Vaticanista Sandro Magister reported today that a video of 79-year-old Fr. Giovanni Nicolini, an Italian priest of some stature (and a “protagonist of Vatican II”), has surfaced in which Nicolini claims that in the Amazon region, married deacons are offering “mass” because of the priest shortage, and that Pope Francis not only knows about it, but has given his unofficial blessing.
According to the video transcript, Nicolini takes aim at priestly celibacy, saying that “the Church of priests is coming to an end” because “every priest is taking care of six parishes” — a situation he believes will continue “until serious consideration is finally given to the suitability of abolishing the celibacy of priests.”
Citing his experience in the confessional, Nicolini says, “When I find out that a thirty-year-old priest who comes to me for confession, now they are putting him in a big rural area by himself, in six months he has a mistress.” To his mind, celibacy is “purely an arrangement of the disciplinary order, juridical, not a vow, not a gift of God, not supported by the life of the community.”
And then he pivots to the Amazon Synod, which is where he drops his little bomb:
We found out that in the Amazon one evening, from an isolated mission parish in the Amazon they made a pone call, it was an old deacon, in his sixties, married, who said to his bishop: “I have to tell you that tomorrow there won’t be any Mass, because there is no priest.” And the bishop told him: “You go there and say Mass.” A married deacon, children already raised, the “elders” are called, and the bishops there have given him authorization to preside over the liturgy. They told the pope about this and the pope said: “For now we cannot write anything, you go ahead!” I wondered, when I found out that he was convening the worldwide meeting of bishops for the Amazon, who knows if perhaps he can or wants to say something. But the Church, in its concrete juridical structure, as it exists now, is at an end.
The video is real; the claims in question are made therein, and Magister has transcribed them and had them translated into the multiple languages he reaches with his blog. The only thing we’re left wondering — and Magister himself asks this in his post — is whether the anecdote is true. If history is any indication, we’re not likely to get an answer from the Vatican, even when clarification on such an important matter is so desperately needed. (It is my hope that some journalist the Holy See Press Office deems worthy of answering is asking this question today. They never respond to me.)
But history is also instructive on the plausibility of this story. I think it falls in the category of “credible” based on other such anecdotes from the past.
Just last week, I wrote about the manner in which Francis gives unofficial approvals to practices. When asked by a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic if she could receive Holy Communion, the pope said:
Always refer back to your baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and then take the consequences from there. I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
“Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare say anything more.” That sounds not very different from “For now we cannot write anything, you go ahead!” (Recall, too, that he got upset with the German bishops for trying to make their intercommunion guidelines explicit and standardized.)
Another example: When it came to the permission for adulterers to receive communion without a change of life, the pope did not explicitly issue positive guidelines himself — but he praised some of those that allowed such a practice, including the bishops of the Buenos Aires region:
Of the guidelines issued by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region that would open “the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist” in “complex circumstances” where “limitations that lessen the responsibility and guilt” of couples who will not make the commitment to “live in continence” despite living in an objectively adulterous situation, the pope said in his letter that “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”
He then took his “no other interpretations” endorsement letter and ordered that it be published as an official act of the Apostolic See, giving it significant status that elevated it beyond a mere private opinion of the pope. He had somehow made an unofficial opinion into an official act, doing an end run around offering explicit permission for a sacrilegious practice.
Allow me to offer one final example from the saga of Amoris Laetitia.
Archbishop Bruno Forte, who was chosen by Pope Francis to act as special secretary for the Synods on Marriage and Family in 2014 and 2015, offered a telling insight into the papal mode of operation in a panel discussion about Amoris Laetitia in May of 2016. Forte said that the pope told him, “If we speak explicitly about communion for the divorced and remarried, you do not know what a terrible mess we will make. So we won’t speak plainly, do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.”
“Typical of a Jesuit,” the archbishop said.
Think again about these words: “For now we cannot write anything, you go ahead!”
With these examples in mind — and I’m sure there are more if we wanted to look for them — we see what could very well be part of a pattern.
But we also have to consider the severity of what is being alleged here. Allowing forbidden practices with a wink and a nod is dangerous to souls and an invitation to sacrilege, as we’ve already said. But a “mass” offered by a deacon would not be valid. As the canonist Edward Peters put it:
Dear Amazon Church. Reports say that your deacons are 'offering Mass'. If true, please know, such acts are invalid, sacrilegious, and really, really stupid. Yours truly, the Catholic Church in the rest of the world. https://t.co/KkKuuMJBNC
— Edward Peters (@canonlaw) September 10, 2019
So the question is, would even Francis really allow such an explicit break with the sacramental order?
If so, would it really be because he doesn’t believe a priest is necessary? This seems unlikely to me. My concern, if the story is true, is that he of course knows that a priest is necessary but knows, too, that encouraging such sacrilegious mockery of the Mass to continue would put enormous pressure on the synod fathers to approve the relaxation of priestly celibacy he desires, because they will want to end the practice of deacons play-acting at liturgy.
The idea brings to mind that George Neumayr recently reported from Argentina that he had learned that Bergoglio’s fellow seminarians referred to him as “Machiavelli” because he was a “power-mad ideologue.”
As I said, we are unlikely to get a direct answer to any of our questions. But if the story is true, we will almost certainly see it play out in the outcome of the synod.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.