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Priestly Celibacy

(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The combined published and recorded words of Father Gerald amount to several hundred thousand words, perhaps a million or more. And yet one of the remarkable features of all this public discourse, there is relatively little on the subject of priestly chastity or celibacy.

It cannot be that he was not painfully conscious of the problem that celibacy poses in the life of a priest. His years of experience with "priests in trouble" were enough to convince him, as he admitted, that fidelity to his celibate commitment makes a heavy, sometimes heroic, demand on the generosity of one who wants to remain faithful to the Christ Who ordained him. One reason for the relative silence on this subject was perhaps the realization that we are here dealing with a very delicate matter, so delicate, in fact, that it should not be lightly treated in public. Moreover, as those who knew Father Gerald best can testify, he did often deal with chastity among priests, but in a manner that would be most beneficial to the persons in question, namely in private and with the protection of confidentiality.

There was some value in making these preliminary observations. At least they will serve the purpose of emphasizing the profound wisdom of Father Gerald's insights on an issue that, thanks to the media, is one of the most agitated in the Catholic Church today.

Church's Teaching

Father Gerald began with the premise that marriage and conjugal love are beautiful and pleasing to God. If Christ invites some people to follow Him in consecrated chastity, "it is not that there is anything unholy about married life; on the contrary, it is a very, very holy state. The fact that people abuse it does not change God's plan; parents, husband and wife, should themselves be angels, and there is nothing unholy, in the least way unholy, in the way God has chosen by human love incorporated with divine love to bring beautiful souls into this world. (J-8, p. 314).

This deserves to be stressed, because part of the propaganda against celibacy is the charge that, somehow, the Church is Manichaean in her attitude toward sex. She forbids priests in the Roman Rite to marry, so the critics claim, because marriage in her eyes in unclean.

But the Church's stand on celibacy is not based on a lie. It is founded on a truth, revealed truth; which also explains why the Church is so adamant. "We live in a world that challenges on every level the ideal and the virtue, the angelic virtue of chastity." It is not surprising, then, that "there is pressure on Rome at all times for the lifting of the discipline of chastity, absolute chastity. Rome has been petitioned in our own lifetime from several different parts of the world for the elimination of the discipline of priestly celibacy. And yet the Church will not take this step," in spite of the pressure and notwithstanding the failure of not a few priests to live up to their celibate commitment. (D-265, 266).

The basis for the Church's teaching on priestly celibacy is the unique example of Christ, the great High Priest, and His teaching about the sacrifice of marriage "for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 19:12).

Source of Priestly Chastity

If the example and teaching of the Savior during His visible stay on earth are the historic ground for the Church's discipline on celibacy, the grace that comes from Christ in the Holy Eucharist sustains the priest in his faithfulness to a lifetime of celibacy.

Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the very source of our purity, the source of our strength, which makes it possible for a human soul to lift itself. We are offered in exchange for the renunciation of human love and human consolation, we are offered not angelic love, we are offered Divine Love. We are offered the ultimate love of the human entity. Any human rational relation that is to attain to happiness, is going to attain to happiness in God, in God and in God alone. (C-106).

Faith tells the priest that in the Blessed Sacrament is really, truly and substantially present the living Son of God in human form.

As a matter of fact, here is heaven, a veiled heaven, here is the actuality of a Divine Lover. Now our hearts are built to love, and one of the fruitful causes of defection in the priesthood, is the failure to fill up the vacuum that is created by the vow of chastity with another love. A man is bound to love something, he may deny it, but ordinarily that type of man who denies the necessity of love in his life, will seek the most terrible and ugly of all loves which is the love of his own ego, the love of self. A man who loves something and where we have pledged ourselves not to give our hearts to creatures at least in that most intimate and strong love that the chords of Adam draws towards, the marriage union, we must sublimate our hearts into a love and a love that is offered us, a legitimate love for the priest's heart is the Blessed Sacrament, Our Lord. (D-219, 220).

