The Hong Kong Catholic Church is planning to recruit more married men to serve as deacons to complement its efforts in encouraging more young people to join the priesthood, a top official of the diocese has said.
Vicar General Reverend Dominic Chan Chi-ming noted that there is no shortage of priests in Hong Kong, but the number of adherents has grown relatively quickly, while only a few people have been ordained each year.
The diocese has disclosed that the number of Catholics in the city has increased by 60 percent from 242,500 in 1997 to 389,000 last year. However, the number of priests declined by 10 percent over the same period, from 326 to 290 last year.
"In terms of sacraments, we wouldn't say we are short of priests," Chan said, according to South China Morning Post. "We need to look at our followers who are very active, compared with those in Taiwan," he added.
Chan noted that Hong Kong became the first Asian diocese to ordain married men as deacons, in an effort to conduct more outreach and help priests in completing their tasks.
"Without deacons, the priests had to do everything, just like Father Franco Mella had to take to the streets," said Chan, referring to a long-time activist who fought for the rights of mainland families in the city.
"Priests were ordained to host sacraments ... while the deacons are servants for the weak," the vicar general added.
Since the late 1960's the Catholic Church has allowed married men to be ordained as "permanent deacons" in Europe and the Americas to help priests in their ministry.
In Hong Kong, the Church has ordained 28 men, who were mostly middle-aged and married, as permanent deacons since 1997. However, they had to undergo years of theological training before they were allowed to minister to workers, students and married couples as well as visit prisons and hospitals on a full or part-time basis.
Last month, Pope Francis raised the prospect of allowing married men to become priests when he requested a debate on the issue.
The request came after Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the president of the Episcopal Commission for the Amazon, asked the pontiff to consider ordaining so-called viri probati, married men of great faith, as priests to address the shortage of priests in many remote communities in the Amazon.
Earlier this year, Francis has suggested that the Church should consider ordaining married men as priests in specific circumstances. "We must consider if viri probati is a possibility. Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities," the pope said.
The pontiff explained that he remains in favor of celibacy for priests, but he considers the principle as part of the discipline of the Church, rather than dogma.