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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 3 Michaelmas 2004
Celebrating 20 Years - 1984-2004

Affirmation of an Ancient Priestly Tradition

by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

All we need to know of the priesthood we have learned from the life of Jesus Christ. In its fullness, as revealed in the Gospel, the life of Christ is a study in the theology of ministry. And a perfect one, upon which the apostles based all teaching and tradition and service. The Sacrament of Holy Orders derives from that, and from them, and remains unchanged.

In Women for Faith & Family's Affirmation #5, "we recognize that the specific role of ordained priesthood is intrinsically connected with and representative of the begetting creativity of God in which only human males can participate". We want to further this thought, clarify its meaning and strengthen its support in these confusing times. There is nothing confusing about this, it is not dated, it is not negotiable, and we unapologetically assert its sacred role in healing a wounded Body in a shattered universe.

Affirming Celibacy
Christ remained celibate and gave Himself totally to His Bride, the Church. "By remaining celibate, Jesus went against the socio-cultural and religious climate of His time, since in the Jewish environment no condition was so much deprecated as that of a man who had no descendants", says Father Thomas McGovern, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei in Dublin, and author of the book Priestly Celibacy Today. "By freeing Himself from the claims of family, Christ was totally available to do His Father's will, to establish the new family of the children of God. The priestly vocation is a personal grace by which a young man is called to share in the priesthood of Christ. Implicit in this call is the grace to imitate Jesus in His celibacy". (InPerson, National Catholic Register, 5/19-25/02)

Time and again since the time of Christ, celibacy has been challenged, rejected and ridiculed. It has certainly been misunderstood, as has the reason the Church holds to its tradition. "The atmosphere today is thick with the dust of the great celibacy debate", writes Father Tom Norris in a review of Father McGovern's book. "Unfortunately, that debate is often more conspicuous for its fire than for its light".

That diverts attention from the truth. "Who has not heard ad nauseum the claim that the celibacy of priests is merely a matter of Church law, without any apostolic traditions or Gospel foundations, and imposed on the priestly ministry only in this millennium", continues Father Norris. "Or the claim that in the first millennium there were married bishops, priests and deacons.... In the debate these claims are in control of the public square in spite of the fact that in each case the opposite happens to be the truth!"

Celibacy has never been a cultural, practical or sociological custom, but always a supernatural charism. The Church holds that she has continually been guided in this tradition by the Holy Spirit, whose grace alone calls men to live it, and give themselves wholly to the Bride of Christ. One of the strongest and clearest writings on the theology of this tradition is Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds, 3/25/92). "In virginity and celibacy, chastity retains its original meaning, that is, of human sexuality lived as a genuine sign of and precious service to the love of communion and gift of self to others. This meaning is fully found in virginity which makes evident, even in the renunciation of marriage, the 'nuptial meaning' of the body through a communion and a personal gift to Jesus Christ and His Church which prefigures and anticipates the perfect and final communion and self-giving of the world to come...." (PDV no. 29)

Extensively in this work of the pope -- who has so thoroughly examined and preached the theology of the body and of human sexuality, and has understood it better than most anyone else -- the fullest explanation of celibacy is detailed. He returns to documents of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium) and Synod Fathers in drawing out his teaching on celibacy in the priesthood.

It is especially important that the priest understand the theological motivation of the Church's law of celibacy. Inasmuch as it is a law, it expresses the Church's will, even before the will of the subject expressed by his readiness. But the will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred Ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church. The Church, as the Spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to His Church and expresses the priest's service to the Church in and with the Lord. (PDV no. 29)

And, states Father McGovern in Priestly Celibacy Today, the Church is "not a human organization. It has a divine origin and has been given powerful supernatural means of grace and charisms of the Holy Spirit, which justify it making the audacious claim that in the Western rite it is God's will that its ministers should be celibate, and that in giving a vocation to the priesthood the Holy Spirit also endows it with the charism of celibacy".

