CELEBRATE CELIBACY

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Why should  Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy? No other religion insists on priestly celibacy. Why should the Church intervene in a personal matter like celibacy? Though it is an age-old tradition,  shouldn’t  it be abandoned considering the personal freedom and liberty of individuals? Isn’t celibacy the  reason behind the  increasing number of  sexual abuse cases reported against priests? Why should we continue it?

There are many questions. But before  answering them we need to add one more  question. Is priestly celibacy voluntary or mandatory? Any question  about   priestly celibacy would have two answers, depending on whether it is  voluntary or mandatory.

What do you  think? Is  priestly celibacy a doctrine  in the Catholic Church? No. There is no such doctrine or dogma  mandating that  priests should be celebate . It is a discipline  and a promise given at the time of ordination. In the Eastern Churches  (Catholic as well as Orthodox)  married persons were given ordination. But they had to marry before ordination. In other words a priest cannot marry. Episcopate was reserved for celebate priests only. In the  Western Latin Rite the practice of ordaining married  persons into priesthood was  discontinued  after the second Lateran Council (AD 1139) only. 

So priestly celibacy is a  discipline introduced by  the Church. There is nothing  mandatory in it.  Individual Churches insisting on priestly celibacy admit only those who voluntarily  promise to  remain celebate.

Is celibacy biblical? Yes. Because Jesus was celebate. Paul the apostle was celebate.But  Peter had  a family! Jesus never insisted him to abandon his family. But we read  in the gospel that Peter and  all other   apostles ‘had left everything and followed Jesus’ (Mt 19:27). Before giving this statement, Peter was  witness to  Pharisees questioning  Jesus about divorce and the  reply  Jesus  gave them. By way of explanation  Jesus said; ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching (about the indissolubility  of marriage), but only  those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs  for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let any one accept this who can’ (Mt 19:11-12). 

Priests accept this challenge of the Lord to  remain celebate, because they hope in the Lord that they can do it. Catechism of the  Catholic  Church  appreciates priestly celibacy  saying, ‘accepted with a joyous heart  celibacy radiantly proclaim the reign of God’ (CCC  1579).

Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, describes the  logical  foundation for  advocating priestly celibacy.  It is  for serving the Lord with an undivided  heart.  ‘I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious  about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world,  how to please his wife and his interests are divided’ (1 Cor 7:32-34). The  Church does not demand celibacy from any person by force.  Paull continues; ‘I say this for your benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to  promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord’ (1 Cor 7:35).

Priestly celibacy  has an eschatological perspective also. Paul describes it  when he mentions an ‘impending crisis’ (1 Cor 7:25), ‘the appointed time growing shorter’ (1 Cor 7:29), and  ‘the passing over of the present  form of this world ‘(1 Cor 7:31).  The answer to those  who criticize  Church’s insistence on celibacy in these ‘advanced days’ is already given by Paul. If those who have their eyes on the fast approaching  ‘appointed time’, voluntarily give up the  comforts and joys of a married life and instead dedicate  their life wholly for  the Lord’s service, who are we to question them?

Christ who was celebate  throughout his life  selected the Church as his eternal  bride (Eph. 5:25, Rev 21:9). A priest who, as sacramental minister, acts in ‘Persona Christi’ does  the correct thing when he takes a vow of celibacy  and dedicates himself to serving Christ’s bride.  By doing this he is imitating the Lord who ‘loved the Church and  gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself  in splendor,  without a spot or wrinkle or anything of that  kind- yes so that she may be holy and without blemish’ (Eph.5:26-27).

The price Jesus paid  for his bride was his life. As Christ’s representatives, priests  serve the  Church by  sacrificing the   comforts of a  married life. 

Now a question would naturally arise. Does our God who once blessed humankind to ‘be fruitful and to  multiply’ (Gen 1:28)  favor a person living  in celibacy? If God permitted celibacy for  Jesus and Paul the question itself is out  of place. Yet for those who still doubt, remember that  God  demanded celibacy  from Jeremiah who was  given  the important mission of warning the Israelites about an impending peril.  The word of the Lord came to me: You shall  not take a wife, nor shall you have  sons or daughters in this place’ (Jer 16:1-2). Jeremiah was being prepared for a time when  there would be  ‘no one to lament for the dead, nor to bury them’(Jer 16:4).  A time when people were going to perish by word and by  famine (Jer 16:4). Then ‘no one shall break bread for the mourner, to offer comfort for the dead, nor shall anyone give them  the cup of consolation to drink for  their fathers or their  mothers (Jer 16:7).

To be the voice of the Lord,  the prophet needs  to sacrifice his comforts. To be the voice of the Lord, priests do sacrifice the  comforts  that a  family life offers them.  Most importantly, they accept it with joy. If the world worries about a  priest remaining single, it is because of  pure  jealousy about those  who  have made  themselves  eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, something  that the world failed to appreciate.

Let us pray for our priests.  May Jesus the eternal priest bless them in abundance to offer themselves to  the  service of the Lord with an undivided heart.

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