Spirituality Year for Priests

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April 19, 2010: The Priest and Chastity

« A chaste body! A pure soul! Who can imagine anything more beautiful! »
(St Jean-Marie Vianney)

Who would think for an instant that Jean-Marie Vianney could have become the Holy Curé of Ars, patron of all priests and a shining example of priestly sanctity… if he had been married? His life could have been a holy one indeed, but how different it would have been!
How could he have dedicated up to sixteen hours a day in hearing confessions?
How could he have spent such long hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament?
How could he have given himself to such an austere life of penance?
How could he have been so consumed by the generous gift of himself for the ministry among his parishioners?
Simply put, how could he have saved so many souls and how could Christ the High Priest have shone forth? The fecundity of the apostolate is linked to the generosity and sacrifice of the priest, in body and soul. This very point was demonstrated by Our Lord in His Passion.

The rather anticlerical Michelet stated in the time of St Jean-Marie Vianney : « A Church of married priests would never have given rise to the likes of St Bernard, St Thomas or St Vincent de Paul. Such men need solitary contemplation… or to have the world as their family »… And yet, in our day, so many Catholics forget these evident truths, and believe that the Latin Church should renounce its law on clerical celibacy.

The causes of the modern protest

In today’s Western society, which has become highly eroticised, clerical celibacy has become a shocking mystery for our contemporaries. Many think that it is the cause of unbalance and even scandal. The terrible crime of paedophilia, even though it is only imputable to a minority of despicable priests, causes uneasiness where there was once certitude and even Christians who are solid in their faith find themselves troubled.One tends to forget the fruits of twenty centuries of tradition, dumbfounded by increasing pressure from the media. This pressure can creep into the conscience of good priests leaving a feeling of unease and even doubt.

Moreover, one needs admit that in certain quarters of the Church, the meaning and motivations of priestly celibacy have been neglected or lost.  Following the Council, the priestly identity became obscured and it was stated increasingly that the priest was a man like any other man – an assertion which is both true and false. At the same time, there was insufficient reflection concerning the implications of the modern exaltation of marriage and family, which was often viewed as a denigration of consecrated life (which is held to be superior to the married state; as was taught at the Council of Trent in its twenty-fourth session).

Finally, the priests’ shortage adds weight to the argument against clerical celibacy: Why maintain this requirement when the need for priests is felt so badly in many quarters of the Church? Could one not envisage ordaining married men, as is the case in the Eastern Church?

In reality, this complaint against priestly celibacy comes essentially from the spirit of the world, a world which is in revolt against God. It is the Devil, who is prince of the world, and who detests the priesthood, virginity and motherhood; in other words, all the love that stood at the foot of the Cross, in the eminent persons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of all priests, and Saint John, figure of the priest.

A Tradition dating back to the Apostles

Contrary to what is often heard, the law on clerical celibacy does not date back to the 12th Century. Even if, strictly speaking, there was no law on celibacy in the very beginning due to the number of bishops and priests who were married, nevertheless one finds an unbroken tradition going back to Apostolic times in which clerics bound by the Sacrament of Marriage were also bound to observe perfect chastity from the day of their ordination. This tradition is found in both East and West up until the end of the 7th Century.

Thus the Synod of Elvira, in about the year 300, prescribed in Canon 33: “We have decreed a general prohibition for married bishops, priests, deacons, or also for all clerics who have been appointed to ministry: they must not come together with their wives and they must not beget children. Whosoever shall do the same, shall be expelled from the ranks of the clergy”.

Also, in about the year 390 the Council of Carthage stated in similar terms: «It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep ».

It is only in the year 1139 that the marriage of priests was declared invalid, but one can see that it had been gravely illicit for a much longer period of time. The current discipline of the Eastern Churches is based on a tolerance, and therefore is less ancient than the Western tradition.

This fidelity of the Latin Church, which maintains such a high ideal, cannot fail to move the most sincere of souls. According to Cardinal Newman, it was one of the causes of his conversion: “Then, again, her zealous maintenance of the doctrine and the rule of celibacy, which I recognised as Apostolic, and her faithful agreement with Antiquity in so many points besides, which were dear to me, was an argument as well as a plea in favour of the great Church of Rome.”

