In January 2016, I had the opportunity to speak at St. Vincent Seminary, my alma mater, during a formation session conference about celibacy. These are a cleaned up version of my notes.
When you hear "enemies of celibacy," you may think of some conspiracy of anti-celibacy theologians or maybe someone waiting in your parish to tempt you into breaking the promises you made at your ordination.
Those may be threats – but they’re not the most dangerous enemies to living a celibate life
The real threats to priests living a healthy, joy filled celibate life come most often from within us.
They are habits and ways of thinking and acting that undermine the great gift we’ve been given in living the life of a Roman Catholic priest.
When we think of a priest breaking his promise of celibacy, what probably comes to mind is a man leaving the ministry to get married or having a secret relationship while remaining an active priest.
If our measure of living out the promise of celibacy is just not doing those things, then something is going to be missing in our priesthood. The world already defines celibacy as one big NO. “Catholic priests are weird and probably psychologically damaged because they don’t have sex.” That’s all celibacy is to so many people – even some Catholics. We know that there is so much more.
Celibacy, at it’s root, is a way to love.
It’s a way to love God and His people who are entrusted to our care.
And it’s a pathway to Love Himself.
Here’s what the Catechism says in paragraph 1579:
“All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’ Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord,’ they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”
Celibacy is not a rejection – rather it is an embrace of something even bigger. Living a celibate life means devoting ourselves to that end. We give ourselves completely to God and to men to proclaim the Good News, the Kingdom, the Reign of God.
You may be at a different point with this.
Some men feel called to be priests and just take celibacy as an inconvenient or uncomfortable part of the deal … but we are called to embrace this life – to live it fully. Before you are ordained, you have to wrestle with that reality: Am I accepting celibacy because I have to or am I recognizing it as a gift from God that offers me a life of Love?
A couple months ago I watched a movie called Calvary. It’s about an Irish priest, Father James, a good priest, who is is hearing confessions when a man comes in and tells him that is going to kill him in one week because he was abused by a priest.
He says, “There’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one? That’d be a shock, now. They wouldn’t know what to make of that. I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’re innocent.”
The rest of the movie shows how this priest spends that week. He encounters sin and goodness in the people of his small town. It’s not easy to watch but I found it incredibly inspiring.
One scene in particular struck me: Fr. James falls into an old temptation and then gets drunk; he then gets beat up by some of the townspeople. He’s cleaning himself up when his parochial vicar comes by his room. His vicar is very concerned about being polite – treating the wealthy with great respect, not causing any kind of trouble - and is taken aback when his pastor curses at him. He says, “we can discuss this in the morning when you’re sober.”
Father James turns around and demands of him: “Why are you a priest at all? You should be an accountant in an insurance firm!”
I certainly don’t condone drunkenness or getting in fistfights or even pastors yelling at parochial vicars, but that question is real and important: why are you a priest at all? Why do you want to be a priest? Why are you planning and studying to be a priest?
Celibacy isn’t just a line in the priesthood contract, something you need to agree to to get where you want to go. It’s right there at the heart of what being a priest means: loving God and loving His people with an undivided heart.
Living as a celibate priest is something we must choose and embrace everyday – probably many times everyday. It isn't a job that's "finished" when you're ordained.
As I said at the beginning, there are enemies of celibacy that we carry within us and if they are left unchallenged, we may find ourselves in a place where we are not living out that call.
These are the seemingly small habits and behaviors that tear away at that choice for love that we’ve made. I’d like to point out a number of them and look at their symptoms as well as antidotes that will help us overcome them.
I have one note: the most important antidote to all of these vices is prayer. I could mention that again and again in this talk. Even if I don't list it as a specific way to overcome one of these enemies, assume that it is there. I can't overestimate the vital importance of prayer in a priest's life.
Imagine this scenario: You’ve had a day where you’ve celebrated morning Mass; there was a funeral a little later on; maybe you had to run to the hospital to anoint someone; or maybe someone stopped by the office and wanted to talk. All of that along with answering emails, returning phone calls, and other normal tasks.
That is a solid “priestly day” – a good day.
It’s a normal reaction, at least for me, to come to the end of that day and just retreat to my room to recharge. I don’t want to socialize, I just want to rest.
