Thursday, April 6, 2017

Rector's Conference on Celibacy

Rector’s Conference, April 2017

Why did God make priests? The Homily from the ordination of a priest makes it clear: for the “service of the people of God.” (1)  Listen to the Bishop as he preaches to the people: “…they will be consecrated as true priests of the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, to shepherd God's people, and to celebrate the sacred Liturgy, especially the Lord's sacrifice.” (2)

And listen to the first question you will be asked, God willing, on the day of your ordination: “Do you resolve, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as worthy fellow workers with the Order of Bishops in caring for the Lord's flock?” (3)

Your relationship to the people God places into your care is the primary and indispensable reason that God has called you to be a priest.  We are not made priests for ourselves, but for the flocks to whom we are sent as shepherds.

That means that the Priest must be, by definition, attractive to his parishioners.  Not so that they might be loved, but so that the beauty of Christ Jesus might shine through him.

And the people must sense his total dedication to them, which is a reflection of the total love of Christ for his Bride, the Church.  So fulsome is his love for them the after a while it is no longer Father Smith whom they see, but Christ Jesus in him.

You’ve seen that love of the Good Shepherd shining through priests or you would not be sitting here tonight.  The man who could have had a really successful corporate or academic career, who could have made lots of money and even been very powerful.  The guy who would have a made a great father and a devoted husband.  But here he is in a black shirt with a plastic collar, living in someone else’s house and making less money than the parish secretary.  

His day started at 2am to anoint someone in the hospital and then the 7am Mass, after which eh met with the janitor and DRE and then did a second Mass at the Nursing Home.  He met with the family whose son he’s burying in a couple days and remembered to pray Morning Prayer at 9am.  After which, he started working on notes for the Parish Council, and then it was time for lunch.

On his day off he usually gets to gather with some priest friends or sometimes goes to a generous parishioner’s house on the lake, usually just to sleep late and try to collect his thoughts, although lately he’s tried his hand at fishing and he’d really like to try planting a garden in that lot behind the rectory.  But n’er an hour goes by that his thoughts don’t wander back to something about the parish and the people there who call him Father. That is what the life of a celibate priest looks like, and it is the life to which you aspire.  

And so foundational is this aspect of priestly ministry that the Program for Priestly Formation directs the Rector of a Seminary to “hold periodic conferences on this topic, at least on a yearly basis…[in which I am to] “delineate the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and praiseworthy and the kinds that are not.” Attitudes which lead to behaviors which lead to scandal, shame and failure:

1. The attitude that says: I can live two lives, one for me and one for God.  I am Father on my day-on and me on my day-off.  
2. The attitude that that sex is about satisfaction and meeting my needs.  It is not.  Sex is about loving on a very fundamental level and is an integral part of being a loving man, whether celibate or married.
3. The attitude that no one will ever know.  That’s seldom true.  If you are unfaithful with a person, at leas tone other person knows.  If you are unfaithful with a computer, your browser knows.
4. The attitude that says: I can be a good priest without giving myself entirely to God. I need to hold a little back for myself. 
5. The attitude that says: It could never happen to me.  Saint Francis begs to disagree, by the way, ever struggling with the temptations of the flesh, even at the end of his life, as he cautioned his brothers: “Don’t canonize me too quickly. I am still perfectly capable of fathering a child.”  That’s Saint Francis of Assisi!

Celibacy is not simply a list of “thou shalt nots.”  It is not essentially defined, as the world mistakenly perceives, by the phrase “Priests don’t have sex.”  Celibacy is essentially a call to something more than renunciation.  It is not a call to a sterile wasteland, but to a fulfilling and fruitful lifestyle of living in the model of Christ Jesus.


In 1967, the Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical letter entitled Caelibatus sacerdotalis, (4) on priestly celibacy.  Like Humane Vitae before it, his encyclical was prophetic not just for his time, but ours as well.

I would like to begin with an examination of paragraph 24, the first of the “reasons” he lists for maintaining celibacy in the Roman Church.  He entitles the paragraph “The Fullness of Love.”

Celibacy, which is a complete giving over of my capacity for love to the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God, is, the Holy Father suggests, “a response of love to the love which Christ has shown us so sublimely.”  Celibacy is not a neurosis, or a running away from marriage or healthy sexual relationships.  Rather, in the man who is called to celibacy, it is a reply to the invitation uttered from the wood of the cross: love, as I have loved you.  Love with a total, self-giving, kenotic love.  When you are made for the celibate life, nothing can make you more loving.

It is the love which asks nothing in return, the love of Christ that gives because it is God’s will to give.  Such love is not a feeling or a desire, but “a divine force [by which] grace increases the longings of love.”  This love is not of human authorship, but a gift of God’s grace, gratuitously given by God and unworthily received by the celibate priest.

