Address on Priestly Life

Author: Monsignor Fortunatus Nwachukwu


Monsignor Nwachukwu's Address on Priestly Life

"A Sad Celibate Is a Bad Celibate"


Here is the text of an address given by Monsignor Fortunatus Nwachukwu, head of protocol for the Holy See's Secretariat of State, at a theological convention on the theme "Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of the Priest, which took place Thursday and Friday at the Pontifical Lateran University.

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Introduction: old or new questions?

Should celibacy "remain today for those who have the intention of receiving major orders? Is it possible and appropriate nowadays to observe such an obligation? Has the time not come to break the bond linking celibacy with the priesthood in the Church? Could the difficult observance of it not be made optional? Would this not be a way to help the priestly ministry and facilitate ecumenical approaches?"

Let us not be deceived. These are not new questions; and they are not mine. They were stated by Paul VI more than forty years ago, in the encyclical, Sacerdotalis caelibatus (24 June 1967, n. 3). Yet, they perfectly resemble concerns of today. Only one question seems to be lacking, perhaps because the problem it addresses had then not crystallized like today: will not the option of marriage assist in preventing cases of paedophilia by priests?

Let us be clear: the problems associated with the practice of celibacy are not new. They have always existed but have only acquired particular relevance and urgency these past years (cf. The Congregation for Catholic Education, Orientamenti educativi per la formazione al celibato sacerdotale, 1974, no. 3). In this regard, Paul VI himself observed that "a tendency has also been manifested, and even a desire expressed, to ask the Church to re-examine this characteristic institution. It is said that in the world of our time the observance of celibacy has come to be difficult or even impossible" (Sacerdotalis caelibatus, n. 3).

Although the problems are not new, the questions that are raised around them seem to get louder and more persistent by the day. This may be attributed to the sharp rise in public awareness, due to the growing role of the media, as well as a better access to education and knowledge of human rights and of law. Today, the Church sometimes finds itself under pressure from public opinion, often conditioned by ideological currents, that tempt it to search for soothing replies that do not necessarily correspond to the evangelical base of its teaching. Quite often, what is subtly questioned is not the relevance of one or another practice in the Church, but of Jesus Christ himself who is at the base of the teaching.

However, the questions are not always raised by adversaries outside the Church. They sometimes also come from well-meaning and devoted Catholics perhaps out of concern for some otherwise good priests whom they know to be "labouring" under the demands of celibacy or also when infidelity among certain priests tends to make it difficult for the Church to bear credible witness to the gospel.

The practice of sacerdotal celibacy, chastity and virginity goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Yet recent Church Magisterium has continued to show great interest in the subject. Apart from the above-mentioned encyclical of Paul VI, one may also recall — in the past sixty years alone — the encyclical letter, Sacra virginitas of Pius XII (25 March 1954), the Vatican II Decrees Optatam totius (28 October 1965), on the formation of priests, and Presbyterorum ordinis (7 December 1965), on the ministry and life of priests, or also the post-synodal exhortation on the formation of priests, Pastores dabo vobis, of John Paul II (25 March 1992). To these documents may be added indications contained in the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the various instructions issued by Dycasteries of the Roman Curia, particularly the Congregations for the Clergy and for Catholic Education, as well as different homilies and related allocutions by the Roman Pontiffs. Pope Benedict XVI has also returned to the question in a number of his interventions and spontaneous conversations with the clergy and seminarians during some of his pastoral visits. For example, on 6 August 2008, while meeting with the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, he asserted that "there will always be need for priests totally dedicated to the Lord and, therefore, also to men". He then went on to affirm that "celibacy is a fundamental expression of this totality" and "is meaningful only if we truly believe in eternal life and if we have faith that God needs us and that we can be at his service".

It is not the scope here to investigate into how the Church has responded to these problems, questions and objections. The effort is rather directed to finding meaning, in spite of everything, in a life of celibacy, chastity and virginity. Certainly, much of the contents of the above-mentioned documents remains currently valid, like the concerns which they addressed. A glance at history and at the experiences of other ecclesial (non Latin) traditions, would also show that the option of marriage is not a panacea in fighting the problems frequently raised in objection to priestly celibacy. In stead a valid formation stands out as the fundamental remedy. Moreover, a tour of religious communities with demanding rules of life and monastic orders of strict observance tends to indicate that, even in our day, young persons are still in search of challenges and when standards are lowered, many are no longer attracted since they can find easy alternatives elsewhere.

