Report from National Conference of Priests

 Priests in England and Wales have a duty to bring people of other faiths into Catholic parish life, according to the most senior Englishman in the Vatican. On Wednesday, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the keynote speaker at this week's National Conference of Priests of England and Wales, said that there were a number of ways in which Catholic clergy could improve interfaith relations. The title of this year's Conference was "Life in a Multi-Faith Society." Archbishop Fitzgerald suggested, for example, that parish priests consider the possibilities of interfaith prayer, and other activities that their parishioners could enjoy with people of different faiths. In his speech, A Programmed Response to Pluralism, he said that parish priests should learn more about other faiths. " The lack of knowledge can produce a reaction of fear, and inhibit contacts," he said. The next day, at a "Motions For Debate" session, the Conference voted almost unanimously in favour of a motion "to work zealously in the field of inter-racial and interfaith dialogue". There were five abstentions. Fr Martin Sylvester, one of those who abstained, said that the proposal was too vague. "If you can't measure that commitment, the motion becomes a meaningless soundbite," he said. In another discussion, Fr Peter Morgan of the Liverpool Archdiocese said that in order to arrest the decline of priestly vocations, consideration should be given to the ordination of married men. "It is our conviction that the Mass is more essential to a parish than that the priest must be celibate," he said. Fr James Caulfield of East Anglia Diocese disagreed. He said the reasons for the decline in priestly vocations could not just be attributed to the issue of celibacy, and described the proposal as "simplistic and crass". Fr Morgan's motion received the majority of votes, 51 per cent, but was rejected because, according to the Conference's constitution, a two-thirds majority is necessary for a motion to be carried. The longest debate of the Conference was on the subject of Catholic chaplains in hospitals. Fr Francis Marsden spoke about the difficulties of hospital chaplaincy. He said that health authorities should understand that a general ecumenical chaplaincy is not appropriate for Catholic patients. The priests voted 72% per cent in favour of a motion calling on the bishops of England and Wales to alert the government to the "distinctive role" of Catholic chaplains in administering to sick and dying Catholics in hospitals. This year's Conference was the first in a three-year programme entitled "Life in Abundance". Next year, the priests focus on "Life in a Faithless Society", and in 2006 the conference will be called "Life in a Faithful Society".

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