Priestly Celibacy – It Must Be Freely Accepted as a Gift of Grace

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (CNS) – Priestly celibacy must be seen as “a freely accepted commitment and a gift of grace,” not simply a functional discipline that frees a man for ministry, the keynote speaker at a University of Notre Dame symposium said Feb. 15.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, opened the Feb. 15-17 symposium with a call for a deeper understanding of celibacy based on biblical and theological roots.

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist who has studied the priesthood, closed the symposium with the good news that a solid majority of priests embrace celibacy as a benefit to their priesthood, especially those with a good understanding of the theological and scriptural basis for celibacy.

In between the opening and closing speakers, two archbishops and several scholars spoke about the biblical and theological roots of celibacy and how a richer understanding of celibacy results in happier priests who are better able to shepherd their people.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit said the people of God need to be educated about the worth of priestly celibacy. The fact that Jesus lived in a state of virginity is “a sure point of reference” to understand the tradition of celibacy in the Church, he said.

Jesus gave His virginal self to the church and to no one else, he added. Thus, celibate priests share this identification with Christ and serve as heralds of the new evangelization.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle said in a talk on “Celibacy and the Pastoral Ministry of the Priest” that the mystery of the Lord is revealed in priestly celibacy in four ways: by being a man of prayer and keeping close to God; by living celibacy as an abiding presence of Jesus and as a sign of single-hearted commitment to loving God and His people; by being a good father to his pastoral family; and by participating in the sacrifice of Christ through the eucharistic celebration.

Mary Healy, an associate professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said that in the Old Testament, celibacy as a religious ideal did not exist because marriage and children were considered a “primordial blessing.”

However, in the New Testament, the entirely new concept of a “fruitful virginity” was introduced at the Annunciation, she said. Later, Matthew, the evangelist, speaks of remaining unmarried for the kingdom of heaven as a gift given by God. And Jesus himself implies that celibacy for the good of the kingdom is rooted in

His own mystery, “the God who desires to wed his people,” with the ministry of the disciples being a participation with Jesus, the bridegroom, she said.

Jesuit Father Joseph Lienhard, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, said the reasons for embracing celibacy in the early Church were threefold: eschatological – celibacy for the sake of the kingdom; theological – the church is the bride of Christ who brings forth children from the font of baptism, and the celibate priest is committed fully to the bride church; and Christological – the priest acts in the place of Christ, who is a model for celibacy.

Msgr. Michael Heintz, director of the master of divinity program at Notre Dame and rector of St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend, said that too often celibacy is discussed only in terms of sexual renunciation. Rather, celibacy should be viewed positively as a charism, a gift, a grace that is freely and joyfully chosen so that the priesthood can be shared with, and on behalf of, others.

Father Carter Griffin, vice rector of Blessed John Paul II Seminary and director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Washington, spoke on “The Fatherhood of the Celibate Priest.” We are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as the Son, he said, but Jesus is also a father in His own right, for the virginal Jesus acts as a father in providing physical and spiritual food, teaching, healing, protecting and generating children for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thus, the celibate priest, who is configured to Christ, is appropriately called “Father,” for he is a sanctifier, teacher and shepherd who begets children for eternal, heavenly life. It is the “greatest privilege” of a priest to exercise this supernatural fatherhood, Father Griffin said.

“In an age that struggles with priestly identity, this is a compelling and refreshing way to grasp our identity as priests,” he said, for celibacy is “not a burden, but a gift to be treasured.”

In his remarks, Msgr. Rossetti, clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said that as priests become better trained in a richer understanding of it, celibacy is disappearing as “a hot-button issue” among clergy in the United States.

The symposium was sponsored by Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life and the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the assistance from the Lilly Endowment.