The Attractive Side to Celibacy

>> Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Following Christ

young priest
The Attractive Side to Celibacy
by Br Timothy Lyons, LC

A good marriage is, in the best sense of the word, something awesome. Celibacy is too, when you see it the way Jesus does. Celibacy for the sake of saving time and money is not enough.

Angels can’t be priests. The Lord calls only men, and a normal part of being a man is to like girls. When God calls a man to the priesthood he doesn’t unplug his natural attraction to marriage. I know young men who would join the seminary, if they did not have to sacrifice dating and marriage. Last year, a television series dramatized the tension they may feel: “God or the Girl.”

Why does it have to be one or the other? For some, marriage seems too good to give up. Is celibacy something the Church should rethink? I am a seminarian and I almost agree: it is not something we can or should re-think, but it does deserve a second look. Take a quick, superficial look at celibacy, like a lot of outsiders do, and certainly it will seem like giving up marriage is too much to ask. But celibacy comes from God – it was not the Church’s idea. Christ inspired it, so it has to be awesome. If we do not appreciate its greatness, this is probably because we haven’t yet taken a good look at it for what it is.

Among mainstream Catholics, you often have three viewpoints. Some critics argue that celibacy needs to go. There is the contention, old and rather na├»ve, that, ever since the Middle Ages, celibacy is how the ones in power have stayed in power. Others contend that the Church should make it optional: there are, in fact, already some married Catholic priests, who have converted from the Anglican clergy, or else who serve other rites. A third group suggests we keep it because it saves the Church millions of dollars, and gives priests time to be with their flock. In other words, it makes practical sense. Between administering the sacraments, teaching, preaching and spending time with his flock, the last thing Father needs on a Sunday morning is to have to run out to buy baby formula. Later on in life, who will pay for his kids’ college? This is a real consideration: a celibate priest is already hard pressed for time. Still, I think that even this last position fails to see the best thing about celibacy, to see it from Christ’s point of view.

A good marriage is, in the best sense of the word, something awesome. Celibacy is too, when you see it the way Jesus does. Celibacy for the sake of saving time and money is not enough. Let’s put it this way. Marriage is so good, why not let a husband and a wife have more than just each other? Why not let a husband share his love with more than just one woman, or a wife with more than just one man? You would laugh if someone replied: “No, that would cost too much money.” The whole point of marriage is the love it takes to dedicate yourself to one person, saying with your life, “Even though I have other options, I choose you.” It is beautiful, though not always easy, precisely because it costs. I think celibacy has this same beauty, if not more.

Part of what makes priestly celibacy seem hard to swallow is that sometimes we tend to think of the priesthood as another career, like “social service”, “law”, or “medicine”. Many priests would cringe at this idea. For example, John Paul II described his priesthood in two adjectives: “gift and mystery”. The Catechism teaches that Jesus Christ is the one and only priest. An ordained Catholic priest shares in the priesthood of Christ, because the Sacrament of Holy Orders is an anointing of the Holy Spirit. At ordination the Spirit stamps him with a seal, configuring him to Christ, and giving him power to act in the person of Christ. His priesthood is not something he does, but something he is, and for eternity.

So the priesthood is more than a career. But still, it is interesting to note that surveys of different walks of life – lawyers, doctors, teachers, and so on – indicate that priests are the happiest men at what they do. If celibacy is so unreasonable a demand, why are priests typically happy? We should not be surprised. God is the “God of the Living.” If he calls a man to be a priest, it is because he wants to unite that man to Himself in a special way. The same goes for religious sisters and brothers, consecrated lay people, and many single Catholics. The living God fills them up. Step One in the process calls them to make room in their hearts, clearing out other “merely” human affections. Step Two, the decision to consecrate themselves with vows or promises, tells Christ and his Church, “You are worth it.” God is never outdone in generosity. This helps us understanding why Jesus says that in heaven everyone is celibate. Instead of marriage and dating, there is union with God Himself. Here on earth, happiness and love has limits, but not in heaven: there it never stops growing.

Christ was truly man, and he chose celibacy for himself. Was he “repressed” or sad? He was able to love more people, and was so enthusiastic about his priesthood that he still wants to share it with others! As Jesus told Peter, it is a gift “for those who are called”, and not a price that they have to pay. This is what motivates celibacy. It is one way the Church invites Christians to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

The Church has two thousand years of evidence for just how much happiness and generosity this way of life can produce. The proof is in a myriad of saints who were celibate. Not all the saints lived celibacy, of course, but it is no accident that many chose to. Why does the world call Blessed Theresa of Calcutta “Mother” if she was never a wife? She adopted all of us, especially the poorest, and she is just one example among thousands of consecrated men and women religious, who committed themselves in heart, mind, body, and soul to Jesus Christ and to saving souls.

If we really believe in Jesus Christ, celibacy is priceless. Its value is not in “saving time” and “cutting costs”. God does not see it in these terms. For Him, it is one way of reminding us that He is source of all love and happiness. Those of us who have this calling might think of it as our gift to God, but really it is His gift to us and to the Church. May we see its true value, and when we do, it will come as no surprise to watch how God blesses the Church with great vocations: vocations to marriage, vocations to religious life, and plenty of vocations to the priesthood.

Timothy Lyons, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.



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