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The spirituality of priestly

celibacy

Divo Barsotti

Theologian

 

Christian perfection is perfection of charity. Just as faith is sure and peaceful adhesion to the truth and does not involve doubts, so charity is the fruit of the Spirit and in each of even its lowest degrees involves an absolute adhesion to God. There is no charity where God is not loved as supreme good: if you think you can share love for him with love for others, you do not love. The order of charity is that God is to be loved with a total love: with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. And as faith excluding all doubt is a gift from God, so too is that charity a gift from God that excludes all division.

 

But how is a spiritual journey possible, if right from the start of the journey we are within God? On the other hand, were we not in God, how could we be saved, not having reached perfection of charity? But clearly no spiritual life is possible that does not entail the overcoming of human conditions. How otherwise could we transcend ourselves and all created things, so as to reach God and cling to him in faith and love? Faith is a gift from God, and charity is a gift from God. So we must find which route to take to lead us to spiritual perfection. The Spirit does not operate in our nature as an external force, beyond our powers, but in our own gifts. He moves our powers in such wise that our whole nature becomes Godís instrument. If we are in grace, we are already in God, but God requires us to cooperate in his activity, and the way we must cooperate in Godís activity is by consenting and being docile to the activity of the Spirit.

 

God transfers us into himself, but in God we can complete Ďourí journey, which can be without end in a God without end. What happens in the spiritual life is rather like what happens in ordinary life. At birth we are already human beings, but what a long way we have to go before we can live like human beings! The progress we make in the spiritual life depends on how docile we are to Godís activity. Practising the moral virtues then is only the actual expression of a spiritual life, since the practice of these virtues, which depends on the activity of the Spirit, is as it were transparent, is as it were leavened by love. For the virtues of a Christian are enlivened by charity; if not enlivened by charity, they cannot be called Christian. So it may be said, the virtues are, as it were, a kind of embodiment of love and, as there is no Christian virtue without love, so there is no charity in a Christian without the virtues in which charity lives.

 

There is a journey in the virtues which bespeaks the soulís progress in docility to the Spirit. In this docility, all human behaviour becomes transformed. So, the spiritual life involves all the virtues.. In the moral life of human beings you might find one virtue without another, but in the spiritual life of Christians you cannot have one virtue without all the rest.

 

In the spiritual life of the priest, there is one virtue which postulates all the others but nonetheless seems particularly significant of his state and mission. To speak of the spirituality of the priesthood is particularly to consider this virtue. It is ecclesiastical celibacy. In the practice of this virtue are we then to recognize the priestís particular route towards his own perfection of charity? It might seem that celibacy was not an expression of love; of itself it seems only to speak of renunciation, and besides celibacy is not essentially linked to priesthood.

 

The term indeed is not a happy one: Ďcelibacyí as it stands says something negative, that is to say renunciation of marriage, and could even mean a state of life that excludes love and shuts a man in on himself. Quite the reverse: the celibacy of the priest is not intended to mean something negative: by celibacy, the Church desires the perfect chastity of the priest. Priestly spirituality has its truest expression precisely in perfect chastity, since chastity, in the priest, is the actual expression of his charity.

 

We have said, one virtue postulates all the others, but in any given state of life there is one particular virtue which seems to express and reveal charity best. Were chastity not enlivened by charity, it would be rejection of love. But by celibacy, contrariwise, the Church manifests the desire for its priests to be holy. Chastity in the priesthood, contrary to being a defence against love, is the charism of perfect love, of a love which, like Godís, is prevenient, gratuitous, universal.

 

For the priestís devotion to his mission is not his response to being loved by the brethren: the priest too, like the Lord, has to love first. If he can name any reason for his love, it is because he is particularly drawn by the wretchedness of those he has to save. True, the unique Saviour of all is Jesus the Son of God, but the salvation he has won for all in point of fact reaches each individual through the priestly service of those whom Christ associates with himself in his mission. The gives his life for the brethren; priestly ordination consecrates him to a service from which henceforth he may never be freed: a service demanding the total gift of self. And to no one per se can he refuse his love.

 

How could the priest live this love, were Jesus not living within him? Priesthood demands and at the same time postulates the most intimate union, indeed a certain unity, with Christ: Christ himself must live within him, and Christís life is love to the point of sacrifice, love till death. This unity with Christ, for whom there is only one life and only one love, cannot be lived without perfect chastity. Priestly chastity is therefore, as it were, the sacramental sign of the priestís union with Christ.

 

It has often been said and we say it again: the priest is Ďanother Christí. In the exercise of the priesthood, every priest acts in the person of Christ, but that which comes about by the power conferred on him in ordination, though per se assuring the efficacity of his sacramental acts, nonetheless demands that the priestís life ó lest it be a lie óbe one with Christís.