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of elevating one's affections above earthly desires and center them on Christ, present in the Eucharist, as a condition for celibate fidelity. "If a priest loves the Blessed Sacrament enough, he will sacrifice," besides other virtues, "the attractiveness of human love."

At this point, Father Gerald told an anecdote that forcefully brings out the lesson he wants to teach others. "When I was a young priest," he recalled, "I made it a practice in parish life, whenever I married a couple -- I married many attractive young couples -- I always would slip around afterwards to the back of the tabernacle and kiss the tabernacle and thank God that He had not given my heart to a creature but to Himself." (D-222). If this self-disclosure tells us something about the person who revealed it, it tells us more about the truth he was trying to convey.

Implicit in this insistence on cultivating a deep personal love for Christ is a deep-seated tendency in human nature that needs to be supernaturalized.

Man was made to adore and in human love there is a tendency to exaggerate into adoration, love of creature for creature. Now here is where we have an advantage over those in other walks of life. Our brothers and sisters who are married in the world they must love with a very supreme love their life-partners and they must be careful, if their partner is a fine Christian product, they have to be careful not to adore. We don't have to take that precaution, in loving Christ we can adore, we must adore, we should adore, He is the perfection of the God-head revealed to men in human form. Here is a perfect lover, here is a perfect companion, here is a perfect comrade for love. And you cannot love Him too much, you cannot adore Him too much, you cannot serve Him too perfectly, you cannot rely upon Him too much, He will never fail you. You can fail Him, I can fail Him, we can fail Him, but He will never fail us. (D-267, 268).

There is more implied here than a bit of psychology. It is not only that by raising his mind and heart to God, a priest sublimates his natural appetites and thus masters his bodily passions.

Locked up in this recommendation in capsule form is the Church's two millennia of teaching. St. Augustine's prayer, "Thou hast made us for thyself, 0 Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee," is literally true. And it can be proved to be true from experience, even in this life: that a person whose faith is strong enough will find fulfillment in the love of God beyond any satisfaction that the love of creatures can provide.

Along with a strong attachment to the person of Christ and ardent devotion to the Real Presence, a life of celibacy needs the daily nourishment that comes from receiving the Body and Blood of the Savior.

We have undertaken to sacrifice the comforts of home life, we, like Joseph, found ourselves in the situation that demands of us absolute integrity, absolute holiness of life. There is no use to circumvent the truth, we are called upon to live the life of angels. And that is why the Son of God has given us the bread of angels, that is why He pours in every Holy Communion we receive, He pours into our poor, animal, lusting bodies His Divine angelic virginity. He gives us a blood transfusion, not of a pint, but of the fullness of His own Body and His own Blood, in order to strengthen us, in order to incorporate us into His own holiness. And in our battle to maintain this heroic virtue, this virtue that calls in most instances for men, for heroic living, this virtue that makes, by reason of the faith of our people in us, us honored above all other men, we must make use of this help of God, we must make use of this Divine auxilium. (D-266).

As by now centuries of priestly experience has shown, to remain constant in consecrated chastity requires superhuman power of detachment from creatures and attachment to God. Only supernatural means, such as the Sacrament of the Eucharist provides, are adequate to meet this superhuman need.

The Inspiration of Mary and Joseph

If they primary source of grace to maintain oneself chaste is the Holy Eucharist, as Presence, Communion and Sacrifice, the corresponding source of inspiration is devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.

In one sentence, priests are told that, "Here is a simplification for holy living, for virginal living, for chaste living, to live under the gaze of our Blessed Mother."

This living under the gaze of Mary is no poetic effusion. It is stark reality, as by now thousands of priests have faithfully done and immensely benefited themselves and the Church from, the practice. Underlying the special devotion to Mary that should characterize priests more than anyone else in the Church is the comparison, based on faith, between Mary's role in the Incarnation and the priest's role in making possible the Holy Eucharist.