Why Celibacy?

The concern for maintaining ancient usages is obviously not the sole motivation for a law in favour of celibacy. The main reasons for a law on celibacy are clearly outlined in the Code of Canon Law: “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.” (c.277). Thus, one can see that three main motives stand out, which were outlined by Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus:

- A Christological Motive: Christ himself was not married. Celibacy is therefore a fitting imitation of Christ, which is the ideal of the priest. If Christ was not married, it proves that celibacy is not a deformation of one’s self. Christ instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony, but did not intend to make it a necessity. Paul VI thus explains: “Christ remained throughout His whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified His total dedication to the service of God and men. This deep concern between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood” (n°21). Therefore, the priestly life is an offering, a total self-giving to Christ, and an abnegation that demands a generosity in such a manner that one is no longer one’s self but rather a continuation of Christ.

- An Ecclesiological Motive: The unique bride of Christ, and also the priest, is the Church. Paul VI did not hesitate to affirm: “The consecrated celibacy of the sacred ministers actually manifests the virginal love of Christ for the Church, and the virginal and supernatural fecundity of this marriage, by which the children of God are born, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh’” (n°26). Similar to Christ and in Christ, the priest espouses the Church in a mystical way and loves Her with a love that is exclusive. The priest is not at the service of a family, “a small domestic church”, but rather an entire community. This demands a rather large availability that is difficult to reconcile with family life. Here, one could consider any number of practical elements: How to support a family as a priest and how to live in obedience to one’s superiors when one has to consider the needs of spouse and children? If the Church has decided to ordain only celibate men, it is because it has high expectations of marriage and family, and it would be unfair if these were a part-time occupation for the clergy. Celibacy frees the priest from material or emotional attachment: it is the sign of a total availability to the apostolate. The priest is available for all, night and day. Thus St. Paul responds unequivocally: “But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife” (1 Cor 7, 32-33).

- An Eschatological Motive: Consecrated celibacy demonstrates that there can be another type of fertility apart from fertility in the flesh. To become a “eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake” (Mt 19, 12) bears witness to the fact that we are only pilgrims on this earth. Alas, the only way to survive is not the sole begetting of children. There is Eternal Life, for which we must prepare ourselves. The Curé of Ars rightfully taught “The aim in this life is to prepare for the next life”. The priest bears witness to the Kingdom of Heaven: his priesthood is a foretaste of life in Heaven, where one is no longer bound in matrimony. The priest could rightly be considered a little bit of heaven on earth and his celibacy is truly prophetic.

To remain faithful

It is true that, on a strictly natural level, chastity is difficult to keep. It does not go against our nature but surpasses the limits of this nature. Thus, one sees that God’s grace, a supernatural aid, is needed. Celibacy becomes yet another proof for the existence of God (which would also explain the virulent attacks against celibacy on the part of the enemies of the Church).

Fidelity in chastity is therefore received based upon the spiritual life of the priest. If this were not present then the time that one spends in prayer, which is the cause and effect of love, would stand to be replaced by all sorts of harmful compensatory acts such as the pursuit of money or sex, driven by ambition or by one’s ego.

The priest must consider himself to be meek: in fact, humility is the surest means to remain vigilant and to maintain the asceticism necessary to remaining chaste. The priest is greatly aided by the support of his confreres in the community life and that of the faithful in his ministry. If the priest is happy, then he will remain faithful and chaste.

Of course, the great difficulty is one of duration: one often makes a decision to lead a celibate life while in the prime of youth. Sometimes, this is a source of discouragement and that is why we also need Catholic families to pray that priests may remain faithful, as well as to pray for the return of those who have fallen away. The priest must also entrust his virginity to a woman, not a spouse, but a Mother – the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the virgo castissima, virgo perpetua, virgo fidelis.

Lastly, those responsible for priestly formation should dismiss without hesitation those candidates who are unstable or immature, and carefully instruct seminarians by helping them to develop a mystical understanding of priestly chastity. They must learn to love purity, following in the footsteps of the Curé of Ars, of whom it was said, “Chastity shone forth from his gaze”. He truly loved purity and knew how to encourage others through the use of many vivid and colourful examples related to nature.