 

So, contrary to living the rejection of love, in chastity the priest realizes that nuptial union which, according to the greatest spiritual masters, is indeed the very perfection of spiritual life. Were it not so, chastity could not become a condition of loving, and would instead become a condition of self-centredness, closing the priestís soul and heart, making his life empty and sterile. For marriage was raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament because the love of men and women prefigured the union of Christ with the Church. The perfect chastity of the priest is not only a figure of that union, but its more or less perfect fulfilment. Only thus, by becoming one sole Spirit with Christ will the priest live a true participation in Christís prevenient and gratuitous love and be Christ personified, in him to live his same passion of love, his mission of universal salvation.

 

Exclusive love for Christ, for whose sake the priest freely renounces having a family of his own, so dilates his heart as to make him capable of a love that knows no bounds. His family is the universe. True, human conditioning persists. Even Jesus was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but this did not prevent him from being in fact the Saviour of the world. If on the visible and social plane a limit is set to a manís activity, charity knows no limit other than its own imperfection. This is why the priest too receives a canonical mission limited in time and space, but the charity that inspires him, of itself, knows no bounds, is eternal and cannot exclude anyone.

 

One and indivisible is the mission of Christ, and each of us Christians lives it in the state of life in which the Lord has placed us and in those conditions of time and place which Providence has assigned for us to live in. But more than the ordinary Christian, the priest, in the chastity uniting him to Christ in an indivisible charity, is committed to

living Christís own mission. Indeed, it is perfect chastity which opens him to universal charity: nothing and no one ties him down and divides him from others. He is one with Christ, to become one with all.

 

This union is only accomplished in Christ and involves all humanity, all creation, in a manner being assumed by the Word and becoming one sole Christ in him. Thus the Person of the Word, by whom all things were made, becomes the principle of unity for the whole human race and for the whole creation too; but none of this happens without the priesthood. The priesthood is Godís instrument for accomplishing this marvellous design. True, this is mainly by means of the sacraments that we priests administer, but more important still by the witness of our whole lives.

 

We are taught that Holy Order sets a seal on the nature of the priest. Character does not radically transform human nature but makes it so that each activity of this nature cannot be other than a priestly activity. With all his life, the priest is at the service of the Word, to lead human beings and the world back to Him. For this to be done, the physical world must be subjected to the spirit and the spirit to God. Chastity is the force that brings our emotional life back to obeying the spirit; and therefore in chastity lie the first means for freeing us from the slavery of the senses and for ordering us to the spiritual life. The priest should set an example of this liberation in himself, and be our guide. For, as regards chastity, we are all summoned to begin our journey of healing for a human nature fragmented by sin. Hence the importance of chastity in the life of every Christian, but hence the exceptional importance this virtue ought to have in the life of the priest, who is more directly called to live Christís mission, so that all physical nature too may be ordered to God.

 

This salvation which is meant to heal the rupture between human beings and God, between human beings among themselves, between human beings and the creation and, lastly, within human beings themselves, which has been brought about by sin, requires that before all else the unity of the human personality be restored. How can the priest be the messenger of and witness to salvation, if he does not by his own life show that he has himself been saved? Once the flesh has been subjected to the spirit, we can then order ourselves Godwards and be safe in God.

 

But salvation cannot isolate, cannot divide us from our fellow-beings and, for the priestly mission, even less can it divide the priest from all the people to whom he has been sent. Chastity, which heals human nature fragmented by sin, is, in the priest, also a commitment to healing the division sin has caused between human beings, and between human beings and the creation. Perfect chastity is that divine force not only raising human nature up to God but raising the whole creation, by ordering it to him. Important for his sanctification, chastity is supremely important for the priestís ministry. In his freedom from all family ties, he is entirely available for his ministry: nothing can or should divert him from that self-giving to which he was consecrated by priestly ordination. He can no longer lead a life of his own, have a profession of his own, have even a name of his own: he belongs to Christ alone. And in him, Christ lives a mission which the priest can say he has accomplished if Christ asks him for the gift of his whole life. The celibacy the Church wants of him would be a mutilation, were it not, on the contrary, the condition through which the mystery of Christ becomes present in him: the mystery of Christís life and death for the salvation of the world. To deny there is a sacrifice on the natural plane is to deny the obvious, but the celibacy of the priest is not loneliness if it is union with Christ, nor sterility if it is loving service.

 

Although it is union with Christ, faithfulness to the pledge of celibacy needs prayer to nourish love, a lively prayer in the priestís personal relationship with Christ. If it is to be loving service, the priest must not shut himself up in himself but feel more and more intensely that he lives for others, that others are his life.

 

Thus we may sum up the spirituality of the priest: he ought to live in intimate union with Christ, with him to be one act of praise to the Father and to be together too in serving others. He will live his union with Christ in self-giving to the brethren. Holiness and mission will thus be inseparable and their union will be the fruit of a chaste love. Celibacy, which might seem to isolate him, becomes the sign of a love which, by uniting him to Christ, also makes him a man for all.

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