The Gift of Celibacy
Through the centuries to the present day, the Church, especially in the Latin Rite, has continually affirmed the great benefits and spiritual fecundity of a priesthood completely configured to Christ in celibacy. Pope Benedict has also asserted in his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, "While respecting the different practice and tradition of the Eastern Churches, there is a need to reaffirm the profound meaning of priestly celibacy, which is rightly considered a priceless treasure, and is also confirmed by the Eastern practice of choosing Bishops [those who possess the fullness of the priesthood] only from the ranks of the celibate" (SCar, 24). Celibacy, therefore, is a "treasure," a gift from God, which must be reflected upon and cherished anew in the Church today.
Fulton Sheen once commented that a certain crisis had arisen in the priesthood in modern times precisely because there is an attempt to "divorce the priesthood from the victimhood of Christ". Many are willing to serve with Christ by administering the Sacraments or by counseling those in need, but find it difficult when it comes to sacrificing, to giving themselves completely to Christ for the needs and sanctification of the Church. A proposed solution to the recent scandals that advocates this mentality to routinely detach the priesthood from self-sacrifice and a total gift of self is to introduce a married priesthood into the Western Church.
Yet this proposed solution does not touch the cause for the problem of unchaste priests, only the symptoms. The cause for the scandals lies already deeply rooted in our culture, where the human body has been reduced to a mere object of pleasure, to be enjoyed apart from a spiritual union of persons. Until human sexuality and marriage are seen in the positive light of divine Revelation and the divine Covenant, celibacy as a real and personal covenant with God Himself cannot shine forth as a fulfilling human reality. For it can only be appreciated and bear fruit when it is understood and embraced as a supernatural share in Christ's spousal relationship with the Church. The real solution, therefore, is a deep revision of the Catholic vision of human sexuality and marriage in the light of the divine Plan. Though this goes beyond the scope of this letter, Pope John Paul II offered the guiding light for this revision in his talks on the Theology of the Body.
Practical Dimension of Celibacy
Here, however, we want to consider this "gift" of celibacy and why it is so precious in the eyes of the Church. Most of the faithful recognize the practical advantages of an unmarried priest: the difficulty of managing a family and a parish simultaneously, the division of heart between wife, family and parishioners, the conflicts arising in scheduling, etc. Yet again, this dimension of celibacy, understood simply in terms of "not being married", does not reach the heart of the matter. "It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ's own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives His life for His Bride" (Benedict XVI, SCar, 24). Celibacy, that is , must arise from and express the mystical union of the priest with Christ and, in and with Christ, his share in His nuptial gift of self to the Church.
Participation in the Spousal Relationship of Christ to His Church
The Church looks to the priest in order to find Christ and His spousal love. John Paul II said, "The Church, as the spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to His Church and expresses the priest's service to the Church in and with the Lord" (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 29). The main reason for priestly celibacy is, therefore, the call to total interior configuration or conformation to Christ who loved the Church unto the end. Those who fell from chastity tried to live this configuration exteriorly, serving others, administering the Sacraments, etc., but had lost the inner, living strength of the Spirit, which flows from a deep union with Christ. A Bishop once said that in every case of a fallen priest he had encountered, the priest had limited his prayer life to the daily Mass: no meditation, no annual retreat, no occasional day of recollection, no spiritual direction. They became, therefore, like dry branches on a tree.
Priestly celibacy must be rooted in undivided, total love for Christ. Mother Teresa comments in an address to priests on celibacy, "It is not simply a list of don'ts, it is love, freedom to love and to be all things to all people.... Jesus could have had everything but He chose to have nothing…. As priests, you must all be able to experience the joy of that freedom, having nothing, having no one; you can then love Christ with undivided love in chastity." For love of Christ, therefore, the priest gives up all, including spouse and family, that he may love and serve the Church with the spousal love of Christ. This "love of Christ", though, must be understood and lived in the mystical, biblical manner of personal, joyful intimacy; otherwise, it will remain an abstract, unfulfilling fantasy of happiness.
Necessity of Mystical Union with Christ
In this sense, the ordained priest, having become sacramentally "identified" with Christ through his ordination, not only acts in persona Christi while administering the Sacraments, but also is called to "be Christ" at all times for others, to be Christ who loved His own and gave Himself "unto the end" (Jn 13:1). The priest, however, can only "be Christ" in the measure that he is a total gift for Christ. And he can only be a gift for Christ, when he understands that Christ has given Himself first wholly to the priest. In this exchange, Christ becomes one with the priest, as He is one with the Father. Hence, the sacramental "identity" with Christ must be complemented by the priest's mystical identity with Christ in a bond of charity.
