A colloquium was recently held in Ars, France, on the theme: "Priestly Celibacy: Foundations, Joys and Challenges". The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, gave a series of talks on the teachings of the Popes from Pius XI to Benedict XVI. The following is a lecture the Cardinal gave on Benedict XVI.
The last Pontiff that we will examine is Benedict XVI, currently reigning, whose early Magisterium concerning priestly celibacy leaves no room for doubt both with regard to the perennial validity of the disciplinary norm and, above all and as a matter of precedence, according to its theological foundation, particularly that which is Christological-Eucharistic.
In particular, the Holy Father has dedicated an entire chapter of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, dated 22 February 2007, to the theme of celibacy, which states: "The Synod Fathers wished to emphasize that the ministerial priesthood, through ordination, calls for total configuration to Christ. While respecting the different practice and tradition of the Eastern Churches, there is a need to reaffirm the profound meaning of priestly celibacy, which is rightly considered a precious treasure, and is also confirmed by the Eastern practice of choosing bishops only from the ranks of the celibate. These Churches also greatly esteem the decision of many priests to embrace celibacy. This choice on the part of the priest expresses in a special way the dedication which conforms him to Christ and his exclusive offering of himself for the Kingdom of God.
The fact that Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the extreme sacrifice on the Cross in a state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church on this point. Therefore, it is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming to Christ's own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride. In continuity with the great ecclesial tradition, with the Second Vatican Council and with my Predecessors the Supreme Pontiffs, I reaffirm the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God, and I therefore confirm that it is obligatory in the Latin Tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society itself' (n. 24).
As is easily seen, the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis presents multiple reasons why the Priest must be self-offering, even to the sacrifice of the cross, in order to attain total and exclusive dedication to Christ. Of particular relevance is the bond that the Apostolic Exhortation stresses between celibacy and the Eucharist; if the Magisterium's theology is to be understood, received in an authentic manner and implemented in the Church, the future of celibacy will be luminous and fruitful, because it will be a future of freedom and priestly holiness. We could, thus, speak not only of the "spousal nature" of celibacy, but also of its "Eucharistic nature", based on the offering Christ continually makes of himself for the Church, and which is clearly reflected in the lives of priests. They are called to reproduce in their own life the Sacrifice of Christ, to which they have been assimilated by virtue of priestly Ordination.
The Eucharistic nature of celibacy can give rise to every theological development possible, which places the priest before his most fundamental service: the celebration of Holy Mass, in which the words, "This is my Body" and, "This is my Blood" not only determine of the sacramental effect which is particular to them, but must mould the oblation of priestly life in an ongoing and concrete fashion.
The celibate priest is thus personally and publicly associated with Jesus Christ: he renders him really present, becoming a victim himself in what Benedict XVI calls, "the Eucharistic logic of Christian existence".
The more the centrality of the Eucharist is worthily celebrated and constantly adored, the more it is represented in the life of the Church, the greater the faithfulness to celibacy, the comprehension of its immense worth, and, if I may say so, the flowering of many holy vocations to the ordained Ministry, will be.
In his Address when receiving the Roman Curia 22 December 2006, for exchange of Christmas greetings, Benedict XVI again said: "The true foundation of celibacy can be contained in the phrase: Dominus pars mea — You, Lord, are my land. It can only be theocentric. It cannot mean being deprived of love, but must mean letting oneself be consumed by passion for God and subsequently, thanks to a more intimate way of being with him, to serve men and women, too. Celibacy must be a witness to faith: faith in God materializes in that form of life which only has meaning if it is based on God. Basing one's life on him, renouncing marriage and the family, means that I accept and experience God as a reality and that I can therefore bring him to men and women".
Only the experience of the "inheritance', which the Lord is for each sacerdotal existence, makes that witness to the faith, which celibacy is, efficacious. As Benedict XVI repeated in his Discourse to the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy on 16 March 2009, it is the: "apostolica vivendi forma [...] participation in a "new life", spiritually speaking, in that "new way of life" which the Lord Jesus inaugurated and which the Apostles made their own".
The Year for Priests, which has recently concluded, saw numerous interventions on the part of the Holy Father on the theme of the Priesthood, particularly his Wednesday catecheses that were dedicated to the trig munera, in his interventions for the inauguration and for the conclusion of the Year for Priests and in the catecheses connected to the anniversaries of St John Mary Vianney. Of particular note is the dialogue that the Pope had with priests during the Vigil for the conclusion of the Year for Priests. Asked about the meaning of celibacy and its challenges, which are encountered in living it out in contemporary culture, he responded by beginning from the centrality of the daily Eucharistic Celebration in the life of the Priest, who, acting in Persona Christi, uses the "I" of Christ, thus becoming the realization of the continuance intime of his unique Priesthood. He then adds: "This unification of his 'I' with ours implies that we are 'drawn' also into the reality of his Resurrection; we are going forth towards the full life of resurrection.../... In this sense, celibacy is anticipation. We transcend this time and move on. By doing so, we `draw' ourselves and our time towards the world of the Resurrection, towards the newness of Christ, towards a new and true life".
In this way the intimate relationship between the Eucharistic source and the eschatological dimension anticipated and realised in priestly celibacy. The Magisterium of Benedict XVI thus confirms the overcoming in one bound of every attempt at a functionalistic reduction of the ministry, the Pope repositions it in a broad and exalted theological frame of reference, he sheds light upon it, highlighting its constitutive relationship with the Church, and he powerfully evaluates all the missionary potential that derives precisely from that "more" for the Kingdom that celibacy brings about.
On the same occasion Benedict XVI stated, with prophetic audacity: "It is true that for the agnostic world, in which God does not enter, celibacy is a great scandal, because it shows exactly that God is considered and experienced as reality. With the eschatological dimension of celibacy, the future world of God enters into the reality of our time".
How could the Church live without the 'scandal' of celibacy? How could she exist without ministers who are prepared to declare, here and now, the reality of God, even and above all in their own flesh? These assertions were completed and, in a certain sense, crowned in the extraordinary Homily pronounced during the Conclusion of the Year for Priests, in which the Pope prayed that, as a Church, we might be freed from secondary scandals so that the true scandal of history should be revealed: that Christ is Lord.