By Brian K. Slezak
(Brian Slezak is a seminarian of the Diocese of Albany studying at Mundelein Seminary just outside of Chicago. Brian will be ordained a transitional deacon in the summer of 2013 with a view toward priestly ordination in 2014. I asked Brian for permission to share this on our parish blog because I sense many might enjoy it…he was happy to give permission and to wish us blessings and joy.)
Before a man can be ordained priest, he must first accept ordination to the diaconate – to serve for a designated time as a deacon. Before ordination to the diaconate he must, in writing, formally petition the bishop for admission to the Order of Deacon, clearly expressing his understanding of all that Sacred Orders require of him, especially the obligations of celibacy and obedience.
As a candidate for the priesthood, I recently wrote to Bishop Hubbard petitioning ordination to the diaconate, affirming my full understanding and acceptance of all that the Church requires of the deacon. I concluded my letter saying: “I do this entirely of my own free will, motivated by love of God and the desire to serve His people… I intend to devote myself to the ministry of the Church for the rest of my life.”
By God’s grace, before the bishop and the entire Church, I will be ordained deacon on May 25th. In that act, I will solemnly promise, of my own free will, to live a life of celibacy out of my love for God. Through the years of preparation for ordination, I have become fully convinced of something Archbishop Harry Flynn once wrote: “Those who feel God is calling them to the priesthood must also detect a call to celibacy.”
More often than not, celibacy, as a commitment to serving the Lord, is terribly misunderstood. Especially in our hyper-sexualized culture, the celibate life is seen as pointless, foolish and, to some, impossible. Today’s culture would tell us that life is all about sex; giving it up would be choosing a life of misery. Men and women of this superficial culture wonder how one can go through life without the companionship of a loving spouse. Celibacy, for them, is a deprivation of life and love – something totally undesirable.
Only when we understand the spiritual dimension of celibacy, can we come to appreciate the depth, wonder and beauty of the celibate life.
Celibacy in Judeo-Christianity history is nothing new. It has been part and parcel with the life of the Church from the very beginning. Although, it did not become an obligatory “discipline” for the priesthood until the 11th century, continence observed for the love of God has been an honored practice since the time of Jesus and even before in the priesthood of the Old Testament.
In modern times, people have lost the understanding and appreciation of celibacy as a component of the Catholic priesthood. Some argue that it is time to “relax” the discipline of celibacy; they see it as an archaic practice that makes unreasonable demands of a man in today’s culture. Some go as far as to say it is detrimental to the priest’s “wholeness” and renders him unable to relate to others.
Blessed John Paul II took a more enlightened approach to celibacy in his great work, “The Theology of the Body.” He argued that celibacy can be understood by asking the deepest questions of the human heart: who am I and how am I to live my life in a way that will bring me the greatest happiness? The answer to both of these questions is the Christian vocation. According to Pope John Paul II, the most basic vocation of the human person is to love. This is fulfilled, according to the natural order in the vocations of Marriage, Celibacy or vowed virginity. Each of these gets at the truth of the human person, who was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16). We see this image most clearly in the nuptial union of the spouses, who as male and female, discover the meaning of the self, that is, giving oneself, totally to the other in self-giving love.
Then should not all people get married then? Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12). A eunuch in the Christian meaning is someone who devotes his or her life to building the God’s kingdom. This makes the celibate vocation uniquely holy, because it is focused on eternal Love.
One of our teachers recently stated, “Marriage is too good and too beautiful for the world to give up. The only logical explanation for why we choose celibacy is the knowledge that there is something greater. In this way, we can see that the lives of priests and religious give a testimony to something greater.” Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote, that “celibacy makes him (the priest) almost an icon where people look toward eternity.” Celibacy permits one to offer his or herself, for the sake of others and for the kingdom of heaven.
Does this mean that celibacy is better than marriage? No. The values of celibacy and marriage compliment one another. Pope John Paul II explains that the same fidelity and self-donation lived by spouses; provide a model for the fidelity for those who chose the celibate vocation. Each vocation, even the celibate vocation, is centered on love of the other; self-donation. Celibate priests therefore, imitate Jesus’ exclusive, unbreakable and intimate love for His bride, the Church just as spouses imitate the same unbreakable union. Priests freely choose celibacy out of self-sacrificial love for God, giving ourselves totally to Him and His Church, not unlike a man and woman give themselves totally and unconditionally to one another in the sacrament of marriage. This love, must be lived out totally, committed, demanding the priest’s mind, soul and, yes even his body and sexuality.
Celibacy certainly gives more than what it gives up. Understanding celibacy, as the offering of oneself for the sake of others has helped me to better live out my call to the priesthood. This is not without its fruits. Catholic theologian, Scott Hahn has helped me to see celibacy as fruitful and reflective of the image of God. He once wrote that celibate priests are not childless, but rather fathers to a multitude of spiritual children, as Abraham was father of Israel. The late Cardinal John O’Connor once stated, that “good celibates are those who would also make good husbands and fathers.” Celibate priests are spouses to the Church and fathers to a multitude of spiritual children.
Over the years, I have come to realize that there is something truly beautiful, even heavenly, about the celibate life. Men and women are called to celibacy so that their lives of chastity become a sign that they live no longer according to the flesh but according to the spirit (Romans 8:8). God gives them the grace to receive and preserve this gift in a total and complete love for God and His Church.
I look forward to making this commitment permanently as a deacon. I pray that everyone, especially every Catholic, understand the meaning, value and beauty of the celibate life.