There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
1 Corinthians 12, 5

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Why priestly celibacy?

Preaching at St Mary’s College, Oscott on the solemnity of the Ascension, Bishop Mark Davies gave the following homily on priestly celibacy.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8).

Today I want to reflect with you, men preparing for the priesthood, on how we are called to be such witnesses of Christ by the consecration of our lives in apostolic celibacy.

Pope Benedict reminds us that this feast of the Ascension of the Lord is not a feast of Christ’s “absence” or “disappearance.” Rather, the Holy Father reflects, this mystery urges us: “to consolidate our faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in history: without him we can do nothing effective in our life or our apostolate.” The Church was not born and does not live, Pope Benedict explains, “to compensate for the absence of her Lord who has “disappeared” but on the contrary finds the reason for her existence and mission in the invisible presence of Jesus, a presence working through the power of his Spirit” (24th May 2009). 

In a similar way celibacy, by which we seek to give our whole lives in the Priesthood, might also be seen as an “absence”, a “void” which leaves us without the possibility of marriage. Yet it is in reality a radical self-gift by which we give ourselves completely to Christ and make ourselves totally available to him for the service of His Church. It is a life to be lived, as the Gospel and the Catechism emphasises “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” (CCC 1579). It must be a life filled with Christ or it would, indeed, be an empty life. This is a life which constantly points, as does the celebration of this day, towards Heaven, to the resurrection and to the life of the world to come.  In a culture today which often seeks to live as if God and eternity do not exist, this witness of celibacy is more needful than ever. As Pope Benedict said at the end of the “Year for Priests,” “celibacy is an anticipation, a foretaste of the future,, made possible by the grace of the Lord who draws us to himself and anticipates the world of the resurrection.” If this world alone were sufficient we would close the doors to the greatness of our existence. But the meaning of celibacy as an anticipation of the future, the Holy Father declared, “is to open these doors, to make the world greater, to show the reality of the future which should be lived by us as already present” (Vigil in St. Peter’s Square 10th June 2010).  In this way, we can see our call to celibacy in the light of the Ascension of the Lord and its profound meaning.

In those remarkable conversations with priests which Pope Benedict has engaged in, he speaks of “the scandal” of celibacy, the scandal of a life, the scandal of a witness you seek to embrace. “For the agnostic world,” he says, “the world in which God does not enter” this is a very great scandal. The celibacy of the Catholic Priesthood lived in its integrity “is a great sign of faith, of the presence of God in the world” (10th June 2010). It has been a hallmark of the Catholic Priesthood which never ceases to draw the fascination of the world. Yet this way of life would be unthinkable and unimaginable without Christ. “It exists because Christ, who makes it possible, exists” (Cardinal Hummes, reflections on 40th Anniversary of “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus”). And Christ exists not, we recall today, as an historical memory for those who must wonder “what would Jesus have done?” No! He is the Lord who is truly present, loving and redeeming us now.  To this the celibacy of the Catholic Priest gives a constant witness.

Sometimes people will say to you celibacy is an unnecessary imposition, and it is often easier to explain celibacy on grounds of practicality. Yet this celibate life, this gift of self, rests on grounds of faith. Where faith is lacking, where the perspective of the Ascension and of Eternity is lost, celibacy would indeed seem to be an incomprehensible imposition by ecclesiastical authority. But as Pope Paul wrote in the Encyclical Letter he promised the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council he would write powerfully affirming it as a priceless gift, priestly celibacy is a brilliant jewel, guarded by the Church for centuries. Pope Paul wrote: “by a daily dying to himself and by giving up the legitimate love of a family of his own for the love of Christ and of his Kingdom, the priest will find the glory of an exceedingly rich and fruitful life in Christ …” An element of real sacrifice is, of course, part of every Christian vocation, not least the vocation of marriage and the family.  From my own experience, and the experience of countless generations of priests, the sacrifice involved in celibacy seems small compared with the joy of a gift which allows us to give the whole of our lives to Christ as a priest. 

You often hear voices calling for an end to priestly celibacy as it has been lived in the Catholic Church. From my own reading of history, those voices have never been lacking. Yet this is precisely because the witness to which we are called is a radical one. I would ask you always to question their view not so much of celibacy but of the Priesthood itself. When we reflect on the Priesthood as it has been taught and lived by the Church and witnessed to in the lives of countless saints the giving of a life, of my life and yours, seems very little. St. John Vianney, our patron, was overwhelmed by the greatness of this gift and the task entrusted to a human creature, “How great is a priest,” he would say, “If he realised what he is, he would die not of fear but out of love …only in heaven will the priest fully realise what he is.” When we recognise the reality of the Priesthood we would wish to give all of ourselves, all of our lives in return knowing this would never be enough.

We know celibacy is not demanded of the Priesthood by its nature yet we also see through the centuries that this intimate connection of celibacy and the priesthood is not a contrived one. Celibacy was not an arbitrary imposition of an ecclesiastical law arising from historical conditions which have now passed. The councils which enacted laws of celibacy in the earliest centuries, of perfect continence for the clergy, had no doubt that they were acting on an apostolic tradition and they explicitly declared this. The Popes of our own time have reaffirmed the celibate Priesthood in powerful and moving terms. We think of Blessed John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II, and our present Holy Father Pope Benedict. This is, I believe, because the witness of the celibate Priesthood is not something less needed today: it is more needed than ever before! Our Lord tells us on this day of the Ascension: “when the Holy Spirit comes on you, then you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  In all that apostolic celibacy gives witness to yesterday and today may we be such witnesses, joyful witnesses, to the end of our lives. Amen.