We have part of the answer in today's reading from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians (7:32-35). He contrasts the married and unmarried man. The former is anxious to please his wife while the latter, free from that anxiety, can devote himself to pleasing the Lord. In our culture which tends to define a person by his work, we can easily misunderstand Paul. We might get idea he is saying that a married man, out of fairness to his wife and children, can only put in a twelve hour workday whereas as an unmarried person could give a full sixteen hours. I know priests who talk about their celibacy in those workaholic terms and of course wind up resenting the burden.
St. Paul does not consider a person's worth in terms of what they do. That for him is the old law of works. What counts is not what you do, but who you are. Deeds have value, but only as an expression of that inner reality. Otherwise they become the bitter fruit of pride and self justification.
When St. Paul describes the difference between the married and unmarried man, he is not laying out a formula for efficiency. Rather he challenges us to a Christian ideal. To get married is a noble vocation and for most people dedication to ones spouse ("anxiety" to please ones wife) brings the self emptying necessary for salvation. Marriage is the core vocation as we see in Ephesians 5:21-33, but alongside of marriage is the celibate ideal.
Now, I do not put myself forward as some great model of celibacy - yet I know the ideal is true and can be realized. I have been blessed by friendship with priests who have given themselves to it wholeheartedly.
One of the greatest examples of the celibate ideal was Pope John Paul II. His life gives clues on how to live priestly celibacy with intensity. George Weigel has written a book called Witness to Hope which shows the pope "from the inside." What struck me was how from his earliest years as a priest, Father Wojtyla divided his days into three unequal parts. First comes prayer. I was astounded to read the extent of each day his gives to prayer, not just Mass and the Office (Liturgy of Hours) which is binding on every priest, but an hour or more before the Blessed Sacrament, several rosaries, as well as various devotions such as Stations of the Cross and weekly confession. Such large amounts of prayer do not steal from, but actually seem to add to the second part of his day - apostolic activity.
I have to admit I was touched and challenged by the tenderness of his care for people, first as pastor of a rural parish, then university chaplain, then bishop, finally as pope. The third part of his day, which he seemed to squeeze into what for me would be frenetic activity, was study.** Not just reading books, but in a sense reading people. In living the celibate ideal we priests sometimes neglect intellectual stimulation, even spiritual reading, but the pope never did. He has even been accused of running the papacy like a seminar, a characteristic which flows naturally from his love of inquiry.
We can see in the pope's life how prayer, apostolic intimacy and study infuse the celibate ideal with meaning. Celibacy has always been linked with spiritual fatherhood to such a degree that when celibacy was dropped, the people stopped calling their pastors "father." But that title which has deep roots in the Bible (e.g. I Cor 4:15) speaks to our spiritual closeness to people, especially when we celebrate the sacraments. I have been humbled by how, even though I do not have first hand experience of marriage, people will share with me their most intimate problems. Celibacy realizes its deepest purpose when the priest acts as spiritual father.
Bishop Sheen said that on the judgment day, the one question Jesus will ask us is, "Where are your children?" In spite of my own weakness, blunders, outright sins, I hope to stand before Jesus - along with you - and as your spiritual father here on earth to say, "These are my children."
*I am a diocesan priest which means I belong to no religious order, but am directly under the authority of the bishop. Unlike a religious order priest, a diocesan priest does not take a vow of poverty. And if you are really interested in the tab, send an email...
**The pope did not fall into the trap of compartmentalizing, that is, separating intellectual inquiry from prayer and care of souls. What we need today are scholars with a deep prayer life who will defend the faith of ordinary Christians.
From the Archives:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Are you being called to the Priesthood?
Celibacy as a sign of Consecration (Address by Pope John Paul II)
Celibacy & the Priesthood (Catholic Answers Tract explaining Biblical and Patristic Basis)
Pictures from Ordination of Deacon Armando Perez (Holy Family Parish, July 15, 2001)
Renewal of Vows, Prayers of Faithful and Blessing of Married Couples on World Marriage Day
Pictures from Peru
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