Priestly Celibacy
Christ's Gift to the World

Chapter 1: The Apostles Were Celibates

Despite the fact that Peter's mother-in-law is mentioned in the synoptic Gospels (Mt 8:14, Mk 1:30, Lk 4:38), we have good reason to believe that Peter and the other apostles adopted a life of celibacy. As Pope John Paul II stated: "According to the Gospel, it appears that the Twelve, destined to be the first to share in his priesthood, renounced family life in order to follow him" (General Audience 17 July 1993).

St. Jerome once guessed that Peter's wife must have died before he left home and followed Christ (Adv. Jovinianum, PL 23, 246; see Christian Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy 67). But Jerome lived 300 years after the Gospel events (d. 420), and he gives no proofs or references. His solution appears to be too neat - wishful thinking designed to avoid a problem. To be honest, neither the Gospels nor other historical records available to us satisfy our curiosity about Peter and his family. But the Gospels give us a hint: Peter couldn't forget how he had left his home and closed the door behind him. It had not been easy: "We have left all we own to become your followers" (Lk 18:28). That deed done, it was branded forever in his memory.

The Itinerant Life Style of the Apostles Excluded Marriage

The homeless lifestyle of the apostles traveling with Christ practically crowded out thoughts about marriage and family life. "Come, follow me," Jesus said very simply to Peter and Andrew as they were casting their nets. "I will make you fishers of men" (Mt 4:19). They did exactly that: leaving their nets they followed Him. That would be quite unusual if they intended to support a family.

Going on from there, Christ saw James and John, also fishermen. Jesus called them too, and "immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him" (Mt 4:22). We see a pattern developing, of disciples who quit their former jobs when they followed Christ. By so doing they practically abandoned thoughts of being breadwinners for a family.

Matthew was sitting in his tax collector's booth when Christ motioned: "Follow me." Matthew rose and followed Him (Mt 9:9). From the gospel story, we can't even be sure that Matthew locked up the cash and closed the door behind him. He could hardly behave like that if he intended to lead a normal family life.

Christ eventually filled out the band to twelve whom He then called apostles (Lk 6:12-16). This initial band traveled throughout Galilee preaching the good news of the kingdom. Their home was the road, their income alms. Judas was in charge of the common purse. We have no evidence that he was sending money to the former homes of the apostles to support families left behind.

Christ instructed the apostles to live frugally: "Provide yourselves with neither gold nor silver nor copper in your belts; no traveling bag, no change of shirt, no sandals, no walking staff. The workman, after all, is worth his keep" (Mt 10:9-10). Christ made no provision here, for family support.

"Look for a worthy person in every town or village you come to and stay with him until you leave" (Mt 10:11). Normally, husbands tell their wives about their whereabouts. They don't just sleep anywhere. Wives would worry about that. Husbands and fathers should be breadwinners for the home, should educate their children; and wives should cook for them, do their laundry, keep the house in order. Apparently Jesus did not expect the apostles to perform responsibilities of a husband and father while living with Himself in a select inner circle. Their lifestyle was not compatible with duties of a husband and father.

At the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee Jesus and His disciples had been invited, but nothing is said about wives of these disciples. Cana is not far from Capharnaum - about 20 miles - where Christ healed the mother-in-law of Peter. Had Peter and other apostles been living with a wife and children, we might expect John to mention their presence at the feast, the one at which the wine ran out.

In John Chapter 4 we read that Jesus sat down at Jacob's well in the town of Sichar. He was tired from the journey, a walk of over 20 miles, from the depression of the Jordan River, up into the hill country. The apostles left him at the well while they went to town to shop for the noon meal. The episode lifts the curtain on the lifestyle of this itinerant group: the apostles did the shopping for food, and prepared the meals. No wives of the apostles were in the picture.

It was the ambitious mother of James and John who knelt down before Jesus to ask that her sons might sit, one at His right, the other at His left, in His kingdom (Mt 20:21). When the other ten heard about it, they were indignant. We can imagine what a ruckus this might have caused if wives of the apostles were involved, and if Christ would have to calm them down. We see no signs of wifely concern about apostles in this episode nor in any passage of the four Gospel accounts.

