His journey takes place in the mountains of Calabria, the “toe of the Italian “boot,” and spans two days and several hundred kilometers. For my dear friend and colleague, Father Luigi Iuliano, it’s a labor of love that begins every Saturday afternoon and continues through Sunday. After a week of pastoral care to the faithful of our village, Don Gigi, as we call him, continues his priestly duties that now require that he travel among several isolated mountain villages to half dozen tiny parishes to minister to hundreds of Catholics who no longer have a priest to serve them.

Don Gigi is not alone. According to the Vatican’s own statistics nearly half of the world’s parishes and missions do not have a resident priest.

Now that the world’s Catholics have a new leader, Don Gigi has been on my mind.  Since the new pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has been characterized as a reformer, as a married female rabbi I wonder if he will consider allowing married priests and women priests to join the Catholic clergy – something that many believe would bring an enormously positive change to the Roman Catholic Church.

I arrived in Italy in 2004 to serve as Italy’s first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi.  In 2006 I returned to Serrastretta, my father’s village in Calabria to establish the first active synagogue in the south of Italy since Inquisition times. Over the years I have had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know a number of priests, who, like Don Gigi, are deeply dedicated to their work. Yet no matter how meticulously they organize their time, it seems impossible for these priests to keep up.  No surprise there. A Vatican sanctioned organization, FutureChurch reports that worldwide there are an estimated 125,000 priests who have left the ministry and their reason for leaving – to get married.

In Italy the priest shortage is monumental. In America it’s not much better. In fact at least 25,000 Americans have left the priesthood since 1970, among them my cousin’s husband, Bernie. His wife Patricia recalls that although Bernie loved his secular job, if priests had been permitted to marry, Patricia is certain that Bernie would have stayed. In fact, FutureChurch tells us that 50 percent of married priests would be willing to return to active ministry if they could.

Sadly Bernie died four years ago, but if he were here today he certainly would be surprised to know that although he had to leave the priesthood in order to get married, in America there are now nearly 100 married priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

So who are these priests who serve American Catholic parishes with their wives and children in tow? They are men who formerly served Protestant churches as ordained ministers but who made conversion to become Roman Catholics. Following a period of study and examination, these married men were ordained as Catholic priests.

Throughout history there have been married priests, not excluded from but sanctioned by the Vatican and obedient to the pope. It wasn’t until 1123 that the church prohibited priests from taking wives. Finally in 1980, possibly because the shortage of priests had reached crisis proportions, the church allowed Protestant clergymen who converted to Catholicism to remain married to their wives.  

Last year journalist Mark Oppenheimer examined the phenomenon of married priests (NYT January 2012). Oppenheimer interviewed sociologist Reverend D. Paul Sullins who began his career as an Episcopal priest and is now a married priest serving in the Roman Catholic Church.

Oppenheimer wondered how things were working out. An important question since conventional church wisdom has always maintained that priests, who are the spouses of the church, do better when they devote themselves exclusively to church work without the distractions of family life. Reverend Sullins posed this question to these US married priests and found that, rather than hindering their husband’s vocation, wives were mostly supportive and helpful. Sullins puts it succinctly when he says, “I don’t want to say the difference is great, but if there is a difference it’s in favor of the married priest.”

What about women? The Jewish religion has ordained women since the early 1970’s, although Regina Jonas who was murdered in Auschwitz, holds the distinction of serving as the first woman rabbi in modern times. Today hundreds of women serve synagogues as senior pulpit rabbis. We make up approximately 15 percent of rabbis worldwide and as wives and mothers we divide our time, as do most professionals, between work and home responsibilities.

The new pope, should he move forward with these reforms, would have even better statistics on his side. FutureChurch also reports that of the number of Catholic lay people and deacons currently providing pastoral care, 50 percent are women. Maybe more important are the results from a survey of a group thought to be the most traditional among all Catholics – Irish priests. When they were asked to respond anonymously, 58 percent supported the ordination of women priests. Given that there are a paltry 406,411 priests in service compared with the 783,000 women religious serving Catholics worldwide, the ordination of women could be the force to bring priests back to abandoned parishes.

Could these changes really happen?  Absolutely. In the 1960’s, under Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council made sweeping changes to the Code of Canon Law.  One change, which permitted priests to offer mass in the language of the congregation, created a significant surge in church attendance. Since the rules regarding priestly celibacy and the ordination of women are not dogma but are included in canon law, the new pope could revive interest and participation by permitting priests to marry and women to be ordained.

Would it work out?  If the Jewish experience is any indication, the advent of women rabbis created opportunities for small and struggling synagogues to have their own ordained spiritual leaders. Fewer synagogues closed their doors as congregants seriously considered hiring women and adjusted emotionally to the presence of a woman on the pulpit. As a woman rabbi in traditional Italy, I am still seen as an anomaly and most days I feel like a pioneer, but I have a loving congregation, a positive public presence and a husband who supports and enjoys synagogue life, all of which contribute to professional success and personal satisfaction.

The late Pope John Paul II said it best 27 years ago when he told the world, “With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

With that statement the late pope rekindled the familial relationship between Jews and Christians – a relationship that had been dormant for centuries. It is my hope that we Jews can continue to lead by example so that our Catholic brothers and sisters might have the opportunity to embrace the positive changes that married priests and women priests would bring to their Church.