“The first [response] – because I speak as a believer – the Lord told us to pray. Prayer, prayer is missing,” Pope Francis said in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit published March 8.
He called the lack of priests, to the point that some parishes are cared for by female “community leaders” in Switzerland, “a problem that the Church must resolve.”
After prayer, he recommended working “with youth who are seeking orientation. And this is very difficult, the work with youth, but it must be done because they ask for this: the youth are the great discarded ones in modern society, because they have no work in many countries.”
“For vocations, there is also another problem,” he said, “the problem of the birthrate. If there are no young men there can be no priests.”
He repeated his caution against “proselytism,” saying, “You can’t gain vocations with proselytism. ‘Proselytism’ – as if it were a charity society that makes you a partner.”
Without priestly vocations “the Church is weakened, because a Church without the Eucharist doesn’t have strength: the Church makes the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also makes the Church. The problem of vocations is a serious problem.”
Turning to the question of relaxing permissions for the ordination of married men and the requirement of priestly celibacy, he said that “optional celibacy is discussed, above all where priests are needed. But optional celibacy is not the solution.”
His interviewer asked if the permission for the ordination of viri probati – older married men – to the diaconate could be expanded to the priesthood.
While saying making celibacy optional for priests is not the solution, Pope Francis also signalled an openness to discussing the possibility.
“We must think yes, viri probati are a possibility. But then we must also consider what tasks they could perform, for example in isolated communities.”
The interview opened with a discussion of Pope Francis’ devotion to Our Lady, Untier of Knots, and also touched on faith, populism, the Roman Curia, and his international trips.
Regarding faith, he said that “one can’t grow without crisis … crisis is part of the life of faith; a faith which doesn’t enter into crisis to grow, remains juvenile.”
Turning to populism, he expressed his concern over the movement’s expansion in Europe. “Populism is evil and ends badly, as the past century has shown … Behind populism there is always a messianism: always.”
He reminded people that he is imperfect, saying: “I am a sinner, I am limited. We must not forget that the idealization of a person is a subtle form of aggression, it’s a way to subtly attack a person. And when I am idealized, I feel attacked.”
Francis was also asked about recent tensions with American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who in September joined three other prelates in penning a letter to the Pope voicing five “dubia” on his Apostolic exhortation “Amoris Letitia,” which was subsequently published.
Tensions spiked again in December when Burke, Patron of the Order of Malta (a quasi-liaison role between the Order and the Vatican), was reportedly involved on the ousting of Knights’ Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager.
A public row between the Order and the Holy See eventually resulted in resignation of the Order’s Grand Master, Matthew Festing, at Pope Francis’ request, the reinstatement of Boeselager as Grand Chancellor and the appointment of a papal delegate to oversee the “spiritual reform” of the Order, prompting rumors that Francis had either fired Burke or sidelined him in favor of his own man.
In his response to the question, Pope Francis said Cardinal Burke “is not my enemy,” and affirmed that the American prelate still has his job.
“I didn’t take his title as Patron of Malta: he continues to be the Patron of Malta. But someone must repair the Order, and to do this I named a delegate capable of repairing it, with a charisma that Cardinal Burke didn’t have.”
Pope Francis also discussed international trips he hopes to take, and mentioned that he won’t plan to go to Germany this year, or the next.
“I can’t go to Russia because I would also have to go to Ukraine,” he added.
“The important one would be to go to South Sudan, which I don’t think I’ll be able to do – it was in the schedule to go to the two Congos: with Kabila [president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo] things aren’t going well, I don’t think I’ll be able to go; but I will go to India and Bangladesh, for sure, to Colombia, and then a day in Portugal, in Fatima, and then I think that there’s another trip being studied, to Egypt: it seems like a full calendar, no?”