Priestly Celibacy
Christ's Gift to the World

Chapter 2: The Priestly Character

The insight of Pope John Paul II that a logical connection exists between the priesthood and celibacy (Wednesday Audience, 17 July 1993) challenges us to reflect why this should be.

This tireless Pope - in journeys often, in daily encounters with high level visitors, composer of celebrated Encyclicals, appointer of bishops, orator of ten thousand homilies, leader of the world in prayer, champion of love for the Virgin - this man cannot be unaware of the weight which the priesthood presses upon human shoulders; of the challenging duties assumed by men who take the Church as their Bride by becoming priests.

It is said that an elderly Cardinal admonished our present Pope on the eve of his election: Tomorrow you may be called upon to be Pope. Do you have it in you to love the Church as she is? As she really exists in our world, with her young and old, her sick and robust, her faithful and not-so-faithful; Romans and Orthodox; those who will acclaim you and those who will protest; those who speak your language and follow your customs, and those whose manners are alien to your accustomed lifestyle? Can you love them all? Will you carry them all in your heart? He paused. Wojtyla had listened with bowed head. When he turned to speak, the visitor motioned for silence and departed.

The transformation of Wojtyla into Pope John Paul II on the next day, 22 October 1978, was not visible to the eye; but God put His spiritual seal of the Papacy on him when he accepted the election. And quite as unseen is the spiritual transformation of an one who becomes a priest under the imposed hands of a bishop. The Spirit brands the soul with His fire, burning into it the configuration of another Christ. Bolts of lightning smashed into stone tables and burnt therein the words of the Ten Commandments in De Mill's famous dramatization. And a spiritual branding iron marks a priest forever when the bishop imposes hands and speaks the words of ordination. "If anyone shall say that in the three sacraments, namely baptism, confirmation, and orders, there is not imprinted on the soul a sign, that is, a certain spiritual and indelible mark, on account of which they cannot be repeated, let him be anathema" (Trent, March 3, 1547; DS 852).

When the Spirit overshadowed Mary at the Annunciation, He brought with Him creative designs. Mary agreed to His proposal: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word." The Spirit then worked with power, and she became the mother of the God-man. A new reality had come into our cosmos.

When the bishop stands over the kneeling man to be ordained, and invokes the working of the Spirit as he imposes his hands, the Spirit works with power again. Before the Bishop lifts his hands, the priestly character is imprinted on the man's soul. Into it is sculptured the configuration of Christ the priest. He is a new man, a priest. "Our ordination is irrevocably stamped on the very core of our personality as something awesomely indelible, something which can in an ineffable manner be revived into new life!" (Pope Paul VI, Feb. ;10, 1978; The Pope Speaks 1978, p. 121).

Michelangelo saw before him the outlines of a peerless block of marble, but within he saw a finished Pieta. Deftly he chipped away the appendages until the image was freed - until Mary pondering the mystery of the Crucified on her lap could be seen by others. So too, the priest is formed when God frees him of encumbrances and sculpts him firmly into an individual sacerdos secundum ordinem Melchizedek.

Thereafter the priest impersonates Christ, and he takes the Church as his Bride. His celibacy is a manner of expressing his new exclusive love for the Church. He imitates the celibate Christ who had taken the Church to be His Bride. The ordained priest gives himself unselfishly to the Church in exclusive love, to have and to hold, to love and to sustain.

Empowered henceforward to act in the person of Christ, the priest offers the Sacrifice, saying over the bread and wine: "This is my body, this is my blood." Christ speaks when he speaks. Christians sense the power of the priest at Mass when they ask him to pray for their needs; when they offer him a Mass stipend for their intention. If ever the prayer of a man on earth is heard in heaven, it is the prayer of the priest at Mass, which is guaranteed to be rehearsed in the presence of the Almighty.

When the priest says, "I absolve you from your sins," Christ annihilates the sins. When the priest witnesses a marriage, Christ joins husband and wife in an insoluble and holy union.