It is a love, the Holy Father tells us, which when genuine “is all-embracing, stable and lasting, an irresistible spur to all forms of heroism.”

So, you want to be a hero?  Then go, as Jesus told the rich young man, sell all you have, and follow him.  All you have!  Including wife and children and career and worldly success.  And come, he says, and follow me “in the service of the People of God.” (5)

Thus celibacy is three things for the Priest and for the Church to which he consecrates his life:

an incentive to pastoral charity
a sharing in the spousal fruitfulness of God’s love for the Church
and a witness to the Kingdom of God!

an "incentive to pastoral charity” (6)

Celibacy "as a symbol of, and stimulus to, charity,” (7)  signifying “love without reservations…a charity which is open to all.”  

Which is why, in not too many weeks from now, a number of you will kneel before the Bishop and promise “to embrace the celibate 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 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.  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.

For just as a husband longs to be loved by his wife, so the Priest longs that Christ be loved by his people.  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.

Marriage is a blessed estate, a wondrous sacrament, and a holy calling. And celibacy, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, is also 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.

a singular sharing in God's Fatherhood 
and in the Fruitfulness of the Church

Celibacy and the priestly relationships it engenders manifest and participate in the spousal character of Priesthood.  No one has said it better than Pope John Paul II:

“…Christ stands "before" the Church and "nourishes and cherishes her,” giving his life for her.  The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church. Of course, he will always remain a member of the community as a believer alongside his other brothers and sisters who have been called by the Spirit, but in virtue of his configuration to Christ, the head and shepherd, the priest stands in this spousal relationship with regard to the community… In his spiritual life, therefore, he is called to live out Christ's spousal love toward the Church, his bride. Therefore, the priest's life ought to radiate this spousal character, which demands that he be a witness to Christ's spousal love and thus be capable of loving people with a heart which is new, generous and pure - with genuine self - detachment, with full, constant and faithful dedication and at the same time with a kind of "divine jealousy" and even with a kind of maternal tenderness, capable of bearing "the pangs of birth" until "Christ be formed" in the faithful.”
Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 21

a witness to the world of the Eschatological Kingdom (8)

Celibacy is a sign of what we shall be at the end of time.  And here, I turn to pope Benedict XVI:

“Celibacy is an anticipation. We transcend this time and move on. By doing so, we draw ourselves and our time towards the world of the resurrection, towards the newness of Christ, towards a new and true life. Therefore, celibacy is an anticipation, a foretaste, made possible by the grace of the Lord, who draws us to himself, towards the world of the resurrection. It invites us always anew to transcend ourselves and the present time, to the true presence of the future that becomes present today. And here we come to a very important point. 

“One great problem of Christianity in today's world is that it does not think anymore of the future of God. The present of this world alone seems sufficient. We want to have only this world, to live only in this world. So we close the doors to the true greatness of our existence. The meaning of celibacy as an anticipation of the future is to open these doors, to make the world greater, to show the reality of the future that should be lived by us already as present.”

hinderances to the celibate life

So here we are, celibate men, seeking to live the life to which we have been called by, in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II “liberating the human heart in a unique way [to bear] witness that the Kingdom of God…” (9)

But we are weak. And we fall. How many tragedies of good men, indeed great men, falling into temptation and sin have we seen, even in recent years. And it can happen to each one of us. The temptations are a part of the life. For the devil goes about seeking someone to devour, especially someone who had given himself over to purity and celibate love.

We are sexual beings, created that way through Christ. And our sexuality can be used to empower celibate love.

(This section has been abbreviated for the internet version.)

helps to the celibate life

And in order to persevere in the celibate life we need prayer and we need people.

the Eucharist and Prayer

Again, pope John Paul II:

“….the centre of our life must really be the daily celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Central here are the words of consecration: "This is my Body, this is my Blood", which means that we speak "in persona Christi". Christ allows us to use his "I", we speak in the "I" of Christ. Christ is "drawing us into himself" and allows us to be united. He unites us to his "I". So, through this action, the fact that he "draws" us to himself so that our "I" becomes united to his, he realizes the permanence, the uniqueness of his Priesthood. 

“Therefore, he is at all times the unique Priest. Yet, he is very present to the world because he "draws" us to himself and so renders present his priestly mission. This means that we are "drawn" to the God of Christ. It is this union with his "I" which is realized in the words of the consecration. Also in the "I absolve you" because none of us could absolve from sins it is the "I" of Christ, of God, who alone can absolve. 

“This unification of his "I" with ours implies that we are "drawn" also into the reality of his Resurrection; we are going forth towards the full life of resurrection. Jesus speaks of it to the Sadducees in Matthew, chapter 22. It is a "new" life in which we are already beyond marriage (cf. Mt 22: 23-32). It is important that we always allow this identification of the "I" of Christ with us, this being "drawn" towards the world of resurrection.” 