A perennial relevance and universal challenge

This sustained interest of the Magisterium on the theme underscores its continued relevance and importance for the life and mission of the Church. It also points to the perennial and universal character of the challenge involved in the practice. The challenge is neither time-bound nor geographically circumscribed. It is not limited to particular regions of the world. No persons living on any parts of our planet should consider themselves immune to such issues or behave as though they had outgrown them. It is simply not true that certain peoples or cultures are less suitable than others to the practice. What may be affirmed is that some historical experiences in relations between peoples have often given rise to certain stereotypes, and tendency to focus only on the errors of a few and apply them generically to a whole people, thereby denigrating their culture or mentality by suggesting that they are incapable of or, in any case, less suitable for celibacy, chastity and virginity. However, recent unfortunate events in various regions of the world constitute a harsh rebuke of this haughty tendency. Human weakness that provokes infidelity to the commitment to celibacy is universal. So too, thanks to God, is the divine grace which enables the fruitful adherence to the commitment assumed with the ordination to the priesthood. Celibacy is a gift of God, through the Spirit, which blows where it wills (John 3,8), and has to be nurtured with faith, love and humility.

It may further be affirmed that wherever the work of evangelization has been effective — and some missionaries have been excellent not only in the initial planting of the faith but also in the formation of seminarians — one often encounters a passage, in three generations, from the practice of polygyny to monogamy and then to celibacy. That is the case of priests or religious who are happily celibate, although their parents were monogamously married and their grand parents polygynous. In many instances, the passage has even been shorter, from polygynous parents to a celibate son!

The principle of universality does not apply only to the challenge of celibacy, chastity and virginity but also to recognition of their value. Most cultures treasure virginity, until a certain stage in life, often until marriage, perhaps in order to ensure that a woman's first child is the husband's. Similarly, in many societies chastity, at least for a period of time, is highly valued and sometimes considered indispensable in preparation for certain religious rites. These cases are not to be confused with priestly celibacy and the related virginity or chastity, but they do indicate the presence of fertile ground or a certain preparatory seed for this sacerdotal practice.

In this regard, Cardinal Peter Turkson has recalled, on the occasion of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in 2005, that priests of the African traditional religions abstain for three days from sexual relations before performing their religious rites. He therefore affirms that "anyone who says that celibacy is inconceivable for the African mentality tells a lie" (30 Giorni, October 2005). In fact, among the Igbos of Nigeria the period of abstinence was sometimes longer than three days, according to the significance of the event, and was accompanied with special rituals of self-preparation purported to create contacts with the spiritual and ancestral world. At the conclusion of this period, the "priest" was regarded as laden with particular spiritual powers. Such practices were a helpful background to the missionaries for teaching the permanent chastity, inherent in sacerdotal celibacy. They also explain, to some extent, the high regard that such people have had for priests who, beyond the temporary continence practiced by their own traditional "priests", embrace a life of perpetual abstinence.

Differing but interrelated concepts

Although present, in various forms, in different cultures, celibacy, chastity and virginity practised in the Church are endowed with a significance distinct from the common usage, which tends to treat them as different concepts. In such popular language, celibacy is understood as the civil status of being single, as distinct from having a spouse. It does not necessarily demand or entail chastity or virginity. On the other hand, chastity, which is not tied to any particular civil status, tends to be understood in association with its etymology in Latin (castitas, for "cleanliness", "purity") or in Greek (sophrosyne, for "moderation"), whereby for some it entails the avoidance of sexual relations and for others it simply connotes moderation or self-control in such relations. For its part, virginity is commonly conceived as the absence of sexual experience from birth. This, for some people, entails the integrity of certain body organs, especially in women, while for others the integrity is that of being "unadulterated" or simply "new".

Contrary to popular understanding, sacerdotal celibacy in the Catholic Church is intrinsically linked to chastity and virginity. What is involved is not just a civil status, but also a state of continence which is the result of one's total donation to the Lord in the Church. The Code of Canon Law is quite clear on what is expected of clerics in this regard (Can. 277 §1):

Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.

It is in this perfect and perpetual continence that priestly celibacy finds its true meaning, which it shares with chastity and virginity. In fact, the "purity" and "moderation" signified by chastity, as well as the "absence of sexual experience" indicated by virginity, beyond every physical or corporeal connotation, all converge in this concept of perfect continence, which for the priest is meant also to be perpetual. Consequently true priestly celibacy implies not only the social status of being single, but also the virtue of chastity and the state of virginity. This means that although a diocesan priest does not make any specific vow of chastity or virginity, like the religious, his commitment to celibacy entails the same perfect and perpetual continence signified by these vows.

