Discerning Priestly Celibacy
Celibacy is always a top concern for men thinking about the priesthood: “I like girls too much to become a priest.” But rest assured that every priest had the same thought before he went to seminary.
Even Pope Francis himself admitted to having to discern celibacy very carefully as a young seminarian:
“I was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle’s wedding… I was surprised by her beauty, her intellectual brilliance… and, well, I was bowled over for quite a while. I kept thinking and thinking about her. When I returned to the seminary after the wedding, I could not pray for over a week because when I tried to do so, the girl appeared in my head. I had to rethink what I was doing.”
If even the Pope had second thoughts about celibacy, you should not be surprised that you yourself might struggle with the issue!
The fact is, no bishop will ordain a man if he doesn’t have a normal sexual attraction to women. That’s the way God made us, and it is an indication that a man is psychologically healthy.
Celibacy isn’t about repressing your sexuality. Rather, it’s about giving up having one’s own family—a wife and children—in order to serve all people. Celibacy means giving oneself wholly to the Bride of Christ, the Church. It’s a radical, supernatural call from God.
The difficulty, of course, is that in American society, celibacy is portrayed as impossible or ridiculous. As Fr. Benedict Groeschel once wrote,
“The media trumpets the message that sex brings happiness. If this were true, we would indeed live in an earthly paradise and the world would be ‘happy valley.’”
But the truth is that there are over 400,000 celibate priests in the world, and the vast majority report great happiness and fulfillment.
Even if you struggle with chastity right now, God can give you the grace to become sexually pure. Don’t let a concern about celibacy prevent you from considering priesthood.
Above all, it is important to see that priestly celibacy isn’t about repressing your sexuality.
Rather celibacy is a declaration that the greatest joys of humanity are not to be found in earthly goods but in union with God in this life and in the next.
Celibacy in Scripture
Giving up Family: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29).
Freedom to Serve: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . . Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . . The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (7:27-34).
Celibacy for the Kingdom: “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” -Matthew (19:11-12)
The emphasis is on the special nature of celibacy, one for which not all men are suited, but one that nevertheless gives glory to “the kingdom of God.”
Am I allowed to date while in the seminary?
The seminary is like the engagement period for a couple: you do not date others if you desire to create a true relationship with your intended. Likewise, to truly prepare for and discern the calling to priesthood in the seminary, you should not be dating.
What if I have been sexually intimate in my past, does that mean I can’t be a priest?
No. But, you must now be in the process of embracing chastity. St. Augustine led a very wild life as a young man, but he gave up his unchaste, sinful ways when he decided to live a fully Catholic life. There must be a significant period of “sexual sobriety” before entering the seminary, usually at least two years.
I am afraid that I wouldn’t be able to remain chaste.
If you ask God, He gives abundant graces to live a chaste life. You of course, must respond to those graces by using them to make chaste choices. As you grow in chastity, as it becomes a habit of your life, you will experience a strengthening, and an ease to being and remaining chaste. Celibacy is a serious undertaking that must be at the forefront of your discernment; it is not for everyone, but it is possible for those who are called.
It seems unnatural to me to live your whole life without sex.
Most men and women are called naturally to the married life. So, obviously, living a celibate, chaste life goes beyond the ordinary; in fact it is a supernatural call from God to live a life of radical love for the Church. Yes, it is a sacrifice, but the rewards are great. Many great saints, religious, monks, nuns, and priests over the centuries have lived very fulfilled and happy lives.
Why can’t priests marry?
“I’m very impatient with some of the pragmatic arguments for celibacy—that it frees up your time and allows you to focus your energy in different ways. I’d rather see celibacy as a kind of irrational, over-the-top, poetic, symbolic expression of the soul in love.” – Fr. Robert Barron
Priests in the Latin Rite forgo their natural right to marry “for the sake of the Kingdom of God,” as Jesus taught His disciples (Mt 19:12). It is a gift from God which opens a man’s heart so that he can embrace all of God’s children in a very powerful way. His healthy and holy inclination to be married and have a family is transformed into a supernatural fatherhood that renders his ministry, if he is faithful, fruitful beyond all expectations.
Other spiritual realities signified by celibacy:
- Celibacy marks the priest as a man consecrated to the service of Christ and the Church. It shows in a concrete way that he is not merely someone who exercises a set of functions or who holds a certain office but that he has been changed on an ontological level by his reception of the sacrament of Orders.
- Celibacy configures the priest more closely to Christ, the great High Priest, who forsook earthly marriage for the sake of the Kingdom and for the sake of uniting himself more perfectly to his heavenly Bride, the Church.
- It is fitting that the priest who offers this same Jesus in sacrifice to the Father, show in his own person (albeit to an imperfect degree) the purity and holiness of his unspotted Victim.
- Celibacy reminds us of heaven, pointing to the coming of the Kingdom when marriage will no longer exist.