By Inés San Martín
QUITO, Ecuador – According to a Spanish missionary archbishop who’s been in Ecuador since 1998, “We must thank God that there are still prophets like Pope Francis” who think about the future.
Specifically, the bishop backed the ordination of married men as priests in the Amazon, supporting the idea of calling viri probati, or tested married men, into the priesthood to serve isolated rural communities.
Archbishop Rafael Cob of the Diocese of Puyo believes that an Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon region convened by Francis is “historical.”
On September 14, Archbishop Cob spoke with a group of journalists, including Crux, currently in Ecuador on a trip to the Amazon organized by REPAM, an ecclesial network from the region collaborating with the synod.
The prelate said that a key issue the synod will deal with is the possibility of the Church in the Amazon, which includes parts of nine countries, shifting from a “clerical institution” to a “ministerial one.”
“We must start from the Christian vocation of baptism: Laity, religious and priests from one body and one family,” Archbishop Cob argued, three weeks before heading to Rome to take part in the October synod.
This shift, he said, would allow for the ordination of the so-called viri probati so they can distribute the sacraments in communities that are so remote that they perhaps see a priest twice a year.
The viri probati, he said, are nothing new. On the contrary, Archbishop Cob said, “the Church has had them from the beginning.”
Celibacy for Latin rite priests wasn’t mandatory before the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, when the Church decided celibacy “was convenient” so priests could better live their vocation, “but it didn’t mean that there were no other alternatives.”
“The viri probati respond to a very concrete challenge in the Amazon region, and it’s not meant to question the ordinary norm of celibacy,” Archbishop Cob said.
The Amazon, he said, presents “great geographical challenges,” in addition to a lack of candidates for the priesthood willing to adhere to the norm of celibacy because, he argued, it’s not something indigenous peoples understand. In addition, he said, the number of missionary priests willing to go to these remote areas has dropped significantly.
Asked if he believes the viri probati could be applied to other regions of the world, Archbishop Cob said the door is open, but “they will have to be able to explain why they need it, to analyze the root causes of the problem and, as Pope Francis urged, to propose bold solutions.”
He insisted the Amazonian push for married priests is not about ending celibacy, but advocating, as a reaction to the region’s very specific reality, the possibility of ordaining elderly men who are married and highly respected by the community.
Asked if he thought this could lead to a schism, the prelate said what he’s worried about is finding the best way to address the moment the Church is living right now in the Amazon.
Archbishop Cob also spoke of eagerness for a revision in the broader role of women in the Church, as in the Amazon they have been “at the vanguard of evangelization for decades.”
“Ministries such as that of the Eucharist or of the Word were seen as exclusively for men, but today you have women who are ‘extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist’,” Archbishop Cob said. “Why not make them ‘ordinary’?”
According to Archbishop Cob, the Catholic Church cannot continue to “entrust tasks to women” instead of giving them the “according institutional support” through canon law. Another example he gave is that of women today serving as “parish administrators,” a task that is technically reserved to a parish priest.
Archbishop Cob acknowledged that the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon will be important in terms of redirecting the evangelization of the region, but also when it comes to promoting an “integral ecology,” a concept Franis developed in his encyclical letter on the environment Laudato si’.
When it comes to fighting climate change, Archbishop Cob said, Pope Francis understands that humanity needs to “join forces”
The synod that will gather in Rome, Archbishop Cob argued, is not only for the region but for the entire Church, because the Amazon rain forest, and the Catholic presence in it, is a “point of reference for the planet.”
The synod, he said, will ultimately be about “life” and integral ecology as a timely response to “what we all are starting to think is a necessary change of course, a pastoral and cultural conversion.”
“When one penetrates the Amazon and sees the people who live there, the richness they have, their philosophy of understanding life and its priorities, there’s much for us to learn there,” he said.