A priest's ordination builds a ladder from earth into heaven. It is another ladder of Jacob. Jacob, when he slept with his head on a stone in Bethel, saw a ladder at whose top the Lord stood and spoke to him: "I am the Lord ... I am with you, and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land" (Gen 28:15). Twenty years later, when a much wiser Jacob returned to Bethel with his wives and children, he recognized that the Lord had never left him alone; "who has been with me wherever I have gone" (Gen 34:3). Every priest who returns to his Bethel - to his memorable encounter with the Lord at ordination - knows how the heart of Jacob felt at that moment.

The character imprinted by ordination is a fountain of living water welling up in the priest's soul. Wherever he goes, his fountain of blessing goes with him. Saint John Chrysostom tells what is expected of him:

He requires of these men those virtues which are especially useful and even necessary if they are to bear the burdens of many. For the man who is kindly, modest, merciful and just will not keep his good works to himself but will see to it that these admirable fountains send out their streams for the good of others (Homily 15; Office of Readings, 20th Sunday).

The sheer goodness of a priest is a cornucopia nourishing new goodness in people around him. The priest - spiritual father - sees excellence born into the lives of his people. And more. Chrysostom reminds the servant of the Gospel that he is salt; that being salt of the earth is a great challenge:

When they hear the words: "When they curse you and persecute you and accuse you of every evil," they may be afraid to come forward. Therefore (Christ) says: "Unless you are prepared for that sort of thing, it is in vain that I have chosen you. Curses shall necessarily be your lot but they shall not harm you and will simply be a testimony to your constancy. If through fear, however, you fail to show the forcefulness your mission demands, your lot will be much worse, for all will speak evil of you and despise you. That is what being trampled by men's feet means (Ibid.).

Like it or not, the priest is called to be salt - to preserve us from corruption by his sting and tang. This calls for "forcefulness" in his mission. But if he prefers to be other than salt, he degrades his own character; he thereby makes himself useless, to be cast out by others and trampled underfoot.

Together with the imprinting of the priestly character, the Spirit grants certain entitlements to the man He has reshaped. He confers on him not only an addition of sanctifying grace to embellish his image before the angels; He also confers on him new powers, plus spiritual health and vigor proper to a priest, which qualifies him to carry out exalted duties (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Suppl. 37.5).

Christ on the cross could scarcely contain His joy in the newfound powers He was meriting there. According to the Psalms He exalted in Spirit as He contemplated His amplified powers: I will praise God's name with a song; I will glorify him with thanksgiving ... Let the heavens and the earth give him praise, the sea and all its living creatures. (Ps 22).

Christ earnestly enjoined upon His Apostles at the Last Supper that they celebrate Mass: "Do this in memory of me." His sacrifice should never cease. "From the rising of the sun to the going down thereof, my name is great among the nations; and everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name" Malachi 1:11).

Weak in nature though priests surely are, Christ prays for them that they be consecrated, set aside for spiritual purposes.

Consecrate them by means of truth ...
Your word is truth...
I consecrate myself for their sakes now,
that they may be consecrated in truth (Jn 17:17,19).

Christ viewed His final priestly sacrifice as the great culmination of His life on earth. "I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!"(Lk 12:50). And when He was about to complete His priesthood in action, He prayed for heavenly assistance to capacitate Him for the priestly performance: "Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but thine be done" (Lk 22:42). His human nature recoiled at the titanic struggle ahead, and so He prayed for divine help to see Him through. The Father responded by sending an angel who strengthened Him (Lk 22:43). When He rose from His knees, he was ready.

Some of the men whom bishops ordain become martyrs, sealing their faith with their blood. Most priests enjoy ministries with less heroic effort. But all priests labor and rejoice in the task of dispensing the goods of salvation.

The poet who composed the Veni Sancte Spiritus sings about the gifts which Christ dispenses through His Spirit. Which Christ now dispenses through His priests. The Spirit sheds light where there is darkness. He is father to the poor; dispenser of gifts, light of the heart. He is consoler blest, abiding guest, sweet refreshment, sweet repose. He is rest in labor, coolness in heat, solace for tears. His light beams joy, clears away filth and dirt, refreshes the soul with dew. Wounds of sin He heals with grace, stubbornness He renders flexible, dissension He burns away. Our lives on earth He cultivates into a garden of virtues fit for heaven. All this Christ does through His Spirit, via the ministry of priests.

Why celibate? Because Christ began the tradition.

Next Page: Chapter 4: The Celibate Priest Is At Your Service
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