It was, indeed, ineffable that God should have chosen to be conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, "That God should do this for one chosen individual, that He should come using divine power and the Blood of the Lamb, that He should do this for a single soul is hardly conceivable." But what happened at Nazareth and Bethlehem was only a foreshadowing of more marvels still to come. The divine plan was still more universal.

God is infinite and He not only would take a single creature and grant her the privilege of giving of her flesh and blood that the Son of God might live on earth, walk on earth clothed in our humanity, like unto us in all save sin, but here is the miracle, the mystery miracle in the Catholic Church: the extension of the mystery of the divine Incarnation, not through the stainless Mother of God, but now in time through you and through me, dear Fathers.
God willed to deal through time, if I might say so with reverence, not with the will of the Immaculate, but with your will and my will.
A priest, sinful man, would thus pave the way for Christ, the Son of God, the stainless Man of God, to live and work and absolve and pray to His Father and intercede for man unto the end of time. Therefore, what Mary did once in the Incarnation, we have the privilege of doing all through the centuries, through the waves of the ocean of time. (J-8, 24).

Of course, Mary was the all-holy Mother of God, whereas priests are, with emphasis, sin-laden servants of the Lord. But she recognizes, better than anyone under God, the dignity of her Son's priests, and the importance of their chastity -- to be modeled on hers. She wants them to be fruitful in spiritual offspring, comparable to her own supernatural fecundity. After the example of Mary, "so the priest, day by day brings forth Jesus. He is fruitful in virginity and he is fruitful in proportion to his virginity. Where is the Church most loved? Where are her priests most distinguished in the holiness of their living?" Where they are most Marian in their practice of chastity. "Par excellence, by choice, by predilection the Son of God wishes to be born of virgin bodies and virgin souls." (D-265).

After the Mother of God, a priest's highest inspiration should be Mary's chaste spouse, St. Joseph. What endears the Foster-Father of Jesus to priests is the sublime example he gave of living a virginal life and thus cooperating in a unique way in the foundations of Christianity.

There are numerous points of contact and similarity between the life of a priest and the life of Joseph as the chaste Guardian of the Virgin and the putative father of the Son of God. And all the similarities rest on the basic fact that Joseph lived a life of consecrated chastity.

The Priest of God, like Joseph, is called to a special manner of life, to a virgin love and a virgin life in the company and companionship of Jesus and Mary. Joseph stands before him as a shining example of that tender yet strong and energetic character that should be the goal of his priestly training. Joseph held Jesus day by day in his strong pure hands: so too, does the Priest. Joseph guarded the stainless honor of God's Own Spouse, the Blessed Virgin; a priest in active service guards first the honor of his own soul espoused to God, and then as well the souls, the sweet, innocent souls of many, many of the virgin spouses of God's Spirit. (A Holy Hour for Seminarians).

St. Joseph proves what every priest needs to believe, that what is impossible to nature is possible with grace; that first as Mary was both Virgin and Mother, so Joseph was both Virgin and Spouse. Consecrated chastity is beyond the powers of nature; it is the achievement of God. But what God worked in the Spouse of Mary, He can also accomplish in those dedicated to her Son, provided, like Mary, they believe that nothing is impossible with God.

Safeguards of Chastity

Consistent with his emphasis on the human will and the importance he attached to freedom, Father Gerald told priests that chastity must be worked at to be achieved. You do not preserve your celibacy merely by prayer or sublime motivation. "Guard your chastity," he said. "You live in a world which is growing daily more and more pagan, and worse than pagan in its positive immodesty."

What is modesty? "Modesty is a distinctively Christian virtue, although you will find the instinct of it in nature. But modesty comes from a recognition of original sin. It does not deny the beauty of a creature; we proclaim it. Man is in the image of God, man and woman. No wonder nature is attractive; it is the image of God. But we must learn, in the midst of the beauty and attractiveness of the world, to lift the eyes of our soul and fasten and feed them upon an eternal and most consoling truth," the beauty of the uncreated God, Who made His creatures so beautiful.

