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The ‘C’ word – Celibacy
When you are thinking about a Vocation to the priesthood do you have some or all of these thoughts?
“I really like girls and feel attracted to some of them”
“I struggle with purity, so I’m not sure I am holy enough to commit to celibacy”
“I’m not sure I would be happy alone”
“I have thoughts about one day being a dad”
“I have not always been chaste in life so I’m not sure that I could be considered for priesthood”
Priestly celibacy has been a topic of much discussion both inside and outside the Church for a number of years. It can seem a a big thing to ask, especially when we consider what a beautiful, creative gift the intimate life of a man and wife truly are, and the joy that family life can bring.
People call celibacy unnatural but we call it ‘grace’. Priests in the Latin Rite of the Church give up the natural right to marriage “for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Mt 19:12). Celibacy is only possible when we co-operate with the graces (gifts) that God gives us. Celibacy is a gift from God which opens a man’s heart so that he can embrace all of God’s children in a very powerful way; he becomes a ‘spiritual’ father to God’s children.
Jesus was celibate as a sign of his total dedication to the work of his Father. By imitating the celibacy of Jesus, the priest represents the Lord more fully, in total dedication while celebrating the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and in undertaking their pastoral work. Leading a celibate life is also a statement to the world – the greatest joys of humanity are only found in God. It is also a statement to the Catholic people, that their priest is available to them in a way that he cannot be with the obligations of marriage.
Celibacy is a challenge to love at the deepest level. The priest must make room in his heart for a great number of people. It is a call to endlessly love everyone we meet in order to make present the power of the love of God. When it is lived faithfully, celibacy is actually a call to freedom – freedom to cherish God’s people with the love of the Good Shepherd.
A priest does not become asexual by taking on celibacy. Sexuality is a wonderful, powerful gift from God. There will always be struggles, but we only have to be faithful to our relationship with God to see us through those times. A firm prayer life, balanced lifestyle, good friends, and prudent judgment about persons and situations help a priest to remain faithful.
The call to be celibacy does not undemrine marriage in any way. Many priests would love to be married and to have children of their own. It is a mature and human feeling to desire a spouse and a family life and actually helps the priest to be ‘Father’ to his people. Celibacy should never turn a priest into an unloving Scrooge like character. It should leave him free to care for his community with the deep and exclusive love of a husband for his wife.
Your reward will be great in heaven, good and faithful servant… Peter asked Jesus, ‘What about us? We have left everything and followed you’. Jesus made a promise that anyone who gives up home, family and possessions for him will be repaid a hundredfold, ‘now in this present time as well as in the world to come (Mark 10:28-30). Making a sacrifice, giving of ourselves does not mean losing ourselves. It is in giving that we receive: ‘Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matthew 10:39).
The fact that we have married priests within our Church is not a contradiction, it enriches our Church. We know of priests within the Church, and even our own dicoese who are married and have families. Such men have come to the Church from other denominations where they previously operated in ministry. They have previosuly commited themselves to marriage and to ministry. They have been granted a special exception called a ‘dispensation’ in order to become priests within our Latin Rite Church. They are good men and fine priests, however they can not be elevated to the rank of bishop and should their wife pre-decease them, the norm of clerical celibacy would apply.
Clerical celibacy is not a new concept. Although many point to the fact the mandatory clerical celibacy within the Church came into force in the Middle Ages, the concept of the cleric being celibate for their work can be traced back to Biblical times. Priests within the Jewish Temple would function within the Holy of holies on a rota basis. That means they would come before the Ark of the Presence and minister on behalf of the people a number of times each year. Before they could minister, they had to abstane from intimate relations with their wives at least three months before they ministered. The penalty for failure to comply in most cases was death.
Celibacy is not something that anyone discerning a vocation to priesthood should be worried about. It is a wonderfully loving and enriching grace. What we gain is worth much more than what we sacrifice.