One may ask: in what sense is the celibate priest required to be a virgin?

Although common usage tends to apply virginity only to women, the concept it enshrines is not limited to any sex and may also, under certain circumstances, be applied to a chaste priest. It has been observed that virginity implies, not just a corporeal sexual integrity or "newness", but the state of perfect continence from birth. For the Christian, birth is not just physical. The more important birth is not necessarily the physical one, but also the sacramental birth or rebirth in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus himself emphatically declares that "unless one is born anothen (Gk for "from above" or "anew") ... of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." (John 3, 3.5). This concept of rebirth is taken up in the whole New Testament and underlies the entire Christian message. Paul VI underscores this fact in the encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus (no. 19):

The Lord Jesus, the only Son of God, was sent by the Father into the world and He became man, in order that humanity which was subject to sin and death might be reborn, and through this new birth (Jn 3,5; Ti 3,5) might enter the kingdom of heaven. Being entirely consecrated to the will of the Father, (Jn 4,34; 17,4) Jesus brought forth this new creation by means of His Paschal mystery; (2 Cor 5,17; Gal 6,15) thus, He introduced into time and into the world a new form of life which is sublime and divine and which radically transforms the human condition (Gal 3,28).

In fact, the notion of rebirth is so fundamental that the New Testaments tends to view the entire life of a Christian in two parts, before and after the encounter with Christ (1 Pet. 1,23; Titus 3, ; 2 Cor 5,17; Eph 2,1-2; 1 Cor 2,14; Rev. 1,8; Rom 8,9b). In the life of the Church, this rebirth is realized through the sacraments, which are "efficacious signs of grace ... by which divine life is dispensed to us" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1131). Renewal of the rebirth is also realized through the sacramentals, instituted by the Church "for the sanctification of certain ministries..., certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1668). Both in sacraments and in sacramentals, the principle of rebirth is the Holy Spirit. For the Christian, the Mystery of the Incarnation divides human history into two, before and after Christ. In the same way, the encounter with Jesus Christ, the "Alpha and Omega" (Rev 1,8), divides the life of the Christian into a "before and after", respectively beginning with a physical birth and a spiritual rebirth in Christ.

It therefore means that, if virginity generally implies sexual integrity or "newness" from birth at a physical level, for the Christian it also means a similar integrity — perfect continence! — consciously cultivated from the time of rebirth or "renewal".

Such an interpretation of virginity does not diminish its content or value. It enlarges and ennobles the significance of the same. The importance of physical integrity is not questioned; for the Christian it remains a basic symbolic participation in Christ's passion and death in the flesh. Yet, when limited only to corporeal sexual integrity from birth, virginity may not necessarily be a thing of decision and choice, but also of circumstances beyond a person's control, like the environment in which a person is born and brought up as a child. If, however, the dimension of rebirth is added, virginity fully acquires the dignity of a status consciously chosen, loved and nurtured. The role of the Holy Spirit, the principle of the rebirth, is also emphasized. It is the Holy Spirit that constantly renews the life and resolve embraced, and conforms the virgin to the image of Jesus Christ, who apart from his divine perfection, was fully human in all things, including temptation and corporeal needs (hunger, thirst, pain), except sin. In the words of Hebrews (2,18), "because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted".

This understanding of virginity is echoed in the liturgical tradition of the Church. One thinks of various consecrated persons, who are celebrated by the Church as virgins, although they grew up in particularly difficult circumstances, that might have endangered their corporeal integrity, before their encounter with and rebirth in Christ. A recent example is the noble figure of Saint Josephine Bakhita, who was taken as a slave while still a child. It is not difficult to imagine how the slave owners treated their girl-slaves, and what the little girl might have gone through in the hands of her Arab and Ottoman masters before she was bought by the Italian diplomat, Callisto Legnani. It was Mr Legnani that brought Bakhita to Italy where she regained her freedom, converted to Christianity and became a religious. In a certain sense, her true life only began with her encounter with Christ and her entrance into the Institute of the Daughters of the Cannossian charity. It is a mark of great wisdom that the Church has honoured her and celebrates her in the Liturgy as "religious and virgin". Before her, similar treatment had been reserved for others like Saint Afra, who after living as a prostitute came to know Christ and later was martyred for her faith. She too is celebrated by the Church as "virgin and martyr" and has been adopted as Patroness by the city and the Diocese of Augsburg in Germany.

