Celibate Vocations in the Catholic Church

It’s been about six months since I began seriously considering whether I could be a priest.

Which is insane. Unreal. This is coming from a guy who’s grown up wanting to be a dad of five-to-eleven kids (a baseball team!) and who’s always wanted to share romantic moments with a girlfriend/wife, who’s wanted that gorgeous woman to be openly sensitive with, and she would be treated as royalty.

And then six months ago, my conscience wouldn’t let me date a woman unless I seriously addressed these uncomfortable pangs of what could be God telling me he has something different planned for my life.

But different doesn’t mean bad. You’d think that hearing that God is calling you to live single for the rest of your life would be a burden, a crushing disappointment. The kind of calling from God that would make you run to the ends of the earth, rather than travel to Ninevah. But after a little investigation and a lot of prayer, I’ve found that this calling–the calling to a celibate life in service of God–is weirdly comforting.

And there’s a part of me that can’t believe I just published that publicly on my blog.

Recently I gave the teaching at my church’s high school youth group (LifeTeen) on the topic of celibate vocations in the Catholic Church. I’ve re-written some of it to make it fit better on the blog format.

Starting at the beginning: how to talk about celibacy

When talking about celibacy, firstly it must be known that this is always a conversation about love.

After all—what is in common with all vocations, all ways of life that God calls you to? Love. No matter who you are or what God calls you to, you know for a fact that you are called to love, and nothing less. Whether you are a missionary, a parent of three, twenty-something and still single, or a ten-year-old child, you are called to love. It’s simply how God ordered the universe and binds the universe together. Love is the highest of Christian virtues, the strongest of emotions, and the force which moves the world. Love is what forgives us our sins and draws us into heaven; love is what sustains our souls for eternal joy. God is love, right? And it’s because God loves the universe that, frankly, it still exists. He holds your atoms in existence because he loves them–and he loves that they form you. And God wants us to be in him more and more. You don’t need to have a spouse to receive or give God’s love. Especially if you respect Jesus–who never married, he never engaged in conjugal relations, and he was perfectly fulfilled in service to God.

Unfortunately, celibacy is often viewed as a kind of loneliness, or permanent separation. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable because we can’t imagine how we would receive any love in a life without a significant other, without a spouse in marriage to hold our trust and hear our hearts and share our life with. And, to make matters worse, we’ve been inculturated to believe that sexual relations brings us to the fulfillment of our humanity; that if we die without ever having engaged in sex, we were never truly human. And our emotions and passions certainly don’t help us think straight, either.

While celibacy means no sexual intimacy, it does not mean loneliness, and it does not mean lack of emotional intimacy. Sexual intimacy means promising yourself to love deeply only one person. Freedom from that allows a person to serve the needs of hundreds of people; to sympathize with them, to share with them in their joys and sorrows, to suffer alongside those who suffer. For priests and especially for Franciscans, it also means hanging out with other people who are lonely—the people our society forgets about, such as the homeless, the mentally ill, the elderly, and maybe just people who are down on their luck and ended up alone. The world is full of lonely people–people who, for one reason or another, don’t have a spouse either, and have also bought the tripe our culture says about them concerning those who aren’t married. That is why we have priests, nuns, and friars—because this world badly needs love, and celibacy has a unique capacity to reach out and love the unloved.

God’s plan for you–not as invasive and controlling as it sounds

You’ve probably heard that God has a plan for you.

This plan could be called your vocation, but at the same time it’s much greater than who you’ll marry or what parish you’ll preside in or what religious order you’ll join.

God’s plan for you is the plan for how he’s going to draw you up into heaven; how love will invade your soul and sanctify you, until you become like Jesus and Mary and your soul will find perfect peace and love and adventure in God’s limitless creativity. Your vocation takes your sanctification into consideration, as well as the sanctification of those whom you’ll be in contact with–your friends, your family, and those God will put under your care. God’s plan is about your holiness and, yes, your happiness, too. Believe it or not, priests are happy, and so are monks and nuns.

God, who designed your personality, your physical features, your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, he knows and wants to give you what will make you most happy. He knows exactly what it’ll take for you to receive his pure love, unfiltered, and so to be sanctified for you to not only reach heaven, but in love carry your friends and family into heaven with you. If you’re in the wrong vocation, it’ll be harder for you to receive that love, and harder for you to give love to others in return, because it won’t come as naturally as it would have come had you paid attention to God’s call and gone into the vocation that was made for your personality/spirituality/gifts/temperaments.

Spiritual children

While marriage is what the majority of people are called to, there remains for the few, the joy, the mysterious desire, of the life of the religious.

