Friendship and love are of the very essence of the priesthood.
Since the days of Christ’s public ministry, when Our Lord conspicuously chose not to marry, the world has looked askance at priestly celibacy. Today, popular tropes routinely cast aspersion on this longstanding discipline of the Western Church, blaming it for everything from the recent clerical abuse scandal to regional scarcities of priestly vocations.
Disoriented by these accusations, we can forget to reflect on the positive and transcendent reasons why priests in the West remain unmarried, and what their celibate lives say to the world.
To those afraid of commitment, the priest’s life can seem alien, even threatening. His celibacy speaks of total commitment. In a 2015 address to Dartmouth College graduates, New York Times columnist David Brooks urged his audience to make commitments.
Brooks said, “Your fulfillment in life will not come from how well you explore your freedom and keep your options open. That’s the path to a frazzled, scattered life in which you try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one … Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom.”
For Brooks, by chaining ourselves to something immovable, by forging bonds of commitment with others, we can combat the tyrannical freedom of our age—the illusive freedom of endless options and choice.
By his vows, the priest is free. By promising obedience and celibacy to the bishop, the priest chains his life to the Gospel, renouncing anything that could stand in its way. While many people today jump from company to company, city to city, relationship to relationship, the priest is there. He remains. He is available. He is ready. He is free. He is all these things because the Church, to which he commits himself, remains all these things.
Further, in any number of difficult pastoral situations today, people experience profound frustration. As the breakdown of the family continues to foment discord and pain in our culture, some feel that the Church’s only answer to the nexus of struggles they face is merely a prescription of more isolation and loneliness.
Amidst our highly sexualized culture, the faithful celibate priest assures them: Sex is not life, life is more than sex.
The priest is there. He remains. He is available. He is ready. He is free. He is all these things because the Church, to which he commits himself, remains all these things.
The celibate priest lives in solidarity with those who are alone.
The celibate priest lives in solidarity with those who suffer a failed marriage.
The celibate priest lives in solidarity with those who daily contend with disordered sexuality.
In one of the most poignant summaries of Christianity ever, the French poet Paul Claudel asserts: “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.”
The priest, standing in persona Christi, in the very person of Christ, stands with all who ache. By his celibate witness, the priest joins the song of those who lament.
But even as he joins the chorus of suffering, the priest raises the pitch of the tune. The priest, who has chosen this way of life, reminds the faithful that we shall all someday be as angels, neither married nor given in marriage (Matthew 22:30). We, the pilgrim people, look forward to a life beyond what we presently see and hear. Scripture tells us, eye has not seen, and ear has not heard the glory that has been prepared for us (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Our hearts have to be set on arriving at the Kingdom. The Gospel—in all its fullness—is the only thing that can bear our hearts’ weight.
Finally, the celibate priest’s heart belongs to Jesus. He is intimately united to Him. The late Irish Trappist monk Eugene Boylan described the priest’s union with Jesus, saying:
He has chosen us to share the joys and sorrows of his heart, to give him sympathy for his sorrow, love for his love. He has not chosen us because of any merit or talent of our own, but because of his goodness and mercy. He has not chosen us for what we are, but for what he can make of us.
Too often friendship and love are considered a garnish of priestly life. However, they are its very essence. Jesus, who calls us friends and begs us abide in me (John 15), invites us to union and love, rather than simply to works and fruitfulness. The essence of the priesthood of Jesus is mystical conformity to the heart of Christ. From this love springs the priest’s apostolate.
Union with Christ allows the priest to be configured to the Church as Christ was: To love the Church, with the same love of the bridegroom. Just as Eve was brought to be from the side of Adam, the Church sprang into being as blood and water poured forth from the side of Christ on Calvary Hill. The celibate character of a priest’s life is not a mere sign. It is the actual living out of Christ’s spousal love for the Church. It is a pouring forth from the priest’s own heart a new share of the love out of which the Church first emerged.
Our culture is filled with priests of our own design. They preach gospels of affirmation, satisfaction, and achievement. They promise comfort and complacency now, while rejecting the things of above and those that have yet to come. Today, we need to see and hear the priesthood of Christ. We need a priesthood which dares to live the deepest solidarity with suffering pilgrims. We need a priesthood which loves with the heart of Christ, a priesthood which beckons us to chase the things of heaven.
In the end, perhaps priestly celibacy is considered by the world to be so very odd, because the love it proclaims seems, to the world, so very foreign.