Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. After a couple of drinks, the priest gets hungry and orders himself a ham sandwich. “Wow, this ham is really, really good!” the priest says, licking his lips. “I know it’s against your religion and all, rabbi, but—friend to friend—I’ve got to tell you: this is so tasty. What harm could it do? When are you finally going to break down and give it a try?” Without missing a beat, the rabbi answered, “Maybe I’ll have some at your wedding…”
What would you guess is the question a priest gets asked most often? Now, I’ve not done a scientific study of the matter, but near the top of the list—coming from Catholics and non-Catholics alike—is most certainly, “Why can’t priests get married?” (Interestingly, I very rarely get asked the follow up, “Would you want to get married if you could?”…but that’s a discussion for another day.) So let’s take a few minutes to consider that question and explore consecrated celibacy.
Jesus says quite strikingly in the gospel this Sunday that whosoever loves family more than him is not worthy of him. That’s in line with other sayings of the Lord in the gospels: that those who have left behind parents and wives and children and property for the sake of his name will receive a hundredfold in the life to come (Mt.19:29); that there are some who are called to willingly forgo marriage and family for the sake of the kingdom (Mt. 19:12). That at least a few of his followers would be consecrated celibates is clearly, then, part of Jesus’ vision for the Church. And—most serious historians now agree—that the Church’s priests in particular should be celibate is a discipline which goes all the way back to the time of the Apostles. Now, while the celibacy of priests is a discipline and not a doctrine—meaning that it could, theoretically, change—the question remains: Should it change? We can’t answer until we know why it’s there in the first place.
I find that, when folks bring up the topic of priestly celibacy, they generally take one of two approaches. The first is, “How sad! What a pity that you can never have a family of your own. You must be terribly lonely! Boohoo for you.” Can I let you in on something? I’m not lonely…because I’m in a fantastic relationship. I have been for years! It’s with Jesus Christ. I can’t even begin to imagine a more faithful or loving companion. And, like any relationship, this one takes an investment of time and my undivided attention. Husbands and wives are consecrated, by the Sacrament of Matrimony, to an intense intimacy with each other that, with one another and through one another, they might grow closer to Jesus. But consecrated celibates—priests and religious, monks and nuns—are consecrated to an intense intimacy with Jesus himself.
Now, just as the intimate love of Marriage isn’t closed in on itself, but must be open to children and the needs of others, so it also is with celibacy: the celibate’s intimate relationship with Jesus is one into which he or she longs to invite others. As a priest, my relationship with Christ is for you and your sake. In recent months, I’ve rather incredibly come into contact with three couples that have been married more than 70 years. Certainly, after that long together, one can understandably think, “My life doesn’t make sense without you.” So it is, too, with priestly celibacy. My life doesn’t make sense without my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And my life doesn’t make sense without you, his Church, either. But if I’m going to be able to welcome you into this intimacy Jesus has offered me, then I need you to be a little intimate with me.
If people don’t welcome us into their lives and into their families and into their homes—all of which are becoming increasingly rare these days—then we don’t have the opportunity to welcome you into a deeper relationship with Jesus. Invite us in by asking us to talk and pray about your struggles. Approach us to hear your confessions. If you’re worried that priests are lonely, do something about it by inviting us to your house—whether for a special occasion, or a simple meal, or even just for a glass of cold water. What Jesus said to his Apostles holds true for those of us who follow in their footsteps: “Whoever receives you, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me.”
While some folks say, “Poor you without a family!” there are certainly others who say, “No family? Lucky you!” In this age of prolonged adolescence, there are many who would see a priest’s celibacy as attractive. It’s a bachelor’s life, right? No strings attached! Your time and your money are your own to use as you please. Footloose and fancy free! Unfortunately, sometimes we priests take this approach ourselves—seeing our toys, our vacations, our freedom, as perks to compensate for the things we do without.
Similarly, in this age also populated by so many workaholics, we can look at celibacy as a matter not just for fun, but for function. If you aren’t responsible for a wife and kids, then you’ve got more time for work in the parish. And we priests can easily fall into this trap, too. (In fact, when I’ve been asked about celibacy in the past, I’ve often reminded people that they’d get less work out of married priests—since they’d need adequate time to be good husbands and fathers—but we’d cost more—since we’d need to provide for our families. That usually changes the subject…) We mustn’t think on a purely practical level about something meant to be expressly spiritual.
Celibacy is meant to make priests more available—not to meet the workload of a parish and the demands of parishioners, but to follow the will of God. As Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life, will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” As you see in the tabloid headlines in the checkout aisle: people who seek happiness by only pursuing their own interests will never be fulfilled. True happiness is only found by giving oneself to God—whether directly, or through the service of others. A priest’s celibacy is not about keeping his life for himself; as in Marriage, it’s about giving it completely away: first and foremost, to Christ, and then to his Body and Bride, the Church.
Celibacy is frequently viewed as a sacrifice that simply must be accepted as part of the priesthood package. To a point, that’s true. But I don’t know that it’s any greater a sacrifice than so many others make. I look at my siblings who are parents. They have no life! They work long hours to provide for their kids and, after work, run around crazy taking them to this and that. Mothers and fathers make great sacrifices. As do husbands and wives. I think again of those three couples married 70+ years, and the sacrifice they make standing by a spouse in sickness, old age, and death.
Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy to be my disciple.” These days, we identify as “crosses” our life’s regular burdens and little inconveniences. Stuck in traffic? Such a cross! Sniffling with a cold? Offer it up! But when Jesus first spoke those words, the cross mean something far more drastic, for right before their eyes his hearers could see the cruelest form of execution the Romans were able to cook up—meant to maximize both pain and humiliation. Jesus is calling on his disciples to be willing to give up everything—possessions, career, reputation, wife and kids…even life itself, if necessary—in order to faithfully follow him. Does Jesus ask all of this of everyone? No. But he does ask it of some, and he does ask something of everybody.
The radical nature of consecrated celibacy is meant to be a sign which points beyond itself—to something for which we were all made. The gospel commands of Christ—to hate father and mother, to forsake wife and children, to go and sell all you have—are we to take them seriously? Of course. But are they meant for a select few? Yes… because if they weren’t, the Church would have died out long ago. But in another sense, these commands are meant not only for ordained priests and vowed religious, but for all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ultimately, many of the things that consume our time and attention in this world don’t really matter that much. It’s not that such things are bad; in fact, most of them are very good. But those who go without them entirely are a living reminder that something even better awaits us—something so, so much better! Marriage and family are great goods in this life, but beyond this life there is another, far greater life. We need to keep Jesus and his kingdom, we need to keep heaven, constantly in our sights. Priestly celibacy is meant to help us all do that.
Let’s not define consecrated celibacy by what it’s not—that it’s nothing more than not getting married. That would be like defining being a Jew by not eating bacon. It sells the matter awfully short. Rather, let’s see celibacy for what it truly is: like Marriage, a gift, a grace, a calling from God into a particular intimacy with him.
All that’s to say: don’t wait around for an invitation to the ham dinner after my wedding! But know that we, your priests, would love an invitation to share a ham sandwich with you. Together, let us grow closer to Jesus.