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VATICAN-MILINGO (SECOND UPDATE) Nov-16-2006 (600 words) With photos. xxxi

Pope, curial officials reaffirm value of priestly celibacy

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican officials, meeting to review the status of married priests, reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy and said its importance should be highlighted among priests and seminarians.

At the same time, the participants examined the possibility of the return to active ministry of some priests who may have left the priesthood to marry but who now meet certain conditions, a Vatican statement said.

The pope presided over the three-hour meeting of more than 20 heads of Vatican congregations and councils Nov. 16.

"The value of the choice of priestly celibacy according to the Catholic tradition was reaffirmed, and the need for solid human and Christian formation was underlined, both for seminarians and for those already ordained," a brief Vatican statement said.

The Vatican encounter was triggered by the case of Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who recently was excommunicated after he ordained four married men as bishops without papal permission.

The Vatican statement, issued a few hours after the meeting, made no mention of Archbishop Milingo. It said the participants were given updated information on requests by priests for dispensation from the obligation of celibacy and on the possibility of readmission for priests who "meet the conditions foreseen by the church."

In recent years, the Vatican has approved the return to active ministry for some priests who left to marry in civil ceremonies, but who later divorced or were widowed and petitioned for readmission. Such readmissions follow a long process and require an expression of repentance from the petitioner, according to Vatican officials.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told Catholic News Service it was his understanding that the meeting did not consider major changes in the priestly celibacy rule. Instead, he said, the discussion appeared to focus on the pastoral situation of priests in those special circumstances seeking readmission to ministry.

When ordained, Latin-rite Catholic priests make a promise of celibacy. In the Eastern rites, married men may become priests, but are not allowed to marry after ordination.

The Vatican encounter came less than two weeks after Archbishop Milingo wrote an open letter to the pope, calling for immediate steps to accept married priests in the Catholic Church in order to end what he said was the church's "dire straits because of the shortage of priests."

In his letter, Archbishop Milingo said there were an estimated 150,000 married priests worldwide "who are ready and willing to serve."

Archbishop Milingo, 76, married a South Korean woman in 2001 but at the request of Pope John Paul II left her and was reconciled with the Vatican. Last summer, however, the archbishop was reunited with his wife in the United States and founded a movement called Married Priests Now!

The issue of priestly celibacy and the potential role of married priests came up at the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in late 2005. Several bishops at the synod asked for discussion of the possibility of ordaining married men to respond to priest shortages around the world.

But the synod ended up strongly affirming the value of priestly celibacy and made no recommendations for any change. The pope is expected to publish a document on the synod sometime soon.

Priests who request and obtain Vatican dispensation from priestly celibacy in order to marry are returned to the lay state. They are not allowed to administer the sacraments, except for granting absolution when there is danger of death, and are forbidden to assume some other functions in church life.


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