The truth about priestsAlan Phillip
- 14 July 2001
For many priests, celibacy is a true vocation which liberates them. For others, it is a lifelong struggle. If celibacy was made voluntary, not only would many priests be happier, but the Church would be richer, according to a Passionist priest from California. He describes his vision for the future.
BECAUSE of the shortage of priests in many countries, many dioceses and religious orders are putting more and more personnel, time and money into encouraging young men to apply for the seminary.
But just as there should be truth in advertising commercial products, there should be truth in advertising the priesthood. I have been a priest for over 30 years. And if I were doing the advertising, I would stand up and shout the truth that the priesthood is one of the most interesting and most challenging vocations on the face of this earth. The priesthood gives a person the sublime responsibility to preach God?s Word, to celebrate the Eucharist, and to lavish the Lord?s forgiveness. A priest works directly with human beings, the most fascinating of all God?s creatures. And we bring God?s sacramental and healing presence to these human beings at the most crucial times in their lives ? birth and death, marriage and divorce, growing up and ageing. We minister to the physically sick and the emotionally ailing. We are present to people in their successes and in their failures. We laugh with them. We cry with them. We gather them together and lead them in beseeching God, thanking God, and worshipping God. We walk hand in hand with our people across the holy ground where their journey of faith takes place.
Before we let any new candidates apply to the seminary, however, we should tell them the whole truth. In order to minister as a priest, there is a price to pay. And the price is celibacy. If a person is genuinely called to both the priesthood and to the vocation of celibacy, this should present no problem. If a person is called only to the priesthood, but not to celibacy, they should be told the truth: expect a lifelong struggle.
When many of us followed the call to priesthood, church law stated that we had to be celibate too. That was part of the package. Surely there were those among our number who felt called to both vocations. But for others of us, celibacy was basically a rule imposed and a sacrifice to endure, not a vocation we felt called to. And in due time many of our number left the active ministry and married. Others of us, still not called to celibacy, have chosen to stick it out. As young men we thought, Hey, we can tough it out for the sake of priestly ministry. Sure, it would be difficult to give up a wife and children. But as men who grew up in an era of machismo, with a philosophy that touted rugged individualism, and in a Church heavily into penitential practice, we thought we could do it. A little repression and denial never hurt anyone. And someone told us we could sublimate sexual energy, which apparently is done with greater ease by those called to celibacy. What many of us didn?t know as idealistic seminarians was the deep toll the law of celibacy would take on the soul of one not called to that way of life. With each passing year, the burden simply gets heavier.
Every priest realises, as Blaise Pascal said, that in the human person there is an abyss that only God can fill. So, realising this, most of us who have stayed in the priesthood have done so with an active prayer life. Through our sacramental ministry, Divine Office, meditation, retreats, spiritual direction, spiritual reading, we have tried to let God fill the abyss that only God can fill. What a lot of us didn?t know, but have come to experience more each passing year, is that there is also a near abyss that only another human person can fill. God didn?t intend to fill both abysses. In the story of creation in Genesis, after saying that it isn?t good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18), God didn?t conclude, Well, I?ll fill that need. No, for that purpose God created a woman. And for most of humankind this was and still is God?s plan. Over the years, I have come to believe that this is also God?s plan for many of the priests I?ve known. Unfortunately, those who enforce the laws (and are able to change the laws) for the Western Church still can?t see this, or choose not to see.
Like truth in advertising, truth in vocation ministry should tell those interested in joining the seminary exactly what celibacy will hold out for them if they are not called to it. A few generations ago, those who recruited young men for the priesthood may have warned them that celibacy meant giving up the pleasures of physical union in marriage. What many recruiters didn?t tell them was what Carl Jung noted; that marriage is principally a union of souls. It is a matter of balance, oneness, wholeness, the ultimate unity, the community of the masculine and the feminine in their totality in God.
Some say that marriage can distract one from a deep spiritual life, which is what the apostle Paul saw in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32). In the lives of husbands and wives who share the same faith, I have frequently observed the opposite to be true. In their married union, they have discovered that their life together is not a distraction from God but a doorway to the Divine. They support and encourage each other in their life of faith. They participate in the Eucharist together. They pray and read Scripture together. They constantly die and rise together as they parent their children. Many minister together in their local parish. They walk in the presence of Christ at home, in church, and in social settings because where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Mt. 18:20). (I believe Tertullian was one of the first to apply that scripture passage to the sacrament of marriage.) Through their sacred union, husband and wife are one heart in love with God, one will in choosing God, one soul in celebrating God. They experience an ongoing discovery of God as they continue discerning the depths of each other.