A rich young man was told: "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Lk 18:22). That is not the kind of advice one ought to give to a man preparing for marriage, or to a husband and father who must care for a family.

At that point Peter spoke up, reminding Christ that they had actually done what the rich young man had failed to do. Peter said to Jesus: "We have left all we had to follow you." Christ then gave explicit approval to what people like Peter had done:

I tell you the truth: no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life (Lk 18:29-30).

These are hard words for us to understand. How could Jesus approve of such a thing? The passage is significant: it states that no one who has left home or wife for the Gospel will go unrewarded. Luke wrote down what he had researched carefully. He would hardly have written this had he not been certain that Jesus approved leaving wives behind when He calls apostles to a life of total commitment. Perhaps our understanding of the call to the priesthood falls short of the exacting and absolute expectations which Christ lays down for priests.

No Record of Wives and Children at the Last Supper

The Passover meal had been instituted as a family feast. We read in the Book of Exodus that this was to be a "family" meal (Ex 12:21). The children present were to put the question: "What does this rite of yours mean?" The elders were then to respond: "This is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord ..." (Ex 12: 26,27). But the Gospel narrative tells nothing about families and children of apostles at the final Passover which Christ celebrated before His death and resurrection.

Jesus instructs the disciples to make the arrangements for the meal with His closed circle of chosen followers. Their families, if they had families, were apparently not to be invited. He had in mind to ordain them there as priests. We read between the Gospel lines here, I believe, that priests of the New Testament were already characterized at the Last Supper as belonging to the order of Melchizedek - separated from conjugal life by the consecration of the priesthood.

The Apostles Felt That They Had Lost Everything When Christ Died

Perhaps the abandonment of family life helps to explain the attitude of the apostles at the time of Christ's passion and death. They had given their all for life with Jesus. Now it turned out that He was a tragic failure. And they were completely at a loss. They had renounced their property and their homes, also parents, wife and children if they had such.

Peter, following Christ at a distance, was petrified with fear when a maid servant pointed an accusing finger at him: "You also were with Jesus the Galilean" (Mt 26:69). Others accused him as well. Peter then fell back into what must have been an old habit: cursing and swearing. (My pastor used to say that Peter didn't learn how to swear that night for the first time; he must have done that before.) By this kind of swagger he sought to bluff his way out of danger and ridicule. For him the end of the world had arrived. Perhaps he thought to himself: "What would my wife say now, if I try to sneak back home like this?" And the other apostles might have had a similar attack of disappointment and depression. But that any of them went home to consult with a family is nowhere written in the Gospel.

John's version of events after the resurrection reveals interesting details, suggesting that the Apostles lived a common life. Mary Magdalene, when she saw the empty tomb, ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved. Where were these two living, so that Mary Magdalene could find them so easily in the faint glow of the morning dawn? At any rate, she found them. The two then left their lodging and ran to the tomb. After they had seen the empty tomb and the wrapping linen neatly folded there, they "returned home" (John 20:10). Home?Well, "back to themselves" literally. "Pros h'autous" reads the Greek, which St. Jerome translates "ad semetipsos." Apparently the apostles shared living quarters for men only, whereas the women lived apart. Peter was, therefore, not living with his family, if he had a family.

The above coverage is incomplete, but the episodes cited indicate that it was quite impractical, even impossible, for the apostles to pursue family life after they had freely chosen to follow Christ and to give Him their all.

Why didn't the Gospels reveal more about Peter and his family situation? May I propose a solution - my guess rather than a researched answer: perhaps the idea of leaving one's family in order to follow Christ as an apostle would have been too great a shock for the general public and the uninitiated who would read the Gospel. The news was kept to the inner circle of believers, who could bear to believe that Christ would approve such a thing.

Next Page: Chapter 2: The Priestly Character
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