VATICAN CITY -- A senior cardinal reaffirmed yesterday the celibacy rule for priests and played down the shortage that has left many churches without clergymen to celebrate Mass, saying at the start of a meeting of the world's bishops that access to the Eucharist was a gift, not a right for Catholics.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, the 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 reconsidered, saying church tribunals that grant annulments should be more efficient.
The Venice patriarch made his remarks in an introductory speech, delivered in Latin, on the first day of the meeting on the Eucharist during which 250 bishops from 118 countries will discuss issues surrounding the Mass and make recommendations to Pope Benedict XVI.
Scola's comments drew immediate, if nuanced, criticism from two bishops who appeared with him at a press conference -- a hint of the debates that will probably ensue behind closed doors in the next three weeks.
Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Imus, in 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 this 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 the answer to the problem, but many church reform groups have called on the synod to discuss the celibacy rule, saying the priesthood would grow if clergymen 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 distribution of priests in the world.
He said the church wasn't a ''business" that had a quota to fill, and preferred to speak about ''communities waiting for priests" rather than a shortage. He said the Eucharist was a ''gift, not a right or a possession" for Catholics.
Scola also reaffirmed church teaching that says divorced Catholics who remarry cannot receive Communion unless they get an annulment, or a ruling by church authorities that the original marriage was invalid. But he hinted at some flexibility, saying the synod would have to ''pay great attention" to the issue and the reasons for determining when a marriage should be nullified.
Scola also said church tribunals that handle annulments should consider procedures that ''more simply and efficiently respond to pastoral needs."
Vatican specialist the Rev. Thomas Reese said Scola's suggestion that tribunals be made more efficient was significant, since many Catholics contend that they cannot get annulments because it takes too long or because their dioceses do not have the resources to process the applications.
He said Scola's comments were also significant because the Vatican under Pope John Paul II had frequently complained about the high number of annulments from the United States, which has highly efficient processes compared to other countries.