Towards a mystical understanding of Priestly Celibacy

Priestly celibacy must be a resolute choice, motivated and determined by a true sense of sacrifice. Chastity becomes ridiculous or even impossible if it is solely structured by negative precepts. It is however possible, beautiful and enriching, when it is based upon a positive precept: the Love of God, which is total and life-giving and the only love that is capable of fulfilling the great need for love that fills the heart of man. Therefore, celibacy must not be lived negatively, as if something were missing; but rather positively, as a sacrifice for a love that allows for a spiritual union: “Perfect chastity is a type of spiritual marriage by which the soul is united to Christ” (Pie XII).

Chastity is a moral obligation that requires ascetical effort. Such is inconceivable without the learned practice of temperance, and without absolute self-control. Even those alone do not suffice, for without penance and mortification one would find it difficult to control one’s passions. The Curé of Ars understood this well: “I have never felt any temptations of the flesh; and if I had, I would have indeed used the discipline”.      

Yet such cannot be brought about without a certain spiritual motivation: it is love that must engender the sacrifice of one’s self, in both body and soul. Freely and generously, the priest immolates himself for the Lord, and through celibacy he identifies with Christ and unites himself to His Church. The chastity of Jesus is neither accidental nor accessory but is an integral part of the “states of being” of Jesus, described by Bérulle and the French school of spirituality. The priest owes adherence to these states of body and soul and to the sentiments of the Heart of Jesus, for he is not called to be “one with Christ”, such as in the spirituality of a bride of Christ, but rather he is called to be “another Christ”, such as demanded by the spirituality of the priesthood. How could one not see in the sacrifice of one’s body a Eucharistic dimension?

In going to seminary when one is about twenty years old, the future priest is normally not fully conscious of the sacrifice that is expected of him. He will come to realize it, little-by-little, sometimes after ordination to the priesthood. He will then realize that his will alone does not suffice since celibacy is a gift from God long before it is a gift made to God. It is a grace that God gives to those priests who are faithful. Nevertheless, the will of the priest must not be weak or passing for priestly celibacy only finds its full value in a total and absolute giving of one’s self. As Guynemer once remarked: “We haven’t given anything, until we have given everything!” In giving one’s body to God, one can give his soul to everyone. The priest can therefore view his commitment as strong and indissoluble as the bonds of matrimony. One doesn’t divorce God.

In today’s world, this message shocks some people and angers others. Let us not be deceived: it is an element of the “sign of contradiction” that the priest becomes as a result of his ordination.

Those for whom God suffices

Far from renouncing love, the priest embraces it in its most sublime and supernatural form. In placing his celibacy under the maternal protection of Our Lady, as did the Curé of Ars, the priest will know the joys of a mysterious apostolic fertility and the a generous love which foreshadows eternal bliss.

One needs to understand that what is at stake in the debate on clerical celibacy is not a lack of priests, far from it. The real challenge is an underlying one and a challenge of real importance for the future of Christianity: in reality, the problem of priestly celibacy begs the question of the effectiveness of grace. Priestly celibacy is a grace, as St Jean-Marie Vianney so often repeated: “Purity comes from Heaven; we must ask this grace of God. If we ask for it, we shall receive”. To renounce the obligation of celibacy would bear witness before the world that grace was insufficient and that it could not allow individuals to live a supernatural life. The consequences would be disastrous: it would mean the surrender of the spirit to the needs of the flesh, the triumph of the “old man” over the new and the victory of paganism over Christianity.

Today, as in the past, chastity is a grave necessity. It is a grace to be received and kept, and a fertile source for the salvation of the world. It is necessary that men should continue to sacrifice their bodies as a sign of their passionate love for the Christ and His Church. They must continue to believe in the words of Our Lord: “My grace is sufficient for thee”. The world stands to be shocked by these priests like the Curé of Ars, these prophets of another world who are mad for Christ and for whom God suffices.

Fr Alban Cras
2nd councilor to the Superior General
and responsible for the Year of Discernment in Wigratzbad

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