Celibacy as Gift

Before I forget… I wanted to write a post about celibacy. Certainly, you could approach this topic from myriad angles, but being a seminarian, I am most prone to approach it from the angle of the priesthood. Perhaps in the future, if there’s interest, I can also discuss the importance of celibacy within the context of religious and consecrated life. However, for now I’ll remain focused on celibacy in the ordained priesthood.

First things first – celibacy is a gift as much as it is an active discipline. This understanding of celibacy is key to a proper understanding of the priesthood, and the Christian life in general. It’s hard to imagine something so counter-cultural being a “gift” – how are we supposed to see something so seemingly burdensome in this light? Our society tells us that “good” things are pleasurable and “bad” things are difficult and arduous.

Lo and behold, though, the simple wisdom of a holy Franciscan priest in Assisi: “God gives us the gift of celibacy because He knows that we are weak, and that we cannot remain strong without it. If we were strong, we would not need celibacy in order to reach holiness.” These unadorned words are perhaps the best explanation of celibacy as gift that I’ve ever heard. The priest is given the gift of celibacy because of his frail human nature – his utter inability to attain holiness without the grace of God. It’s true: if we were stronger, more disciplined in virtue and more disposed to the action of grace in our lives, celibacy would no longer be necessary. Our lives would be perfectly ordered. It is because of our fallen nature, though, that God offers to His priests a life of celibacy.

Celibacy is a prefigurement (a foreshadowing, in other words) of the beatific vision. By living celibate lives, priests not only detach themselves from the temporal, physical world in some fashion, but also attach themselves to the heavenly realm; they sacrifice the love of a woman in order to fully dedicate their love to another bride – the Church – whose true Spouse is Jesus Christ. The priest, who acts “in persona Christi capitis” (in the person of Christ the Head), takes up the love for the Bride that Christ Himself expresses. By foregoing an earthly spouse and family, the Roman Catholic priest allows himself to be formed most completely into the image of Christ, who desires His priests to love the Church without limit. Pope Paul VI explains the mysterious gift of celibacy well in his encyclical letter “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.” (I would recommend anyone seriously interested in this topic to read this beautiful document – needless to say, the Holy Father illuminates the beauty of celibacy much better than I ever could.)

Like any gift, celibacy requires its recipient to have an open, responsive heart. Otherwise, no gift can be given and, for that person, celibacy cannot be properly appreciated or practiced. It is our duty – indeed it is nothing less – to pray earnestly for our priests, that they might be open to the grace of God, particularly in living out their promise to live celibately. In the end, they are freely offering their earthly lives for our benefit; their sacrifice is manifested in the glory of Jesus Christ and in the continued life of His Bride, the Church.