Priestly Celibacy and Celibate Love
The gift that opens the priesthood to a life of intimate presence in the Trinity
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Essential to the life of the Church are the gifts of priestly celibacy and celibate love that embrace all of God’s people and confirm our longing, beyond worldly accomplishments, to share in God’s eternal, infinite love for souls.
The gift of celibate love opens priests to a life of intimate presence to the Trinity, expressed in words, deeds and gestures that heal broken hearts and lead often confused and weary minds to the fountainhead of Gospel values and truths.
Celibate love counters childish, narcissistic needs that despoil the authentic intimacy we share with God and that God wants us to extend to others. Priests care for us for God’s sake. They radiate, with and without words, the selfless presence of the Divine Presence that counters every semblance of self-centered preoccupation.
Celibate love attracts priests to the quiet of contemplative prayer that opens them during the celebration of the Eucharist and throughout the day to the mysterious ground of their being and doing.
At its most sublime height, through liturgy, word and sacrament, priests reveal day by day what it means to fulfill their vocation as “other Christs” who shepherd the sacred dimension of reality.
Care for Others
The power of celibate love directs them to treat all those entrusted to their care as precious gifts of God, worthy of being helped in countless ways. They try not to allow themselves, even in small ways, to be caught in the trap of self-centeredness. With hearts transformed by Christ, they show us how to transform the world into the house of God.
While priests, like all human beings, desire to receive care and to be cared for as they age in wisdom and grace, this desire does not dominate their concerns. Growth in selfless presence allows them to love without demanding reciprocal love in return. In other words, they respect the need for reciprocity, but at the same time they transcend it.
Celibate love frees priests to love others for who they are, not merely because of what they do. It delights them to promote their own and others’ well-being and to bless the always unpredictable direction of their God-guided becoming.
Pope Francis’ Wisdom
“Celibacy is a gift that the Latin Church preserves, yet it is a gift that, to be lived as a means of sanctification, calls for healthy relationships, relationships of true esteem and true goodness that are deeply rooted in Christ.”
— Feb. 17, 2022, address to bishops, priests and theologians attending a Vatican conference in Rome
‘Yes’ to the Lord
The divine dimension of this commitment can be traced to the core meaning of celibate love — namely, to priests’ single-hearted yes to the Lord combined with their willingness to relinquish the guarantee of steady, reciprocal love that could have been theirs had they chosen to start a family of their own.
Because celibate love does not concentrate itself exclusively on a marital relation for a lifetime, it represents an orientation to inclusivity that grants priests the freedom to be with and for those who need help at the planned and unplanned moments of the day, the week, the month and the year!
Celibate love requires free acceptance of the risk priests take of having to incarnate their vocation in situations where their motives for nurturing others may be misunderstood by doubters and disbelievers, who find it difficult to grasp a way of loving that is so countercultural.
Despite occasional misunderstanding of their motives, priests choose to witness the reciprocity of divine love in purity of heart and poverty of spirit. In solitary presence to the saving and redeeming love of the Lord, they do their best to face unafraid the changes and challenges characteristic of the Church in a time of transition.
Care for the Church
The vow of celibate love can thus be seen as an epiphany of the Lord’s own selfless care for his bride, the Church, and for all members of his mystical body. Priests model the efficacy of this divinely initiated love through devoted discipleship in parish life and throughout the diocese in response to the prompting of the Spirit and under obedience to their bishop. They live in fidelity to what it means to witness to Christ in hidden and public ways for the duration of their priestly life.
Being anchored in the heart of Christ as faithful celibates gives priests the freedom needed to greet with heartfelt affection whoever appears on the horizon of their life and to treat them with the respect they deserve as children of God.
Closest to them are the parishioners, who rely on them for the reception of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. They rely on priests to be with them not only for baptisms, confirmations and marriages, in times of sickness and death, but for everyday encouragement. They trust priests to dispense reproach, correction and counsel in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Celibate love holds priests to their promise before God never to abuse another’s integrity, but to show all those entrusted to their care what it means to mature in faith, hope and love. Priests learn from experience how to maintain the right balance of distance and nearness. Their love is firm yet flexible, dignified yet warm. Their focus is not on self-enhancement but on their own and others’ self-emergence in the Lord.
Their willingness to love as Jesus loved frees priests from ulterior motives that may be clouded by subtle self-centered concerns that obscure the selfless, sacrificial nature of Christian love. Held in highest esteem is the inviolable depth of each soul freed from any tendency toward indifference or harsh judgmentalism.
Complementing the call to priestly celibacy and celibate love are the three evangelical counsels of obedience, chaste, respectful love and poverty of spirit.
Priests listen to events and situations in their immediacy, as well as in their relation to the mystery at the center of their called, committed and consecrated life.
Obedience fosters their serene and humble openness to God’s will in times of trial and tribulation. Suffering in joy is the hallmark of a priest’s embrace of the cross. Not a day passes without his experience of living the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus.
The vow of chaste, respectful love frees priests from being absorbed in the practical, economic and emotional demands that accompany family life so that they can attend to their obligation to serve the many souls Christ asks them to shepherd.
Celibacy becomes for them the way to love and serve God and others in this life as a foretaste of the life to come.
Poverty of spirit alerts priests to the dangers inherent in being pressed to use things for their own enhancement or to be engaged in competitive struggles to acquire as many possessions as possible.
The liberation granted to priests by adherence to the evangelical counsels opens them in spirit, heart, mind and will to the deepest meaning of life. To listen to God in faith, to reveal the compassion of selfless love, and to use wisely the gifts of nature and culture in a spirit of trust and surrender to God are three facets of the diamond of priestly celibacy.
This gift communicates in silence and speech to every person in family life, Church and society the awe and wonder of what it means to walk arm in arm with priests the world over, who, by their life and ministry, lead us all to be and become worshippers “in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23).
SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).