Fourth Sunday

Celibacy and the priesthood

The Sunday Epistle is the famous one from St Paul Letter to the 1 Corinthians chapter 7.
St Paul was addressing certain people’s concerns in the community in Corinth and their difficulties and temptations in living a life and where certain Christians felt that because there were expectations about the imminence of the return of the Lord. Also, Corinth was a notoriously corrupt place, and there was much promiscuity. Perhaps some Christian converts tended towards a certain extreme puritanism in reaction to the paganism of their peers.

The chapter deals with marriage and the priestly/religious life effectively. It is an example of the readings from the New Testament that the Church invokes to defend and explain the Church’s defence of celibacy and especially in the life of the priesthood.

The Church’s teaching on celibacy is that it is not some adjunct to the call to be a priest or a religious but an indispensable part of being a priest in the Latin rite. It was not really widely questioned at all until recent times, until I suspect the wide number of defection of priests and religious in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and false expectations that were created in the minds of some that the Church was about to abolish compulsory celibacy.

Certain people actually question whether chaste celibacy is humanly possible. Well, in a strict sense it isn’t. Only God can guarantee that someone called to vowed celibacy can actually persevere in their commitment. It is said that Mahatma Gandhi admired the celibacy of the Catholic priesthood, stating that it kept the Catholic Church ‘green’. I also understand that he tried and failed to live a celibate life, until, as his wife related, he made a vow himself.

It is not to say either that there are not challenges, temptations and yes, loneliness as well. But they are part of the human condition no matter what one’s state in life. There is no band-aid for loneliness, no quick-fix.

It is not that St Paul is against marriage, but what he is trying to say, for the first time in Christianity apart from Christ, that to remain unmarried is a preferable option because marriage has its own demands for spouses. A married man or woman cannot commit to the Lord’s concerns as readily.

So celibacy/consecrated virginity has served the Church well. If we think of the extent to which the gospel has been preached, if we think of missions, hospitals, schools, clinics, orphanages, hospices, not to mention churches and chapels, and the celebration of sacraments, then we see that only a fraction of the work cold have been carried out by even the most committed of Christian married people.
Celibacy is a call to a higher love for Christ, and this loving relationship of prayer and spirituality makes sense of why someone would want to commit themselves to a life dedicated to Him. I would have to say that most priests I know do not obsess about celibacy. It has been spoken of in a healthy mature way in the seminary, and many good books and writings are available to explain and help guide people called to this way of life. Yes, the mistakes and scandals involving priests and bishops have made and continue to make headlines from time to time, but one can sense that there is another agenda at work to undermine the Church’s authority, to make the hierarchical Church and the Pope seem cold, unfeeling, unreasonable, distant, and detached from the everyday cares and concerns of priests and religious.

The perseverance of some many priests and religious to a life of celibacy, no matter how imperfectly, is a challenge, furthermore, to the sexual revolution and to licence. I suspect that in some instances, it stings the consciences of those in our media who promote as well as well as who live lifestyles not in keeping with the Lord’s commandments in relation to chastity and marital fidelity. To them, celibacy can seem an affront and an accusation.

I am always curious as to why the media never seem to focus on the opposite argument that nuns have a ‘right ‘to get married! Why is this?

I like being a priest. It is a privilege to be a priest. Celibacy has taught me more than I ever would have expected about human friendship and its possibilities. Because of celibacy I have been able to engage more, not less with people, to become more involved in relationships of trust, rather than to live in splendid isolation in an ivory tower. It has helped me to become more human, and a humanitarian, not less so. I have come to respect and understand married life more, rather than less.
My relationship with Christ has deepened because I have learnt how much I depend on Him and not on myself.

Please pray for us priests because we rely on your prayers to keep us faithful to serve Christ and you.

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