Through this union with Christ, the priest becomes with Him the Bridegroom of the Church and serves her with undivided solicitude. He becomes, as it were, the instrument of Christ in and for the Church to the glory of the Father. "You, as God's priest, are to be His living instrument, and so you must ever give Him permission to do with you exactly as He wills for the glory of the Father. The same Spirit will invite you to live an ever closer oneness with Jesus—in mind, heart and action—so that all you say and do will be for Him, with Him and to Him… Nothing and nobody must separate you from Jesus, so that you can say with St. Paul: 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me'" (Mother Teresa).
Objections to Celibate Life
It is often objected that celibacy is "unnatural" and hence harmful to the psychological balance and development of the personality of the priest. First of all, it is necessary to consider the question with the eyes of faith. If God calls men and women to celibacy, it is clear that He will provide for their well-being as celibates. For though marriage provides a natural "mutual help" for the spouses, consecrated virgins receive something more: the love and strength of Christ Himself.
Secondly, man is substantially one, body and soul. But in order to really be one, there must be a hierarchical ordering of his capacities. It is reason and free will that separate and elevate man above the animals. Only when his bodily instincts are subjected to reason will he find the full happiness to which man is called.
Man, created to God's image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27) is not just flesh and blood; the sexual instinct is not all that he has; man is also, and pre-eminently, understanding, choice, freedom, and thanks to these powers, he is, and must remain, superior to the rest of creation; they give him mastery over his physical, psychological and affective appetites. The true, deep reason for dedicated celibacy is, as we have said, the choice of a closer and more complete relationship with the mystery of Christ and the Church for the good of all mankind: in this choice there is no doubt, that those highest human values are able to find their fullest expression. (Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Coelobatis, 53-54)
In this intimacy and total dedication to God, the priest will find all the love, joy and support needed for his mission. For in God alone can man find his true and perfect happiness. This choice will not distort his personality, therefore, but ennoble it, given that he lives in a direct relationship with the source of all love and joy: God.
Means of Preserving Celibacy
The dignity and the fruitfulness of celibacy when lived in spiritual union with Christ, however, do not assure that this virtue is easy to acquire or preserve. Ordination does not automatically free the priest from all trials, temptations or struggles. The priest must deal with loneliness, discouragement, frustrations and often sadness. These can often lead to seeking human consolation. In this context, however, the Church proposes many remedies for the priest to help him preserve his fidelity: frequenting the Sacraments, humility and fraternal charity, ascetical practices, human balance and vigilance in social relationships, fraternal association and companionship with other priests and the Bishop, meditation on the mystery of Christ and the Church, etc.
First and foremost, however, the priest must maintain his prayerful intimacy with Christ, the source of his spiritual joy and therefore of his strength. The priest's union with Christ in prayer is cultivated most especially by the Eucharist. "Priestly spirituality is intrinsically Eucharistic…. If celebrated in a faith-filled and attentive way, the Mass is formative in the deepest sense of the word, since it fosters the priest's configuration to Christ and strengthens him in his vocation" (Benedict XVI, SCar, 80). Moreover, in the Eucharist the priest finds the strength for his total gift of self to Christ, in Christ's own self-giving.
Jesus gave this act of oblation [His sacrifice on Calvary] an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.... The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving. (Benedict VI, Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, 13)
In the Eucharist, therefore, the priest finds the strength to bear also the sacrificial victimhood of the priesthood of Christ.
The Obligation of the Faithful to Support Priests
But the priest is not alone in his battles. We, too, as members of the same body of Christ are responsible for him, and obliged to help him in the struggles he endures for our sake and the sake of the Church. The Second Vatican Council especially urged the Church to encourage and pray for priests, that they might be faithful to the gift of celibacy. "This holy synod asks not only priests, but all the Faithful, that they might receive this precious gift of priestly celibacy in their hearts and ask of God that He will always bestow this gift upon His Church" (Presbiterorum Ordinis, 16).
And so, we the faithful ought not to lament and commiserate the burden of celibacy on priests, but to encourage and support our priests in their noble and free decision to receive this precious gift from God, to give themselves wholly and unselfishly to Christ and His Church. We have a holy duty to pray daily that they remain faithful and firm in their commitment. In this way, they will better be able to help the faithful to direct their lives towards heavenly things, not just by their words, but—what is much more eloquent—by the example of the total dedication of their whole existence to God. To this end, we entrust them especially to the care of our Blessed Mother, the tender and solicitous Mother of Priests. "She is the one who helps to form every priest; and no one can have a greater claim on Our Lady than a priest. And I can imagine she must have had, and she still has, a very tender love and special protection also for every priest" (Mother Teresa).
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