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Celibacy: Fidelity to one’s

priestly identity


Dominic Tang Yee-ming

Archbishop of Canton


I was fourteen years old when I told my mother that I wished to be a priest. She sent me to Macau about 40 miles west of Hong Kong (where I was born) to enter St Joseph’s seminary located there. Six years later, I obtained my bishop’s permission to enter the Portuguese province of the Society of Jesus. After the usual studies, I was ordained in Shanghai in 1941 and remained in that city ministering to the Cantonese-speaking Catholics until I returned to Canton in 1946 and was assigned to Shekki, a city to the North of Macau. On 1 October 1950, Pius XII nominated me as Apostolic Administrator of the Canton Diocese.


These first years of priestly ministry were difficult ones, for the Communists were already in power and the Catholic faithful were undergoing intense pressures. My approach was pastoral and my first care was to animate the clergy who had been disheartened by the revolutionary changes that were then taking place in China — the Sino-Japanese War and following upon this the Communist take-over of power. I initiated a programme of intense pastoral activity with frequent sermons, retreats and other devotional practices. I invited the clergy and Sisters to take part in this ministry.


Relations with the political authorities deteriorated owing to my refusal to countenance the Patriotic Association they had set up to separate the Chinese Church from the Holy See. I myself was subjected to six public denunciations and finally arrested and brought to jail on 5 February 1958. For the following 22 years, I was kept isolated from all family and friends. During seven years, I was kept in solitary confinement even from my fellow prisoners. Prayer and the Spirit of the Lord sustained me especially in those dark hours when at times I felt far from the Lord.


It is from this background that I have reflected on the theme presented to me for comment: celibacy — the heart of a priest’s identity and commitment. How do I view celibacy for the priest? I see it as a response to a call from the Lord, to give oneself totally to him and to the care of his people. A married man has obligations to his wife and family. These are of prime importance and he cannot shirk them without serious detriment to himself and his family. This is his responsibility before the Lord. For his way of life — the married state — is his response to the call of the Lord. If a priest were to be married, this commitment to family would take precedence over his pastoral ministry. Since this is so, I ask, how can a priest, who is called to dedicate himself totally to his people, marry? He would be immersed in his own world, concerned and preoccupied about his wife and children, and would be seriously torn between two polarities his family and the people to whom he ministers.


A priest’s commitment is a response to a call from the Lord. The Lord himself did not marry. He gave himself totally to his people. It is in this way that the priest imitates the Lord. I realize that there are those in the Church today who find this type of celibate commitment difficult, some say even impossible. Perhaps we should learn a lesson from the Chinese Communists. During the Cultural Revolution in China, many of the clergy were forced into marriages. This was one way the Communists attacked the Church and its ministers. They did not understand celibacy, belittled it and wanted to do away with it. There were priests who got married. However, over the years, the Communists have come to realize that Catholics will not accept these married priests as their ministers. They strongly oppose having any Catholic priest who is married to act as their spiritual leader. I do not believe that they are passing personal judgement on these priests, but what they are saying, it seems to me, is that they want celibate priests who can dedicate their whole lives to the Lord and to his people. No other commitment will do. I witnessed many cases of infidelity to celibacy in my long years of pastoral service. It is not to make any judgement on the persons involved, but it is sad to say that most of them did not remain faithful to their Christian life. Some wanted to convert but they were hindered by their ‘wives’ and not a few even lost their faith in the end. I cite two examples that are common knowledge in China. In Shanghai, a married priest wanted to say Mass in the church. The Catholics would not permit him to do this and took him off the altar. In Kunming, a bishop got married and was going to say a public Mass. Local Catholics heard of this and publicly advertised the fact. The bishop did not say Mass. This opposition coming from the Catholic community has forced the Communist authorities to change their policy. This is not easy for them to do. They have had to admit that only unmarried priests can be ordained to serve these communities. They do this not out of any admiration of the celibate state as such but to preserve harmony in the communities.


Does this demand of Chinese Catholic communities for celibate priests rest solely on traditional practices? This is to say, do these communities wish to have celibate priests only because that was what was done in the past and therefore should continue for the future? I believe not. I believe that the reasons behind these Catholic communities demanding celibate priests goes much deeper than mere tradition, although this may be one of the factors involved. Celibacy for the kingdom of God has its own value as the Lord himself states. St Paul counsels celibacy. One of its values he sees is the freedom it gives to the person. Celibates enjoy their freedom as a special gift by which they can fully dedicate themselves to the Lord and to his work. This sets such persons apart. This does not mean that these people are better than others who follow a different calling from the Lord. What it does mean is that the celibate person is set apart for total service to the Christian community. This is, I believe and as my experience teaches me, one of the chief reasons why our Chinese Catholic communities demand celibacy for their spiritual leaders. They want to have a person dedicated and determined to follow the Lord completely and who will in turn lead them to know, love and follow him. They themselves realize that they have many concerns and occupations. Owing to these concerns, they may not always have clear insight into the ways of the Lord. They trust their spiritual leaders who have completely dedicated themselves to the Lord, to help them discover his ways in their lives.


