Perhaps the first question to address is this: who are priests called to be? The Priesthood is not a career, but a vocation. The Acts of the Apostles 6:3-6 (1) reveals to us the importance of Ordination, for the authority passed on to those who are called is expressed very specifically through the Apostles; or, today, through the Successors of the Apostles, the Bishops. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in Called to Communion, refuted the modernist notion that the priesthood is about pop-psychology’s advancement of “self-realization”, or that it is another method of employment in which one can develop one’s own talents and gifts. Rather, he goes right to the heart of the matter and explains that the priesthood calls men to die to themselves in order that Christ may live in and through them. Holy Orders is a Sacrament which sends the men on a mission to give what does not otherwise belong to them, to bear something that is committed to their charge. (2) It is an awesome responsibility, requiring not ambition, but selflessness.
Yet, what is the purpose of this precious mission? “Through Holy Orders men are set aside and consecrated to God, to offer the Sacrifice of the Eucharistic Victim, to nourish the flock of the faithful with the Bread of Angels and the food of doctrine…” (3) The purpose of the Priesthood is to stand in the person of Christ so that through his mortal fingers, Christ may come Sacramentally to His People. Through Holy Orders, those called by God to the priesthood receive the power over Christ’s own body, to consecrate the bread and wine, changing them into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. In that moment, it is not the priest who does anything; it is Jesus Christ. The priest becomes an instrument of God, as it were, disappearing so that Christ can be made present. It belongs specifically to the nature of the priesthood to lay down his own life so that Jesus might live through him, may be made present through him, and nowhere is this reality more profound than at the consecration where he states, “This is my Body; this is my Blood.”
The grace of salvation, which comes to us through the Sacraments, can only ordinarily be made present to the world through the ministerial priesthood. It is for this primary purpose they are called and consecrated. It is for the life not only of the Church, but of the whole world, that these men are called to stand and serve in the person of Christ. All that he does is ordered towards the salvation of souls, and the unity of the Mystical Body, the Church. It is through the Sacraments that all are called into this body, and through the Sacrament of Penance, the laity and priesthood alike are purified and prepared to receive the greatest of the Sacraments, the saving Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. (4)
The priesthood is a sign of contradiction to the world, for it is a visible mark of the folly and the glory of the Cross. We see this especially in the vow of celibacy, for this is a charism the world rejects and outright attacks. Yet in looking at the priesthood with an understanding of who and what these men are called to be, celibacy is a considerable factor in how they can be most perfectly conformed to Christ and most perfectly lead the people through the Cross of Christ and into the Resurrection.
It is the grace of celibacy that allows the priest to enter into the selflessness that especially conforms him to Jesus Christ. Celibacy, in fact, is a sign that the love of God overcomes all.
Yet, what is this motivation to renounce all, especially marriage and children, for the sake of the Kingdom? In a world such as ours, what causes men to be so willing to give up so much? Charles Cardinal Journet observes in Theology of the Church, “Only the love that moves one to renounce all can, in the Church, sustain that love which makes an instrument of all.” (5) Those who, through marriage or other more temporal states in life must by necessity be engaged in the use of earthly things are hindered, in some ways, of achieving the ability to be focused primarily on the needs of the Church. They are, by necessity, divided. In being willing to give everything to Christ’s Church, the priest is renouncing something worldly in order to be free to allow grace to sustain him and make him completely into an instrument of God.
In returning briefly to the discussion of the purpose of the priesthood, the role of the priest is to devote himself to sanctifying activities, yet to exist with and suffer with the people, allowing them to largely handle the temporal concerns of the world. It is his role to instruct, to preach, to lead, to remain present in all they do, but always directing his flock towards the greater goal, and providing the spiritual resources to aid them both spiritually and in their temporal works so that they will continue to grow in sanctity. Celibacy, then, is liberating. It is a liberty gained from the renunciation of the activities of marriage for the sake of the Church, yet this renunciation isn’t only celibacy, but something more. It enters into poverty of spirit, of poverty of self, a self-emptying which allows him the freedom to become an alter Christus; another Christ.
It is this very poverty which makes him an instrument of God. “What passes to the world through it is not the poverty of the minister but the riches of Christ.” (6) Herein we see the folly and the glory of the Cross; for the priest is a sign of contradiction. In a world of hedonism, he has given up everything the world claims will make them happy, and therein, not only does he find true wealth, but he gives that wealth to his flock. A life of religious servitude, as in the priesthood, should be free him as much as possible from all the concerns of a material life. He is placed into a position to give what he does not himself possess, to enable him to do what he cannot do in and of himself. (7) It entails a dependence upon God, upon spiritual realities, preferring those to temporal means. And therein, the priest finds the Cross, he is conformed to the Cross, bearing out body and soul the scourge of both the folly and glory of the Cross as he is liberated to become more conformed to Christ in whose place he serves.
Celibacy is a higher calling, a more noble calling, and, one could argue in this context, a necessary component of the priesthood. It is a more perfect way to live, ordered to and justified through service for the general good of the Church. There is more perfection in happiness than in the married state, for those who are celibate are free to focus more completely on sanctifying work, while those who are married must, by necessity, be concerned for the cares of his family. (8) How can a priest function so divided? How can he fully empty himself in order to live for Christ and His Church as a whole if he must also be especially devoted to a wife and children? How can he be concerned with the affairs of God if he is constantly halted by the roadblocks of the world?
Virginity and Celibacy makes the body and soul more similar to God, conforming one more perfectly to Christ. It is more akin to the angelic state. Matthew 19:10-12 addresses the necessity of the celibate life for the sake of the kingdom, (9) and in 1 Corinthians 7:25-26, Paul expounds on the fact that those who remain celibate also enjoy a freedom not available to those who are bound by marriage. (10) Indeed, the vow of celibacy is also binding, as much as is marriage, but within those bonds, the priest is granted the ability to be more perfectly conformed to Christ in order to better lay down his life for His Church.
In considering the nature and purpose of the priesthood, in considering the character that defines their mission, and the sacrifice of the one in whose place they are called to serve, clearly we must also recognize the necessary freedom of response to that intimate call. It is not an easy life; it is one of sacrifice, of selflessness, and only those who are willing to give everything so that Christ might live through them can receive this life. The consideration of celibacy is an important factor for it seems that only through this charism can a man freely and fully give of himself, and truly die in order that the Church might have life through the gift of salvation.
1. Acts 6: 3-6 : “Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they shoes Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon and Parmenas and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.”
2. Called to Communion, Ratzinger, p 115: “This is precisely what we mean when we call the ordination of priests a sacrament: ordination is not about the development of one’s own powers and gifts. It is not the appointment of a man as a functionary because he is especially good at it, or because it suits him, or simply because it strikes him as a good way to earn his bread; it is nota question of a job in which someone secures his own livelihood by his own abilities, perhaps in order to rise later to something better.”
3. Mystici Corporis Christi, 20
5. Journet, p. 270
6. Journet, p 114
7. Called to Communion, p115: “Sacrament means: I give what I myself cannot give; I do something that is not my work; I am on a mission nand have become the bearer of that which another has committed to my charge.”
8. Journet, p. 264 “All things being equal, it is not the state of marriage that profits the Church the most. There is more perfection and happiness, as she herself declares it, in remaining keeping celibate than in living in the married state.”
9. Mt 19: 10-12: “The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.’”
10. 1 Cor 7:25-26 : “Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the impending distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. “