The first safeguard of chastity, therefore, is the practice of Christian modesty by moderating the internal and external movements according to one's station in life, here as a priest. Above all a priest must keep modesty of the eyes, which are the window of the soul. He must realize that, having a fallen human nature, he cannot read, or watch, or look at anything or anyone that appeals to him, without danger to his celibate consecration.

Along with modesty goes reverence for one's own and other people's bodies. "We must learn to respect the temples of the Holy Ghost." (E-55). Reverence will incline us to show honor and respect for persons because of the dignity they all possess. Their bodies, even when naturally unattractive are shrines of the Holy Trinity; and no matter how attractive, are as nothing compared to the ravishing beauty of the God Who made them. In either case, priests must "remember that we are dedicated not to the shadow of Divine Beauty, which is in man, but to the reality of Divine Beauty which is in Jesus Christ." To keep ourselves chaste, "we must live by faith, and by faith sublimate our souls to the Divine Beauty that death will reveal to us." (E-55).

Finally and summarily, to maintain one's celibacy, a priest has to develop a strong spiritual life. This is more than the casual statement of the fact might indicate.

As Father Gerald viewed the service of God, the spirit of man under the influence of grace was not only on the highest level among human possessions, but it dominated man's lower powers. What occasioned the long passages that follow was a report in the pubic press, quoting some Catholic authority to the effect that it is not enough to provide for a man's spiritual and physical life. He also had an emotional life to be cared for. With this, Father Gerald strongly disagreed.

If a man's spiritual life is what it ought to be, it dominates his emotional life! A man's spiritual life that does not dominate his emotional life is worth nothing. God gave us an immortal soul in the primacy of the spirit. And if a man's soul belongs to God, then his emotional life will be subordinated, and he will dominate his passions as did St. Paul and all the other saints of God! St. Augustine knew the sweetness of the arms of a woman, but he broke that embracement. By what? By his spiritual life! By the correspondence of his soul to grace! (E-59).

By the spiritual life is meant living in such a way that "God becomes uppermost in a soul." Then, a person "has that with which to dominate." Then grace is at work to master fallen nature. But "if he cannot dominate his emotional life, if he cannot dominate his lust for women," then it must be said "he has not a dominant spiritual life. He does not belong body and soul to Christ. And the only security for a man, in the priesthood or in the laity, for a man to save his soul, is that Christ the Son of God be dominant in his life." (E-59).

If we want to know what power the spirit, under grace, has over nature, look at St. Paul, who said, "I live, no not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Galatians 2:20). St. Paul knew what he was talking about. He knew our emotional life, "I find the law of my members striving against the law of my mind, and trying to captivate me in sin. But I am what I am by the grace of God" (Romans 7:22-23, I Corinthians 15:10).

The lesson for the preservation of chastity is plain. As a man labors to make Christ dominant in his life, God will give him the strength, especially through the Eucharist, to dominate his passions.

When a man has a valid and authentic spiritual life, if that dominates his soul, then he will be saved by the grace of God. You cannot separate in a living human entity soul and body and mind and heart. One is going to dominate, and it is our philosophy that a man will find security by bringing his soul and anchoring it here at the feet of Jesus, Who is in the world for that very purpose: that men may find here, in the Shadow of the Rock, the peace and the calm and the shade and the rest. And like Moses, they may strike that Rock and out will gush the Precious Blood in the daily Mass for the inebriation for our souls with a higher inebriation than any creature or created entity can give us. (E-59)

This is not to say there will not be a struggle, or that nature is easily tamed. It does mean, however, that we look in the right place for the power to tame our rebellious nature and that we use the appropriate means. The power needed to remain faithful to the chaste Christ must ultimately come from Christ, as He Himself foretold. "Not everyone," He declared, "can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted" (Matthew 19:11). And among the means by which "it is granted," none are more effective than the graces given by the Savior, when He gives Himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.

Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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