While the physical expression of love within the context of marriage is in the generation of new life (BABIES!), the expression of love within the context of religious life is the regeneration of life in new believers, as well as the continual regeneration of the spirit of Catholics worldwide. Married couples give birth to babies, by their love, and then have tons of (“d’awwww,” “peek-aboo,” “coochie-coochie-cooo”) love to give to these babies. But priests and religious live out Christ’s calling when he says, “If you are not born again, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”

Priests and religious then, have their own spiritual children. As I mentioned earlier, the highest calling, the highest vocation, the highest reality, for human beings is love. Love is what brings us to heaven. The love of priests and religious toward us can deliver us into the arms of Jesus in a special way that parents cannot; after all, we need priests to hear our confessions, to offer sacrifices for us, to celebrate the Mass, to marry us together, to baptize our friends and our children.

We also need religious orders in the Church to help point us to an even deeper sense of holiness and reverence than we normally experience in parish life. We need the dedicated and devout prayers of the religious to carry our Church through the tumultuous waters of this age–an age that, if things keep going the way they’re headed, seems as if it might overcome and extinguish the consecrated life.

Community life, community love

At the end of the day, when all the day’s work is done, the priest has the loving support of his parish as well as his priest-brothers, whom he confides in as his best buds. In religious orders, however, the brotherly relationships are much more apparent. In some religious communities, they eat all of their meals together, as a rule. They see each other all the time, as in many communities the friars and nuns won’t normally leave the abbey.

Over the years of formation, they form strong bonds of friendship and comradery and trust. It’s the farthest thing from loneliness as can be.

But perhaps most important of all, and I don’t think I could possibly overstate this, is the intimate and familial relationship that is formed between a friar or priest and God himself. You see, a vocation isn’t discovered or stumbled upon by force of will or intellect. It’s a gift from God, and he reveals it through close and intimate and trusting prayer. It’s not just knowing God on a first-name basis, but knowing God on a “you’re-all-I-have-left in-this-world” basis. It’s a matter of putting all your chips on the table and placing your bet where God is whispering.

From an outside viewpoint, it’s just nuts. The idea that you’d willingly give up your one and only life–your one and only shot at having the best human experience you can have with your life (and all the sex, beaches, mountains, friendships, thrills, and lifestyles one can experience)–and trading all of that in and saying, “Not for me. I want God, and God only. I want him in my dreams, I want him when I wake. I want him when I’d rather be on a beach, and I want him when my mind and body demand sex, food, and money. I want him more than human relationships, and I believe him when he says he’ll be with me always… even until the end of the age.”

And with that leap of faith, many priests and friars have found that God is there. He won’t impose his will on you, and he won’t make himself so obvious that you’d be stupid not to turn to him. But if you trust him–if you give yourself away to him–you’ll have the deepest, richest love you could ever find. Who could ever love you deeper than Love itself?

The priest is never alone, nor the nun, in her cell with her rosary, nor the Trappist kneading curd. Those who have found–through truly massive amounts of prayer and devotion–that they are called to the celibate life, have found that it wasn’t something new they were looking for, but something they already had all along. A desire to spend the rest of one’s life in poverty, prayer, chastity, and love.

But how will you know if you don’t pray?

Suggested reading:

To Save a Thousand Souls by Fr. Brett Brannon. I’ve read this twice and intend to read it again. It’s a must-read and really the best place to begin.

The Liturgy of the Hours. Granted, you don’t read them, you pray them. As Yoda said, “Pray them you must.”*

The Celibacy Myth by Fr. Charles Gallagher and Fr. Thomas Vandenberg. This is an out-of-print book from the 1980s so you’ll have to dig through the ends of the internet or the bowels of your Catholic university library to find a copy. A must-read for understanding celibacy.

“The Priest I Seek” and “Mary and the Office of the Priest” by Hans Urs von Balthasar from the book, Priestly Spirituality, published by Ignatius Press. The rest of the essays in this book are just meh.

The Priest Is Not His Own by the venerable Fulton Sheen. Especially to get at the heart-intention of the priesthood, supported by pastoral Catholic teaching.

Biographies are also a great way to get a grasp on the holiness of the priesthood. Fr. Francis Trochu’s The Curé d’Ars and Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s biography of The Life of Fr. Eugene Hamilton will really show you what the heart of a priest is supposed to look like.

That should cover the priesthood. I’ve read a few other things, but none I could recommend. For the consecrated religious life (monks and nuns!), I’ve only just begun reading, so the list is much shorter:

The Contemplative Life by Fr. Thomas Philippe, OP. A must-read, especially if you’re (like me) thinking about the Dominican order.

“Thomas Aquinas and Vocational Discernment”, by Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP. It’s an essay that you can read here: http://vocations.opwest.org/home/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Thomas-Aquinas-and-Vocational-Discernment.pdf

And keep up your own spiritual readings. As I read St. Francis de Sales’ Lenten sermons during the span of Lent, so I plan to read his Marian sermons during the span of May. Find your own favorite saint or favorite spiritual writings and keep up reading through them. Your vocational discernment is not just about the priesthood and religious life. It’s about your holiness and happiness–so continue reading the things that stir your heart and mind.

And one more thing! Check out http://www.vocationboom.com. Listen to their podcasts!

And talk to your vocation director!

*Also: “Pray, or pray not. There is no try.”

May the fourth be with you!

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