We were told in the old days that celibacy is a witness to the kingdom. The implication was that marriage is not such a witness. What we didn?t hear was what the Second Vatican Council would tell us, that husband and wife will bear witness by their faithful love to that mystery of love which the Lord revealed to the world by his death and resurrection. Over the years, in my ministry to married couples, I have found these words in the Roman Wedding Liturgy Ritual of Canada to ring true: Marriage, then, by its position in the order of creation, is already a sacrament: it is the most powerful symbol of God?s love for the world.
There has been much said by our present Pope to extol the vocation of celibacy, and to point out the spiritual opportunities of the single life. All of the above is not to argue against that. For those who are called to it, celibacy must be a very meaningful way of life. But celibacy is a unique calling, given to few. For those who receive this call, celibacy is their way to God. For those who don?t receive this call, there is a problem. There is no automatic power or holiness that comes from merely observing a law. Celibacy is not a sacrament that works ex opere operato. Lawmakers cannot impose a vocation that only God can grant. Lawmakers cannot decree a holiness that comes only from God.
So what is the present state of many priests today? As we stated above, it was Adam to whom the Lord declared in the beginning, It is not good for the human person to be alone (Gen. 2:18). So, for those not called to the vocation of celibacy, to attempt to go it alone is to try to be something that God didn?t intend for them. It is much like fish trying to swim on land, or birds trying to fly under water. That?s not how God designed fish or birds. It would be arrogance on the part of fish or birds to try it. A human being trying to live an entire lifetime without a spouse is not the plan God had in mind for most people from the beginning. On the sixth day of creation, God made them to be in his image and likeness(Gen. 1:26-27), beautifully crafted as male and female to be one as God is one.
Consequently, what does the Western Catholic Church have today? It has many dutiful priests who minister by sheer grit. They are generously smiling outside, while barely hanging on inside. These priests may have good friends, supportive parishioners, clergy support groups, and fellow religious who try to help. But these are not able to replace the near abyss of a spouse and a family. Thinking that the only legitimate way out of celibacy is death, many priests labour away, waiting for, eventually longing for, the final curtain. Then they will have successfully endured, but at what cost to their humanness and to the priestly ministry? All this, because of a man-made law. These priests could have joyfully witnessed God?s love in a married priesthood, except for our lawmakers and the stubbornness of their hearts.
I do not, by this argument, intend to deny the difficulty of marriage, or to promote the vocation of marriage to anyone not called to it. My purpose is simply to speak against clamping celibacy upon anyone who doesn?t feel called to it, but who is still called to the priesthood.
WHEN Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, he was asked what the United States should do about its relationship with that island. The Pope responded, to change, to change. It takes courage to change. A positive hope-filled vision can help the people in authority find the courage to face necessary changes. So I would like to close with such a vision.
Think of a parish church where the homilies deal regularly with sacred sexuality in the context of married spirituality, and the homilies are preached by one who is living that vocation.
Dream of a diocese where married couples, especially parents, feel truly affirmed in the beauty of their vocation, because many of their clergy share the same way of life.
Picture a society where young people no longer turn to movies and television to learn about sex. Instead they are instructed from the pulpit by a believable preacher, whose experience of married sexual love guides the minds and hearts of our youth.
Imagine a church where there is no longer a shortage of quality eucharistic liturgies on Sundays. The priests are not burnt out by endless hours of ministry and the total number of Masses already celebrated that week. There are enough priests, married and celibate, so that a well-prepared Mass and a well-prepared homily is the norm for every Sunday in every parish.
Think of the believable witness that a religious congregation of celibate priests would give, if people knew these priests chose celibacy when they were free to choose both priesthood and marriage.
Imagine a pope who would grant an amnesty to the thousands of priests who are presently married. These priests would be allowed to return and minister once again to the people they still love and are still ordained to serve.
I was encouraged by the recent words of Pope John Paul II when he addressed the Eastern Orthodox Christians in Kiev in Ukraine. He spoke of the need for greater unity and said, The world is rapidly changing. What was unthinkable yesterday is within our reach today. I believe those exact same words apply to the issue of marriage and the priesthood.