And from Presbyterorum ordinis:

"In the world today, many people call perfect continence impossible. The more they do so, the more humbly and perseveringly priests should join with the Church in praying for the grace of fidelity. It is never denied to those who ask. At the same time let priests make use of all the supernatural and natural helps which are now available to all.” (10)

good relationships
Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us that “the charism of celibacy, even when it is genuine and has proved itself, leaves man’s affections and his instinctive impulses intact…” Therefore, “candidates to the priesthood need an affective maturity which is prudent, able to renounce anything that is a threat to it, vigilant over both body and spirit, and capable of esteem and respect in interpersonal relationships between men and women” (11)

This affective maturity means that I recognize that I need relationships. Healthy relationships. Relationships which foster my priestly identity. All kind of relationships: with parishioners, families, my family, brother priests and friends, especially life-long friends


This is what Pope Francis was talking about when, just a few weeks after his election as Pope, he spoke to the priests of Rome at the Chrism Mass. He talked about what happens when the priest becomes a part of the lives of his people, when he is imbued with the smell of the sheep: 

“they feel encouraged to entrust to us in everything they want to bring before the Lord: Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem, Bless me Father, Pray for me – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the People of God. When we have this relationship with God and with his people, and grace passes through us, then we are priests, mediators between God and men…”

The Pope continued:

“The priest who seldom goes out of himself…misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. 

“We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, has already received his reward, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad – sad priests - in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the smell of the sheep. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the smell of the sheep, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.”

I remember Bishop Dan Reilly, beloved emeritus of Worcester, once describing the feeling he had as he drove the streets of his first parish.  He looked at the houses and the kids in the yards and the old people on the stoops and the families walking down the street and thrilled that “God has placed them all in my care.  These are the ones to whom I am called to preach the Gospel, to bring to Jesus, to give them his body and blood, to baptize their babies and bury their dead and anoint their sick and teach their kids and console and challenge…”  They will call you Father and you will try to be worthy of their love.


And then there are friends…As indispensable as the air we breathe, friendships, and particularly friendships with other priests, are essential for our health, our ministry and our life. They are literally life-giving. A close friend, is one who knows you and loves you anyway. He is the first one to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. I always loved the line from Oscar Wilde: “True friends stab you in the front!”

A true friend is the one who listens to your rantings when you are in pain. He patiently helps you to navigate the waterfalls and rapids of life and just likes to hear your voice. And you try to be the same for him.

True friendships are not exclusive. Indeed, they open you up to others and make you more loving. True friendships delight in the successes of the other and are not jealous or overly competitive. True friendships are secure and are not out to get anything: not money or sex or attention or prestige. They are giving with the same kenotic love which Christ exemplified upon the cross.

But true friendships are hard work. They require constant attention and self-emptying love, patience and listening and caring. True friendships are formed with the same love which brought Christ to the cross, and they are forged in suffering and sacrifice.

But true friendships, especially priest friendships, are for the celibate priest the pearl beyond all price. And they will make you more holy, and more priestly and more true to Christ.


And finally, we need a sense of how little we are, fragile beings, worth nothing without God’s grace. It was true of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, a saintly priest. Not a philosopher or a scholar or a teacher or a theologian. But a good priest. Don Giuseppe De Luca, a man who knew Pio well, once wrote of him to another friend: 

“Padre Pio is a sickly, ignorant Capuchin, very much the crude southerner. And yet—God is with him…in his soul, unbearably hot, and in his flesh, which trembles constantly . . . Although he is a man of very meager intelligence, he offered me two or three words that I have never found on the lips of other men, and not even in the books of the Church. . . . There is nothing of ordinary spirituality about him, nor is there anything extraordinarily miraculous, stunning, or showy… And there is a passion, even a human passion, for God…that is so beautiful, so ravishingly sweet that I can’t tell you. The love of woman and the love of ideas are nothing by comparison…While the love of God, how, I do not know…” (12)

Lord, what hope is there for me?!

Without your grace, no hope at all.

But your love, O Lord, and your grace, as Saint Ignatius’ suscipe prayer says so well, are enough for me.



1 - Rite of Ordination of a Bishop, Priests and Deacons [ORD], no. 123.
2 - ORD, no. 123.
3 - ORD, no. 124.
4 - Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.  (June 24, 1967). 
5 - PDV, no. 29.
6 - Presbyterorum ordinis, 16.
7 - Lumen gentium, no. 42.
8 - PDV, no. 29.
9 - Familiaris Consortio
10 - Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16.
11 - Pastores dabo vobis, no. 44
12 - Patricia Snow, “Dismantling the Cross: A Call for Renewed Emphasis on the Celibate Vocations,” in First Things (October 2015).


Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum ordinis.

Pope John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis.