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The Sacrifice of Celibacy

“It is especially important that the priest understand the theological motivation of the Church’s law on celibacy. Inasmuch as it is a law, it expresses the Church’s will, … a will [that] 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.” - St. John Paul the Great (Pastores Dabo Vobis)

“Why can't you get married?” a fifth grader asked me the other day. On a day off from seminary classes, I decided to visit my parish's grade school and say hello to the students. Wearing a clerical shirt, I introduced myself as the resident seminarian and offered to answer any questions the kids might have about vocations. Most of these questions are the same I hear and answer time and time again. And yet this question is one I am always happy to elaborate on. Why can't a priest get married? Why would a man choose celibacy over marriage?

Admittedly, my answer has changed over time- and I am sure it will continue to develop further. When I first discerned the priesthood and entered the Seminary out of high school, I understood the message from St. Paul, “The unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:32b) The general idea was that by choosing to be unmarried, one could dedicate themselves more fully to prayer and the service of God and his Church. Simple enough, but this understanding does not do justice to the clerical state of celibacy.

Is the married person unable to serve the Lord as well as a celibate? Certainly not! I would wager that some of the holiest people I know have been spouses, mothers and fathers. The sacrament of marriage does not create some kind of barrier or obstacle for the married person's relationship with God. On the contrary, Paul affirms that both states of life are charisms, gifts from God. (1 Cor. 7:7) Marriage itself is a means of grace and holiness for the wedded persons.

Why, then, is there a distinction within the clerical state today? If marriage is not an obstacle to holiness, why is it ordinarily separated from the priesthood in the Latin Catholic Church? My answer now is this: The priesthood is a role which requires sacrifice. The greater the sacrifice offered to God, the more deeply a man enters into the mystery of Christ's priesthood, the closer he is to the Heart of Jesus Himself.

As I progress through my early twenties, the sacrifice of celibacy means something more to me than it did at eighteen. My friends and peers are falling in love, getting engaged, married, and having children all around me. Within myself, I recognize the desire for fatherhood. When I hold a friend's infants, or play catch with their toddlers, I see a kind of joy which I know I am missing out on. This same joy is the sacrifice I have to offer to the Lord within the priesthood.

The sacrifice of my life can't just be bachelorhood, grumpy misogyny, or selfish relief that I don't have to change diapers. A sacrifice like that would be banal and pathetic. Like the unfavorable sacrifice of Cain, celibacy offered begrudgingly would not please the Lord so much as the generous gift of one's true yearnings.

So, how do I answer the fifth graders? My answer today is that I think marriage and fatherhood are beautiful, but God is asking me to give Him a beautiful sacrifice. To be unmarried is difficult. Yet it is a sacrifice that the celibate man offers every day. And fortunately, in return for that beautiful sacrifice, God often blesses the priest with His own intimate love and an abundance of spiritual children.

Pray for me, brothers and sisters, that I may be worthy to offer this sacrifice and receive this gift. Pray that all bishops, priests, seminarians, and those committed to celibacy will be kept strong through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse.

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