That’s fine, but what if it becomes my standard reaction? What if retreating to my room is just what I do instead of:
- Spending time with parishioners because they only bring me more things to do.
- Only “making an appearance” at parish functions because it’s just too much work.
- Not spending time with another priest because I’d rather just relax alone.
All of those may seem somewhat harmless, but when we isolate ourselves from other people - parishioners, friends, other priests – we create the opportunity for ourselves to say no to love.
It is a good thing to have our own personal time, especially if you are a more introverted person who needs that space to recharge, but always be aware of times when you make a habit of retreating from other people.
Love always requires sacrifice and I think that especially applies to a priest.
Sometimes it is more important to go to a funeral luncheon with people you don’t know.
Or to accept an invitation to a family’s home even when you’d rather sit quietly at home.
If you find yourself treating your “private time” as something sacred and seeing other people as inconveniences, that is the time to reject isolation. Turning inward like that is a sure way to give into sins like pornography or masturbation. Though we may choose to isolate ourselves, it ultimately leads to feelings of loneliness.
How do we fight isolation? By giving of ourselves in love and breaking out of the selfish bubble we may be tempted to hide in.
There's a rule that I try to follow in my own priesthood: “Always go to the luncheon” It is important to spend time with people - even when you would rather not. God often works in unexpected or mundane situations. We should make a habit of being with the people God has sent to us. Spend time - even waste time with people. Don’t just “make an appearance” – people pick up on that and come to expect their priest to be distant and disconnected.
Cultivate the relationships you have in your life.
- Stay close to your family - they often know you better than anyone else and will remember that you are a person as well as a priest.
- Build relationships with other priests. They will know your joys and frustrations because they have probably experienced them too.
- Maintain and grow your friendships with lay-people. It is so important to have friends who "knew you before." They will support you and also welcome you into family life. Seeing parents love their children will help you to love more fully as a priest.
There is a song from the 90s that has one of my favorite lyrics in it: “If you’re bored then you’re boring.”
The priesthood is not a life to enter into lightly. It is an amazing adventure that requires commitment and enthusiasm – everyday.
That’s important because many of the things priests do, they do over and over again. You will celebrate many masses, hear many confessions … sign many checks, go to many meetings.
You have the choice to see these things as just another Mass, another confession, another meeting – or as a brand new opportunity to encounter God and share His love with the people in your life.
If you find yourself feeling bored, think back to when you knew enthusiasm. Pope Francis has encouraged us to, "Remember the joy of your first encounter with Christ” It's also good advice to remember the joy of your first call to the priesthood. Remember the time when you were excited to be a priest; when it was all you could think about, when you couldn't wait to get out there. Draw energy from that and ask the Lord to give you that heart once again.
I feel like laziness often goes hand in hand with boredom. It’s a symptom of not caring – not loving the way that we are called to love. What comes to my mind is the age-old sin of acedia. It is a sin that I never gave much thought to until I recently heard it described as "a monk desiring to leave his cell." That made sense to me - it's something that we should look out for in ourselves.
Do you daydream about another life? Do you catch yourself thinking about how things could have been different if you had traveled a different path? What if I pursued that relationship? What if I decided not to go to seminary? Maybe things would be easier!
That kind of escapism only kills your vocation. Embrace the life that you have.
As with any feelings we have, you don’t have to let these feelings dominate you. It is your choice what you dwell upon in your heart and mind. Choose to reject them and then act.
A fantastic remedy for this kind of thinking is simply doing priestly things: go visit your sick parishioners at the hospital, hang out with your school kids at recess. Find sources of priestly strength that will remind you: this is why I said yes. This is why I answered God's call.
Is there anything that pushes people away more than an angry priest?
We’ve all met them. He might be angry at the bishop, or his parishioners, or another priest in the diocese. Whatever the subject of his anger is, there’s a good chance that there is also a lot of anger and resentment towards himself. That anger very quickly stops a priest from fully loving as he is called to do.
Yoda was right when he said that “anger leads to hate.” If we constantly allow ourselves to feel wronged, we stop loving people AND we stop loving God. What is the point of a priesthood like that?
