And then there is the call to celibacy, or virginity, as Saint Paul calls it, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
It is not a popular topic, and one which can make even seminarians cringe. But it is one of the most important topics for our world today to see and experience and understand.
Soon a number of you will kneel before the Bishop and promise “to embrace the celibate state...to keep for ever this commitment as a sign of...dedication to Christ the Lord for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, in the service of God and man...”
What will they promise, and why does the Church ask every candidate for the Diaconate and Priesthood to promise it?
The homily which the Bishop preaches minutes before this promise explains that celibacy is two things:
1. It is a sign of pastoral charity.
2. It is an inspiration to pastoral love and rich source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.
A Sign of pastoral charity
What does it mean for a pastor to love his people? It means that he cares for them, that the pains of their lives cause his heart to ache. It’s why you call him Father. He rejoices when you bring your child to be baptized, and mourns when you bring your father to be buried. He holds back tears when you painfully confess your sins and smiles happily when you finally get that job. He kneels by his bed late at night and begs God to make you strong. He offers prayers for you, literally, in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at night. His examination of conscience at the end of each day is about whether he has loved you enough, whether he’s sacrificed enough for you in the model of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.
And as a sign of that pastoral love, he renounces wife and family, that you, the people placed into his care by the Bishop, might be loved by an undivided heart.
Thus his celibacy becomes an inspiration to pastoral love...
For his thoughts are not for career or wife or children, or the typical anxieties of a good husband and father. No, his anxieties are how to get the sinner into the confessional, how to bring the alienated back to Church, how to heal those who have been wounded by sin. His anxieties are how to preach a word that will rouse the weary and comfort the afflicted. His anxieties are to discern the will of God for his people and how to urge them to respond.
His anxieties may be to find money to put a roof on the Church, or to keep the school afloat, to paint the walls of the parish center, or to find money for a youth minister. But they’re really anxieties about how to love you enough to bring you to Christ.
For just as a husband longs to be loved by his wife, so the Priest longs that Christ be loved by you. As a Father wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about his children, so the good Priest agonizes about how close his people are to Jesus.
And that, I can tell you after thirty-three years of being a Priest, is how celibacy becomes a a rich source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world...
For while I cannot show you pictures of my grandchildren, or tell you about what a good school my son attended (and how much it cost!)...I can tell you about the homeless kids or the lonely old folks or the confused, the broken, the hurt, the sinful and the forgotten whom I have been privileged to love. And I can tell you how that love has spread and multiplied and changed hundreds if not thousands of lives, not because of me, but because of Christ living in me...
For that, in the end, is what makes celibate and Priestly love so fruitful: the fact that it gets out of the way, that it dies to itself, and let’s Christ’s love shine through.
The celibate is called to be strong, loving, and wise. Strong enough to know how weak he is, and how utterly dependent upon God’s strength. Loving enough o know how selfish he can be, and how utterly dependent he is on God’s love. Wise enough to know how foolish he can be, how utterly dependent he is on God’s will.
The celibate Priest, a wise man once said, is not his own. He is the smudged lens through which Christ’s love shines forth. He is earthen vessel which carries the divine to a broken world. He is the meandering path, by which Christ comes to redeem his people.
Marriage is a blessed estate, a wondrous sacrament, and a holy calling.
And celibacy, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, is a holy calling of unworthy men, who are called to renounce all, for the sake of leading you, in love, to Christ and to his Church.
What does the celibate look like to the world? Father Henri Nouwen once suggested an answer. There, in the three ring circus is the lion tamer, keeping a four hundred pound growling beast at bay with bravery and skill (every child and grandmother is holding their breath as he places his head between the teeth of the great beast), while above him is the high wire artist gently swaying from side to side far above their heads without a net. And then there is the elephant trainer, about to be crushed by the two ton foot of this enormous beast as we look away. All that drama and epic heroism all around us.
And then from the side of the ring comes a clown, juggling two oranges and everyone looks away from the lions and elephants and elevated daredevil..at the clown. They smile and laugh, because he points to the fact that there’s something else...something so different by its authenticity that anyone can reach it.
They marvel at the celibate precisely because he is so different.
- because in a world where morality is so often based on winning with the most toys and amassing as much power and pleasure and self-satisfaction as we can without any consideration of the other, he has lived as a priest in simplicity, celibacy, obedience and self-sacrificing love;
- because in a world where the the stranger, the old, the poor and the yet unborn are just another commodity to be traded and trafficked or forgotten, he has unwaveringly preached the dignity of the human person form conception until natural death;
- because in a world where the divinely instituted covenant of marriage and the obligations to love and educate and sanctify children gets reduced to just another chance to have sex, he has preached the sanctity of marriage and the inviolability of the sixth commandment;
- because in a world where God’s will takes second place to my self-actualization; he has unfailingly devoted his life to proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that he is the revelation of God’s will and all truth, all life and all meaning are found in him, and him alone.
They will marvel at you, my brothers....not because you are so marvelous, but because he who is our Great High Priest has chosen you and through you will lead a hurting world to the perduring love of Christ Jesus, our Lord.