul. Professor McGillicuddy is 66 years old and in excellent health. He even lives ten minutes away from the cathedral.

One day the bishop requests a meeting with him. “Mike, I have known you for many years. We were in high school together. Despite dark days you have been faithful in every way. Christ has always been the center of your personal life and your family life. Now we need a priest at the cathedral. Monsignor is too overburdened, and I am afraid he just has too much to do already and the situation is worsening. Would you be willing to be ordained to the priesthood? You would be responsible for celebrating a quiet daily Mass at the cathedral and for anointing the sick at two local hospitals. Effectively, you would put in three hours each day to help with our sacramental needs. You would not have to go to a seminary. You would not have to preach, and you would not hear confessions. Simplex priests go to the clergy meetings, but that is all. You would be required to make an annual retreat and to serve under the strict supervision of Monsignor who is the rector of the cathedral. I will suggest a few books for you, but probably you have already read them before I even think of what might be suggested.”

Let us say Dr. McGillicuddy accepts the position that the bishop requested. The bishop informs the Holy See that he intends to ordain a simplex priest within the next months; by special arrangement given to our episcopal conference, the permission is granted. A simplex priest is expected to provide for his own finances, and our retired professor has enough retirement money to take care of himself.

It is reasonable that Father McGillicuddy would have ten good years to give to the Church. Ordaining a widower would soften the voices of those who say we have a shortage or that the Church should ordain “married men and women” when we know this is contrary to authentic tradition and nuptial theology. A man should be of one wife, and that wife is the Church. A woman does not image the Christ but rather the second Eve, His Body the Church. Thus she cannot offer the One Sacrifice according to ancient tradition and the Divine Will.

Father McGillicuddy would lead a humble and low-profile life. Perhaps from time to time he would be asked to take care of some extraordinary assignment for the bishop that his background in academics would equip him to do. It is feasible that he would draft pastoral letters for the bishop who tends himself to be too busy and who could use some fresh ideas.

One bishop (again fictitious for our purposes) does not approve of the simplex priestly vocation, and the neighboring diocese does not ordain them. The bishop—and he is not alone—is afraid of a “race horse/ plough horse” division in the presbyterate. He does not wish to see a rivalry. But then he is reminded of other divisions that coexist—liberal/ conservative, old/ young, homosexual/ heterosexual, 2007 motu proprio/ anti-motu proprio, and versus populum/ ad orientem. Since Father McGillicuddy has a doctorate and is well-published, it would be hard to consider him a “second-class” priest. In fact, given his erudition, he provides an example for other priests who allegedly have not read a book since the day they left the seminary.

Not long ago I met a man who is fifty years old and who was newly married. A few years earlier he applied to his diocese and was told by the vocation directors that he was too old to be considered for the seminary. Before that I met another man in his late forties. He was told the same thing by another diocese: that he was too old to fit into the pension plan for diocesan priests. These artificial judgments are a conspiracy to deprive us of dedicated priests. If a man can support himself or even if he cannot support himself, and if he can be judged worthy, then the bishop should be free to ordain him simplex. Going to a seminary should not be required in all cases, and restricted faculties render a candidate maximally suited to assist with our real needs. A case-by-case scrutiny may reveal no impediment for men who do not fit the classic “seminarian” model. Every diocese should have a few simplex priests. Just a few for now.

Seminaries were invented by the Council of Trent. Before then we had the apprentice system in most of Europe. A candidate would live near the priest who showed him what he needed to know, and then the priest would recommend him to the bishop when he believed the candidate was prepared.

During the Ottoman period when they had no institutions, the Greeks did not even have seminaries. The bishop would travel to a village where the priest had died, and there he would identify an older man who was pious and who knew the Divine Liturgy by heart. He would ordain him for the village, equivalently “simplex” with no added faculties to preach or hear confessions. This work was done by itinerant monks during the holy season of Lent.

Can we say that seminaries are beyond criticism? Can we ask if they have always helped the Church or sometimes hindered the Church by at times producing candidates who are neither doctrinally orthodox nor faithful celebrants of the Church’s liturgy? Could we predict that men drawn from the ranks of the faithful to alleviate the clergy shortage on a highly selective basis would serve less well than the ones we have from the seminary system?

At least in North America and in Western Europe the so-called “shortage of priests” is used to justify all manner of proposals which deviate from the norm of celibacy and masculinity. Sacramental signs are not arbitrary, and we should never think of them as negotiable. Simplex priests would maintain the full sacramental symbolism.

Why should simplex priests be preferably older candidates? They do not have to be older. But generally a man with a successful career is respected in the community. Father McGillicuddy is both well known and revered in his parish and even throughout his diocese. To elevate him to the priesthood is virtually a normal step in view of the death of his wife and the independence of his children. The bishop can rely upon a man such as Dr. McGillicuddy; he can be trusted to carry out his duties; his maturity is beyond doubt. The bishop should also be free to ordain young men as simplex priests, at least in principle.

Some bishops are afraid to endanger the “seminary only” model. They fear any competition with it. The Holy See has not been accustomed to thinking in terms other than the “seminary only” system. But both Church History and our practical needs come to the rescue to help our thinking. The pope could authorize this with the stroke of a pen. More unexpected things have happened in our lifetime!

We should never discard any method of identifying candidates for the priesthood. Minor seminaries should be retained; the apprenticeship method should be retained; the seminary system as we have it—but reformed to reflect more accurately our doctrinal and liturgical tradition—should be retained; and the introduction of a small number of simplex priests as we had in former times, before the 1983 Code of Canon Law attached faculties to priestly ordination itself, should be supported.

Anything new should be monitored, but simplex priests are nothing new given the wider perspective of history. We are not talking about “part time” priests like Pentecostal ministers who work at the post office and who preach on Sundays. We are talking about men who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders and who offer the One Sacrifice in persona Christi.

Early in 2009 in the Diocese of Linz, Austria, the secular press carried an article about Dean Josef Friedl who lives in concubinage. He is one of the priests protesting the potential appointment of Gerhard Maria Wagner to be the Auxiliary Bishop of Linz. Would it not be desirable for the Ordinary, in the style of St. Francis de Sales, to send Father Friedl to a life of reserved penance and prayer in a monastery? Then the bishop could proceed to fill this vacancy by ordaining “Dr. Wolfgang Schneider,” a respected linguist and academician of the parish and the fictitious equivalent of our “Dr. Michael McGillicuddy,” as a simplex priest. Schneider could serve as temporary pastor until other arrangements are made and the damage to the parish can be corrected. Why not?

Father Schneider would be either a celibate or a widower, in keeping with nuptial theology and the tradition of the Church. He would be carefully chosen for his life of virtue and fidelity even in the sad times of the former administration. The bishop would help by sending a printed homily each week to Father Schneider to read on behalf of the bishop. A monk could visit the parish periodically to hear confessions and preach a mission. It is not necessary in this context for Father Schneider to have a degree in theology or philosophy. He has a sufficient understanding of the Mass and the sacraments to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice worthily, more worthily than his predecessor.

The reintroduction of simplex priests is not the perfect solution to the need for more priests, but it is a preferred solution to refute those who would step outside the tradition. People attending Mass either in the ordinary form or in the extraordinary form should not be able to tell by looking whether the celebrant is a seminary priest or a simplex priest.

Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Alma,  Michigan
A version of this article appeared as “Recovering Simplex Priests”  in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, vol. 111, no. 9 (June/July 2011): 24-27.

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