The best way to reject anger is surrender - to surrender everything. Take that weight that you’re carrying and hand it to the Lord. If you find yourself frequently angry, there’s a good chance that you are not praying enough. If we aren't cultivating the most important relationship in our lives, of course we're going to be angry and miserable.
Also: go to confession! It's advice that we give to the people and we should take it ourselves. Find a regular confessor and make use of the sacrament. Don’t allow anger or resentment to fester and grow – allow God to root them out!
It is also important to know yourself. Be aware of the times when you are going to be easily frustrated and take your feelings with a grain of salt. For myself, I know to basically ignore my immediate reactions in the morning - because I'm really not a morning person. I get angry and frustrated more easily when I'm still waking up so I remind myself, "This emotion is being fed by the fact that you're tired. It's not the truth."
When I started at St. Vincent, the priest in charge of spiritual formation had a gift for making great points with short little statements. The one I remember the most was this: “Gentlemen, you will fall in love many times during your priesthood.”
What he was getting at was that it’s not some strange thing for your heart to have a reaction to a person – to have feelings for someone. That is simply part of being human. Priests are not exempt from being attracted to particular people and it shouldn’t surprise us when it happens. The real problem comes when we give into our culture's definition of what love is and what it means we should do.
We see it again and again in stories of priests who left the ministry to be in a relationship with someone – they "fell in love." That means they felt something and decided to follow that feeling.
Emotions are important and good to understand, but they must not rule us. If we make decisions based only on our feelings, we will be constantly tossed about. Real love is “willing the good of another” – an act of the will, a choice – not a fleeting feeling.
There are signs that warn us when we are giving in to emotionalism:
- Do you find yourself infatuated with a particular person? Do you have a crush?
- Are you allowing your thoughts to dwell on that person?
- Do you intentionally spend more time with that person?
This can even apply to families or groups in the parish. Are you allowing your feelings for them to rule you so that you favor them or see them as an “inner circle” rather than striving to love your entire community?
If you see these things in yourself, what do you do?
- Admit to yourself what is going on in your heart. Be completely unemotional for a moment and let reason have a say. What would this look like to another priest? What would your bishop say about what you're feeling? When we are only listening to our own emotions, it's easy to think that we are being perfectly reasonable. Talk to your spiritual director about what you're feeling.
- We are called to a supernatural love. Don’t spend time only with people you naturally like. It is healthy to go against your natural inclinations and love generously.
- Learn to “expand your heart” – especially when you have feelings for a specific person. You are not their priest to love them for yourself, but for God. Love all of who they are, not just how they make you feel.
As always: pray!
5. Unrealistic Idealism
Priesthood is not easy and it does not come automatically.
This is a cliched statement but it is absolutely true: the seminarian you are is the priest you will be. Sure, you will grow, but ordination doesn't suddenly make you a saint. If you are waiting for that day to start striving for holiness, you are going to be disappointed.
How you treat other people now will not automatically change when they start calling you "father." Prayer won't just happen because you are out of school. If you are not enthusiastically embracing where you are right now, you will probably have a hard time doing it after ordination.
So often God’s will for us isn't something we have to go out and find – it's where we are right now. Your celibate life is being formed right now. Your priestly identity is being formed right now.
Say yes to that and make the best use out of the gifts He is giving you now. Don’t make assumptions about “the grace of ordination.” The Lord has given you gifts and an opportunity to grow. Don't waste that!
One of my favorite moments in Star Wars: Episode VII was when Finn, Han, and Chewie were preparing to break into the enemy base. Han is doubtful that they will be able to pull off the plan. Finn says something about how they'll be able to do it if they "use the Force." Han's response is great: “That’s not how the Force works!”
You could say the same thing about the Holy Spirit and grace. If we don't cooperate with what God is doing in us, we can't expect our vocation to be fruitful. Seminary is a time for discerning and then preparing for ordination. Use this time. Prepare now.
When I thought about how to speak on celibacy, the first thing I thought about was avoiding tempting situations, but the path that leads priests out of the priesthood doesn’t start in those moments where priests give in to a temptation.
It starts in his everyday embrace of celibacy as a way to love. In every moment and every situation we should be choosing to love God and love the people He’s put around us.
Celibacy is a gift, a gift from God to us – a path to holiness; but it is also a gift from us to God and the Church.
Don’t hold back.