As we read earlier, the ministerial priesthood was given to serve the common priesthood. The practice of celibacy has been part of the Church from the very beginning and is a “gift for the Church.” Celibacy emulates the celibate ministry of Christ. The gift of celibacy is that a priest can offer his whole self – body, mind, and soul – to the service of God’s people. This is celibacy “for the sake of the Kingdom” (Mt 19:12). But there is an even deeper meaning to celibacy than total dedication of self to the Church, just as there is an even deeper meaning to marriage than the total dedication of oneself to one’s spouse and family. In fact we cannot understand celibacy without marriage, or marriage without celibacy.
The Meaning of Marriage and Celibacy
In Revelation 19 we read that the whole of salvation history will be fulfilled in the supernatural marriage of Christ the bridegroom to the Church which is His bride. By this union, we who are in the body of Christ through Baptism actually participate in the life of the Trinity. Our whole lives as Christians are aimed at participating in that union with God, which we call ‘heaven.’ St Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:21-33 that natural marriage between a man and a woman is a sign of that ultimate supernatural marriage between Christ and the Church. So married couples give witness to the supernatural marriage through the sign of their natural marriage. A priest also gives witness to the supernatural marriage in a different way: through celibacy. Through his celibacy a priest devotes all of his natural desires for love, union and family to that the very thing which will finally fulfill of all our desires for love, union and family: the supernatural marriage between Christ and the Church. So although celibacy renounces sex and marriage, it in no way denounces it. Rather, it announces the ultimate meaning of sex and marriage, namely the union between Christ and His Church in heaven.
The Priest is a Bridegroom and Father
It’s important to remember that the priest participates in Christ’s identity and mission. As Christ is the Bridegroom to the Church, the priest participates in Jesus’ identity and ministry of bridegroom. As a spouse of the Church, God gives grace through the priest’s ministry to his people for their spiritual growth. As a result, a priest becomes a spiritual father to the many children who grow in faith through his ministry.
Celibacy: An Eschatological Sign
Listen to Fr Barron’s homily explaining the meaning of celibacy
Celibacy in a challenging culture
We live in a culture which proposes only the temporal and prioritises total sexual freedom, marketing that to us as ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’ While ‘eros’ love is natural, the discipline necessary for responsibly living and sharing this God-given gift is very important. This ‘eros’ love, when open to the happiness of others, inspires us to the self-giving gift of ‘agape’ love – which is sacrificial and Christ-like. We usually manifest this kind of love through service of our neighbour. The perfect example of this agape love is Jesus himself. It is his total gift of himself that priests are called to imitate in their celibacy. While celibacy is a discipline of the Church, it is first of all a gift of Christ to the Church and her priests. The discipline safeguards the gift. The gift gives the reason for the discipline. And we in turn love the gift because of him who gives it.
While our secular society promotes a more self-gratifying way of life, through celibacy a priest promotes a way of life beyond this life – the life of the Risen Lord and the saints in heaven. It is through the gift of celibacy that priests give of themselves for others and witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the fullness life he offers us (Matthew 19:12). Therefore, in close friendship with Jesus, the celibate priest becomes a beacon of Jesus’ life, of his hope, of his joy and of his love. To do this in a culture such as ours requires bravery, humility, the support of family, good friends, and total dependence on God.
Everyone Hates Celibacy
Fr Barron responds to common criticisms of celibacy