More than just a perpetual fasting

I have already mentioned that priestly celibacy shares the common nucleus of perfect continence with chastity and virginity. Basic to the idea of continence is the practice of self-restraint and abstinence, and consequently of fasting. It means that celibacy, chastity and virginity all entail a certain form of permanent fasting. Each of them implies the renouncing of something otherwise desirable, a mortification, and consequently sacrifice. Each, like fasting, presupposes a certain human desire or appetite — latent or real — which like hunger or thirst in fasting, is not satisfied but is controlled through self-restraint. For celibacy that desire is related to marriage, while for chastity and virginity it is associated with sexual activity and delectation. In fasting, the object of one's abstinence cannot be a thing for which one has no appetite. A person who does not smoke, cannot choose to abstain from smoking, nor may one who does not like or eat cakes choose to "fast" from cheese cakes! Similarly only persons capable of sexual activity and delectation can validly undertake the practice of priestly celibacy.

The handicap of this paradigm of fasting is that it tends to focus only on a dimension of celibacy, that of abstinence or avoidance of certain comportments and practices. When seen only from this dimension celibacy becomes a sad and even scary way of life comprising only a series of mortifications. This would be unfair since celibacy is essentially a positive lifestyle that puts the priest totally at the service of God and of others. The celibate priest is aligned to the image of Jesus Christ the Eternal Priest, who was at once fully dedicated to the will of the Father and totally given to the service of others, so much that he became not only their food (in the Eucharist) but also the sacrifice for their salvation. In this way, the priest may feel himself truly alter Christus — totally for God and for others. The dimension of abstinence, although essential, should only serve as a means of reaching this fuller meaning of celibacy. That is why, the use of fasting here is only analogical.

Yet, it would be wrong to see fasting as essentially negative. There is need to avoid a harsh and restrictive understanding of the practice. Fasting is valued and practiced in some form in most cultures and religions, especially in connection with prayer, rites of purification and renewal, and new undertakings. In the Bible it is regularly found in connection with prayer and penitence (Judg 20,26; 1 Sam 31,13; Neh 9,1; Tob 12,8; Luk 2,37), both for personal and national needs (Ps 25,13; Joel 2,15), or as liturgical observance (Zech 8,19) especially on the feast of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16,29-34), and has to be accompanied by compassion and concern for social justice in order to be meaningful (Isa 58).

Fasting is not the same thing as starvation. It is a freely chosen act of abstinence aimed at achieving much greater benefits both physically and spiritually. The fasting in our analogy for celibacy is not the abstention from every food and drink, otherwise it cannot be perpetual. What is meant is abstinence from particular items of food, drinks or habits, and this can be both complete and permanent. In fact, Pope Leo the Great speaks of fasting "which means not simply a reduction in our food, but the elimination of our evil habits" (Sermon 6 on Lent, 1-2). It should not surprise us that some people may be scared by fasting, while others are simply put off by the idea of celibacy itself. After all, many persons also find the image of the cross disturbing and yet that does not diminish its value for Christians. The abstinence involved in celibacy may be the cross which the priest is called to carry behind the Lord (Mat 10,38). For some, the cross may be heavier and for others lighter, but that does not make it any less a cross!

The big merit of the analogy of fasting is that it can serve as an important source of biblical guidance for the effective practice of priestly celibacy. On the one hand, although various biblical texts are referred to in support of celibacy, as well as chastity and virginity (especially Mat 19, 11-12, Luk 18, 29-30 and I Cor 7, 33-35), none of these offers specific biblical guidelines for the exercise of this pattern of life. Mat 19,11-12 is usually cited to present priestly celibacy as a divine gift (v. 11: "to whom it is given") which is received by those who make themselves "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" (v.12); Luk 18, 29-30 recalls the abundant recompense promised those who leave home, family, wife and children for the sake of the kingdom of God; and 1 Cor 7, 33-35 is evoked to present the celibate priest as one who adheres wholly and directly to the Lord, and is concerned only with him and his affairs (cf. Sacerdotalis caelibatus, nn. 20.22).

On the other hand, the Bible offers clear indications on how fasting may be made fruitful and acceptable to the Lord. It is such hints that are here proposed, by analogy, as principles and characteristics for the proper exercise of priestly celibacy, chastity and virginity. It is not the intention here to make a detailed presentation or exegesis of all the biblical texts concerning fasting. It should suffice to recall that Jesus himself not only fasted on a number of occasions (e.g. at his temptation and at the beginning of his ministry), but also left a clear teaching on the practice, which could then be applied to the exercise of priestly celibacy.

