A senior cardinal reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church's celibacy rule for priests, which some reform groups have suggested should be relaxed as a way to attract more people to the priesthood.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, speaking at the opening of a meeting of the world's bishops on Monday, played down the shortage of priests -- which has left many churches without clergymen to celebrate Masses -- and said access to the Eucharist was a gift, not a right for Catholics.
Scola, the relator, or key moderator of the Synod of Bishops, also reaffirmed that divorced people who remarry without getting an annulment cannot receive Communion. But he said the synod would have to study the issue and hinted that certain aspects of it should be rethought.
The comments by the Venice patriarch came in a lengthy introductory speech, delivered in Latin, to the bishops on the first day of the meeting on the Eucharist. Some 250 bishops from 118 countries will discuss a host of issues surrounding the Catholic Mass and make recommendations to the pope.
Scola's comments drew immediate, if nuanced, criticism from two bishops who appeared with him at a news conference -- a hint of the debates that will likely ensue behind closed doors over the next three weeks.
Monsignor Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines said the synod had to "squarely" confront the priest shortage, recounting how on his first Sunday as an ordained priest he celebrated nine Masses -- and that that was the norm in his country.
"People long for the Eucharist and they believe that it is the Eucharistic gift that will make them fully the church," he said. "Our seminaries, thanks be to God, are fuller, but the Catholic population is increasing at a rate which is much higher and faster than the increase of the priests."
He said he didn't have an answer to the problem, but many church reform groups have called on the synod to discuss the celibacy rule for priests, saying the priesthood would grow if men were allowed to marry.
Scola, however, repeated what the church regards as the benefits of a celibate priesthood and said the synod should instead talk about better distributing the priests there are.
He said the church wasn't a "business" that had a quota of priests to fill, and preferred to speak about "communities waiting for priests" rather than a priest shortage.
He said the Eucharist was a "gift, not a right or a possession."
"Even if it provokes great suffering, the lack of the Eucharist doesn't confer to the faithful and the people of God any right to it," he said.
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