Celibacy is not something completely foreign to our Chinese culture. Buddhist monks and nuns do not marry. They are seeking liberation from desire, a detachment from worldly pleasures that may impede them from attaining Nirvana. In the eyes of the Buddhist faithful, monks and nuns are expected to be faithful to their vows. They should not marry and if they do the Buddhist faithful would prefer them to return to the world rather than continue being a ‘married monk or nun’. I note this fact not because I wish to identify the Buddhist motivation for celibacy with the Christian profession of celibacy undertaken from the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospel. I just wish to emphasize the value placed upon celibacy, and the expectations even non-Catholics have for fidelity in living such vows. As in the case of Catholic priests, the Communist authorities have been compelled to recognize this fact and so they have ceased forcing Buddhist monks and nuns to marry.


I have personally witnessed many times over the inner strength the Lord gives to a person facing the loss of freedom, suffering and even death. Specifically, I wish to talk about those who have vowed celibacy and who have persevered in their commitment. I am well aware that not only celibate Christians have had to witness to Christ. The Annals of the Chinese martyrs, once it is written, will be long with the names of the lay persons, men and women, young and old, who along with priests and sisters have had to endure suffering, imprisonment and even death for their commitment to the Lord. I wish to point out that a celibate life, one that is lived in close union with the Lord, does prepare one very well for the supreme sacrifice of one’s life if this is the path that the Lord leads his faithful disciple to follow.


There was my secretary, Fr Anthony Ngan Tak-Kang. Many called him a living saint. He would have smiled at this title and be amazed that his very ordinary life would merit such acclamation. He would refuse such praise and would continue to carry out his daily duties and live his life in accord with the promise he had made to the Lord many years before. He would see nothing heroic in this. However, when the moment of testing did arrive, he showed more than ordinary courage and fortitude. His outstanding example is but one among many that his brother priests from all over China have given and who had to undergo the same crucible of suffering. In his relations with women, Fr Ngan was always courteous and reserved. This did not prevent him from performing his pastoral work for whoever requested it, men or women. No one ever suggested that he was unfaithful in the smallest degree in his obligations to priestly celibacy. This is one of the main reasons why he was so respected and even venerated by all the Catholics who knew him.


He was a very good secretary. He understood my mind well and was an excellent advisor especially helping me make the many hard decisions during those difficult days when the Communists were applying more and more pressure to the Church. On one occasion, we were trying to find the means of paying the heavy taxes the authorities were imposing upon us. At the same time, we had to support our clergy and the sisters. Some counselled the selling of Church property and possessions. He simply said no; we could not dispose of Church property in violation of canon law, even if this meant that we had to live a poor life and suffer any privations. He wished that we walk with the poor Christ and preserve Church property. Certainly the pride of possessions did not motivate him. He just wanted to make sure that the Church had the means and wherewithal to continue its mission in the future when more difficult days were to come. A few months later we did lose all Church property. It was confiscated by the so-called ‘Real Estate Management Committee’ — cadres of the Communist government and members of the Patriotic Association comprised this committee. In no way does this change the correctness of Fr Anthony’s advice given at a time when good men and women were hard put to see beyond present travails.


He was arrested on the same day as I was and, like myself, was imprisoned without trial. He was sent to a labour camp in the North of Guangdong province. All that he owned at the time were the few rags on his back. He had always lived poorly and was constantly giving things away to those poorer than himself. Coarse food, hard labour and illness — his legs became infected and swollen so that he could not walk — caused his death. He never once wavered in his commitment to the Lord and fidelity to the Church.


I could go on to mention other priests as well, men such as my vicar general, Fr Andrew Chan Jik-san who took my place when I was arrested. He was brought to Beijing and pressured to become a bishop in my stead by joining the Patriotic Association under government control. He always refused. Back in Canton he was arrested. Beaten and kept in a police station, he was able to sneak out and crawled home on all fours. Some Christians took him in and he died soon after.


There were many more such witnesses to the faith in China. The words of the Letter to the Hebrews come to mind and they encourage us who are left behind: «Let us persevere in running the face that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus» (12:1).

Just before I was released from prison, I underwent a final examination. I was questioned on my attitude towards the Vatican, I answered: «I am a Catholic and I cannot separate from the Pope.» This angered the official. «After 22 years you are still the same stubborn old man.» Ten days later he came back to me and said: «First of all, you are honest. You have never used money given to the Church for your own personal benefit, not even the money given to you by your mother. Second, you never played around with women and, finally, you never have harmed the people.» These were the three reasons given for my release. «Never playing around with women» was the negative way that official used to attest to the fact that I had kept my celibacy intact. Of course, this was a grace of the Lord. It was a grace even manifest to an atheistic government that had no use for celibacy. Yet in releasing me from prison and inducing this as one of the reasons, they were forced to admit that something about celibacy was good. They could not say why, but we Christians can, for it is Jesus who said: «Some have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it» (Mt 19:12, New American Bible).