Embracing Priesthood
The well-publicized arguments these days for "optional celibacy" no longer challenge the merits of this discipline and tradition, but readily concede its value. The major debate and petitions now turn on the theory that mandatory celibacy is jeopardizing future vocations in an era that has seen the number of priests and priest candidates drop dramatically. But activism on this issue took a very interesting turn these past couple of years, as orthodox seminarians and priests began growing in numbers again, speaking out in response to the media attention on the groups calling for change in the Church.

Father John DeCelles is one of the initiators of an Arlington, Virginia, letter to US Conference of Catholic Bishops president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, supporting the celibacy requirement, and he is confident. "People aren't going to change this with petitions. This is the will of God".

The letter, signed by 90 priests of the Diocese of Arlington, states in part: "Common sense and historical experience indicate that reducing the demands of the priesthood will not increase vocations, because lessening sacrifice never inspires men to offer their lives to Christ. In times of crisis, the wisdom and instinct of the Church have always been to respond with greater sacrifice, not less. What will inspire more vocations is celibacy lived well, not celibacy set aside".

Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha states as much in a column he wrote on the success of vocations programs in dioceses that emphasize fidelity to the Church's Magisterium. "The dioceses and religious communities which promote orthodoxy and loyalty to the Church; the ones which mobilize priests and people to call young men to ordained priesthood despite the opposition of those who rail against a male, celibate priesthood; the ones which want their members to be real churchmen and churchwomen that are committed to prayer and holiness as a primary requisite -these are the dioceses and communities which will enjoy increasing numbers of candidates and will disprove the forecasts of decline in vocations everywhere in the Church because of their successes locally".

In fact, the argument by a group of Milwaukee priests that the celibacy requirement will discourage future vocations "lost its legs" when an enthusiastic group of seminarians decided that they would speak for themselves. At least 269 seminarians from eight US seminaries signed a letter directed to Bishop Gregory several months ago saying that they support and embrace priestly celibacy. "Seminarians feel very strongly about this, and people don't know we feel this way", says Franz Klein, of the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. "Many people are losing hope in the future of the Church. But we said, 'Hold on a minute. We're the future of the Church'".

The letter affirmed support "for Holy Mother Church's teaching on the place of celibacy in the priesthood", and cited Pastores Dabo Vobis on the total and exclusive manner in which Christ loved the Church as His spouse. "We to whom the precious gift of divine grace to live as celibates has been given yearn with all our hearts to offer this celibacy up to the Lord with undivided hearts, at the service of His Church".

Father Carter Griffin, of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, spoke out strongly and eloquently on behalf of the growing numbers of orthodox vocations in recent years, in an article "A New Breed of Seminarians". (Homiletic & Pastoral Review October 2000) In the week before his ordination last May, Father Griffin reflected on this call of Holy Orders. "At its heart, celibacy is about loving God in a certain way, a very exclusive and intense way. Ironically, celibacy is not primarily about 'giving up marriage', any more than marrying one woman is 'giving up marriage with everyone else'.

"Celibacy, in other words, is about giving oneself entirely to the Lord, and to His people, and filling the natural yearnings of the heart with the love of Jesus Christ. The happiest people on earth are not those who are successful, in an earthly sense, but rather those who are holy, those who live out that generosity with their whole lives. Moreover, celibacy conforms the priest more perfectly to the life that Our Lord Himself lived while He walked the earth, a man 'with nowhere to lay His head' and a man utterly free to preach the Gospel in its fullness, regardless of its consequences -- even to the Crucifixion itself".

Father William Baer, rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, runs one of the seminaries with a strong formation program that is, not coincidentally, seeing increasing numbers. Like Father Griffin, he notes that seminarians today understand that their celibacy, like Christ's, is a higher form of love, and they embrace it.

"This is not an academic issue for seminarians, but a gift of the Church and the priesthood which has an enormous impact on their lives", says Father Baer. "It gives you a relative freedom and availability. It enables you to be Christ to your parish in ways that no Protestant minister can. You understand through prayer and discernment the tremendous importance of holiness in the life of a priest, of being the icon of Christ".


Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, was a writer for Time magazine for many years. She lives in Chicago with her husband; they have two sons, one of whom is a seminarian.

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