|4/25/2013 9:00:00 AM|
The gift of celibacy
|This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their studies, work and development. To read previous installments, search www.evangelist.org for "seminarian diary."|
BY BRIAN K. SLEZAKBefore a man can be ordained a priest, he must first serve for a designated time as a deacon. Before ordination to the diaconate, he must formally petition his bishop for admission to the Order of Deacon, expressing his understanding of all that Sacred Orders require of him - especially the obligations of celibacy and obedience.
As a candidate for the priesthood, I recently wrote to Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, petitioning for ordination to the diaconate, affirming my full understanding and acceptance of all that the Church requires of the deacon. I concluded my letter by saying, "I do this entirely of my own free will, motivated by love of God and the desire to serve His people....I intend to devote myself to the ministry of the Church for the rest of my life."
By God's grace, before the Bishop and the entire Church, I will be ordained a deacon May 25. In that act, I will promise, of my own free will, to live a life of celibacy out of my love for God.
Through the years of preparation for ordination, I have become convinced of something Archbishop Harry Flynn - a native of the Albany Diocese - once wrote: "Those who feel God is calling them to the priesthood must also detect a call to celibacy."
More often than not, celibacy, as a commitment to serving the Lord, is terribly misunderstood. Especially in our hyper-sexualized culture, the celibate life is seen as pointless, foolish and, to some, impossible. Today's culture would tell us that life is all about sex, that giving it up would be choosing a life of misery. For men and women of this superficial culture, celibacy is a deprivation of life and love.
Only when we understand the spiritual dimension of celibacy can we come to appreciate the depth, wonder and beauty of the celibate life. Celibacy, in Judeo-Christianity history, is nothing new. Although it did not become an obligatory discipline for the priesthood until the 12th century, continence observed for the love of God has been an honored practice since the time of Jesus and, even before, in the priesthood of the Old Testament.
In modern times, people have lost the understanding and appreciation of celibacy as a component of Catholic priesthood. Some argue that it is time to relax the discipline of celibacy; they see it as an archaic practice that makes unreasonable demands of a man. Some go as far as to say it is detrimental to the priest's wholeness and renders him unable to relate to others.
Blessed John Paul II took a more enlightened approach to celibacy in his great work, "The Theology of the Body." He argued that celibacy can be understood by asking the deepest questions of the human heart: "Who am I and how am I to live my life in a way that will bring me the greatest happiness?"
The answer to both of these questions is the Christian vocation. According to Blessed John Paul, the most basic vocation of the human person is to love. This is fulfilled, according to the natural order, in the vocations of marriage, celibacy or vowed virginity. Each of these gets at the truth of the human person, who was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26), and God is love (1 Jn 4:16).
We see this image most clearly in the nuptial union of spouses, who, as male and female, discover the meaning of the self: that is, giving oneself totally to the other in self-giving love.
Should all people get married, then? Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that "there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 19:12). A eunuch, in the Christian meaning, is someone who devotes his or her life to building God's kingdom. This makes the celibate vocation uniquely holy, because it is focused on eternal love.
One of my teachers recently stated, "Marriage is too good and too beautiful for the world to give up. The only logical explanation for why we choose celibacy is the knowledge that there is something greater. In this way, we can see that the lives of priests and religious give a testimony to something greater."
Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote that "celibacy makes [the priest] almost an icon where people look toward eternity." Celibacy permits one to offer himself or herself for the sake of others and for the kingdom of heaven.
Does this mean that celibacy is better than marriage? No. The values of celibacy and marriage complement one another. Blessed John Paul II explains that the fidelity and self-donation lived by spouses provide a model for the fidelity of those who choose the celibate vocation. Each vocation is centered on love of the other.
Celibate priests, therefore, imitate Jesus' exclusive, unbreakable and intimate love for His bride, the Church, just as spouses imitate that union. Priests choose celibacy out of self-sacrificial love for God, giving ourselves to Him and His Church like a man and woman give themselves to one another in marriage. This love must be lived out totally, demanding the priest's mind, soul, body and sexuality.
Celibacy gives more than what it gives up. Understanding celibacy as the offering of oneself for the sake of others has helped me to better live out my call to the priesthood. Theologian Scott Hahn wrote that celibate priests are not childless, but rather fathers to a multitude of spiritual children, as Abraham was the father of Israel; the late Cardinal John O'Connor stated that "good celibates are those who would also make good husbands and fathers."
I have come to realize that there is something truly beautiful, even heavenly, about the celibate life. Men and women are called to celibacy so their lives of chastity become a sign that they live no longer according to the flesh, but the spirit (Romans 8:8). God gives them the grace to receive and preserve this gift in love for God and His Church.
I look forward to making this commitment permanently as a deacon. I pray that everyone, especially every Catholic, understands the meaning, value and beauty of the celibate life.
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