The major text concerned is Mat 6,1-18, a "trilogy" of Jesus concerning the exercise of one's piety, dikaiosyne. After an initial warning against practicing one's piety "before men in order to be seen by them", Jesus goes on to offer precise instructions on the three pillars of piety, according to Jewish tradition: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. A quick glance at the flow of the text reveals the intrinsic link between the three practices. In fact, the introductory warning of Jesus and the respective paragraphs on prayer, almsgiving and fasting are bound by a logical flow established by the conjunctive expressions, hotan oun (v. 2: "Thus, when...", "When therefore..."), kai hotan (v. 5: "And when..."), hotan de (v. 16: "When also...", "And when...").

This fundamental bond between fasting, prayer and almsgiving has far-reaching consequences. The three practices involve a three-fold relationship: with oneself (fasting), with God (prayer) and with one's neighbour (almsgiving). Fasting helps one to dominate one's appetites and habits, to grow in self-discipline, and especially to move attention away from oneself (one's needs, appetites, hungers, cravings, etc.) in order to focus it on God and on one's neighbour. In this way, fasting opens one up to God and to one's neighbour. Thus, fasting (and that includes all acts of abstinence and self-denial, like the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) without prayer (opening to God) and almsgiving, the precursor to Christian sharing or charity (opening to the neighbo¬ur) is not only meaningless and empty, but could tantamount to hypocritical sadism, or become simply a deliberate act of spiritual pride and ostentation. On the contrary, when fasting is effectively laid at the base of prayer and charity, it so sharpens the concentration on the divine that it becomes a very effective channel to divine force. The abstinence involved leaves a space in the subject, which prayer fills with divine presence and power.

Another observation regards the words which Jesus utters precisely on fasting (Mat 6,16-18):

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men... But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The text is clear. Fasting should not be carried out in order to attract the approval or admiration of others. The essential question is not "what praise do I gain from people", but "what does God think of this action of mine?" One thinks of the words of the prophet Joel (2,13): "Rend your hearts and not your garments". The word hypocrite (hypocrites, i.e. stage actor), repeated a number of times in the entire text, drives home this point. The person who is fasting is not a stage actor trying to entertain human spectators and draw their applause, but one who aims at divine approval in one's actions. Fasting is to be lived as a joyful act ("anoint your head" and "wash your face") that creates a relationship of intimacy ("in secret"!) between one and God.

What are the implications of this for the practice of priestly celibacy? Through the paradigm of fasting, the words of Jesus in this text become fully applicable to the priest committed to celibacy, chastity and virginity. Like fasting, these three practices become, together with prayer and charity, constitutive elements of piety, in the service of the Kingdom of God. To be complete, priestly celibacy must go with prayer and charity, which open the priest to God (prayer) and the neighbour (charity).

When prayer and charity are lacking, celibacy becomes focused on the self and easily develops into an empty self-indulgence and a certain sadism, an act of hypocrisy, ostentation and pride. It then breeds arrogance and intolerance towards the neighbour, especially those who are considered less capable than oneself in adhering to the commitment. On the contrary, the abstinence involved in celibacy should create a space, which the priest fills, through prayer, with the presence and power of God, as well as the love of neighbour. In fact, abstinence without charity is empty. In the words of Saint Paul: "If I deliver my body to be burned, but do not love, I gain nothing" (1 Cor 13,3). Similarly, a celibate priest or religious lacking in love may be called a renegade.

In fact, the element of mortification inherent in the concept of fasting, makes one think of the emphatic declaration of Jesus' that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12,24). Can this be applied to the "dying" to oneself involved in fasting and by analogy, in celibacy, in order to live in the Lord and for one's neighbours? This would emphasize the fact that celibacy, like fasting, is not an end in itself, but a means of reaching a fullness of life in the image of Jesus, who himself as fully human fasted, was tempted, suffered and died, before rising in glory (Heb 2,18).

In sum, as in fasting, celibacy should not be treated as a dismal affair, for which the priest or religious has to assume a sad or disfigured countenance, to show the seriousness of their devotion. Jesus wishes that the abstinence of priestly celibacy be lived as a source of intimacy ("in secret") with God, who also sees and rewards "in secret"; a relationship that inspires in the priest a joy that is not only internal but also externally perceptible ("anoint your head and wash your face"). A sad celibate is a bad celibate.  


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