By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
As part of a broad initiative to promote Eucharistic adoration, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy is proposing that religious women “spiritually adopt priests” through prayer before the Eucharist, and, more generally, that Catholics from every corner of the world spend time before the Eucharist to pray for vocations to the priesthood in an era of priest shortages.
Concretely, the Congregation for Clergy is proposing that each diocese appoint a priest whose full-time job would be to promote Eucharistic adoration, and that special “Eucharistic shrines” be created that would resemble the well-known Marian shrines that dot the Catholic world.
The congregation also suggests that parishes, dioceses and religious orders seek donors to fund the construction of these shrines, as well as to pay for monstrances (a decorated vessel containing the consecrated host), liturgical vestments, and educational materials explaining the purpose of the devotion.
The congregation asks that Eucharistic adoration be introduced in parishes, seminaries, religious houses and other Catholic facilities. Bishops are requested to fill out a form indicating their intention to cooperate.
Consecrated women in particular are urged to "spiritually adopt priests in order to help them with their self-offering, prayer and penance" by engaging in Eucharistic adoration, following the example, Vatican officials say, of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The proposals come in a letter to all the bishops of the world, along with an accompanying leaflet outlining the project, to be released tomorrow, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The letter is signed by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, and Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, the congregation’s secretary.
Hummes says the idea is to stress the “ontological link between the Eucharist and the priesthood,” as well as “the special maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary for each priest.”
The initiative is styled as a response to a call from Pope Benedict XVI in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, released last February as the concluding document from the October 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. In that text, Benedict urged wider practice of Eucharistic adoration.
In his letter, Hummes describes the aim of the new initiative as stimulating “a movement of prayer, placing 24-hour continuous Eucharistic adoration at the center, so that a prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, praise, petition and reparation will be raised to God, incessantly and from every corner of the earth, with the primary intention of awakening a sufficient number of holy vocations to the priestly state,” as well as promoting spiritual unity among those already ordained.
Though Hummes does not explicitly refer to global priest shortages, it seems clear that the initiative is, in part, designed as a spiritual response to a perceived lack of priests in many parts of the Catholic world. While American Catholics sometimes bemoan a shortage of clergy, in fact the priest-to-person ratio in North America is 1-1,321, the lowest in the world. The worldwide figure is 1-2,600, and in some zones it’s substantially higher. In Latin America, for example, the figure is almost 1-8,000.
Declines in the priesthood in the West have been especially acute. In 1950, for example, Europe had 249,127 priests, but by 2000 the number had dropped to 208,659, a 15 percent loss. In 2004 the total was down to 199,978. Church observers say the real European figure is actually considerably lower, since the continent’s totals are buoyed by a large number of foreign priests, mostly from the global South.
Without referring to any particular challenge, Hummes' letter says that, facing many things that need to be done "for the good of the clergy," the congregation felt it was important that the point of departure be a spiritual endeavor.
Eucharistic adoration is a practice in which the Blessed Sacrament, meaning a consecrated host believed to be the Body of Christ, is exposed publicly for prayer and adoration. When this adoration is carried out continuously 24 hours a day, the practice is known as “perpetual adoration.”