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Of Celibacy, Priesthood, and the Holy Spirit (an editorial)

By Christine Schenk

It is a mystery to me why churchmen like Australia’s Cardinal Pell feel the need to defend the charism of celibacy. “To loosen this tradition now would be a serious error,” Pell said during the Synod on the Eucharist. “It would be a departure from the practice of the Lord Himself.”

Huh? I thought Jesus asked a married man, St. Peter, to lead the early Christian community. And didn’t the early church have both married (Peter, Prisca) and celibate (Paul) leadership? And didn’t the Church flourish?

With all due respect, the Cardinal would do well to listen to his own priests. A recent survey of more than 300 priests conducted by Pell’s Sydney Archdiocese found that 55% believed celibacy should be optional. The National Council of Priests of Australia (which includes 42 bishops and three cardinals) released a statement of concern about the lack of availability of the Eucharist because of the priest shortage. They requested "the synod fathers [to] examine honestly the appropriateness of insisting upon a priesthood that is, with very few exceptions, obliged to be celibate. Priesthood is a gift, celibacy is a gift: They are not the same gift.”

Indeed. They are not the same gift. Which is why, when people like Cardinal Pell issue dire warnings that a married priesthood would “weaken the sign value of the priesthood; it would weaken, too, the witness to loving sacrifice,” I know that here is a man who never got up in the middle of the night to care for a sick child. There are many kinds of sacrifice. Celibacy is one kind. Marriage is most definitely another. While I have never been married, I have had the annual privilege of playing house-mother to six children, so my married friends, David and Mary Ellen, could take a much needed vacation. Invariably, I came home exhausted and exhilarated by the challenge and gift of parenting.

But back to celibacy. You see, I’m called to celibacy myself. I love this lifestyle because it is the best way for me to experience and witness to the God of love. It is a gift that crept into my life unexpectedly but definitely, arriving as a summons to a deeper walk with mystery...mystery that I am somehow called to embody in the very act of embracing (or being embraced by) it.

Confused? Well, try sometime to explain falling in love with your life partner. That’s pretty confusing and mysterious too... and yet another beautiful experience of, and witness to, the God of love.

If celibacy really is a gift of the Spirit, why are we so afraid to allow the Spirit to do Her thing and permit it to be optional for diocesan priests? Do we really think the celibate charism will disappear if we allow priests to choose it freely? What kind of trust in the Holy Spirit is that?

Can a gift truly be a gift if it isn’t freely given and freely received? True gifts do not coerce. When will we finally believe the priests who tell us the Spirit has gifted them for the priesthood but not for celibacy? It is a distortion of the gift of celibacy to demand it of those called to priesthood but not to celibacy.

Our Church needs spiritual leaders who are as diverse as we are. We need married priests, celibate priests, black, white, brown, yellow and red priests, male priests and yes, (gasp) female priests.

I deeply dislike the notion that the celibate spiritual path is some sort of an “inside track” to the holy mystery of God. Jesus really hated it when his disciples argued about who was greatest in God’s kingdom. His idea was that the greatest is the one who loves the most and serves the least ones. Jesus leaves us free to choose the lifestyle that will best help us love deeply and serve humbly...a choice that will necessarily be different for each of us.

Here is my question for Church leaders, apparently so fearful of celebrating both celibate and married priestly calls.

Why do you have so little trust in the Spirit that you seek to control God’s gifts?

 

 

Fall 2005

 

 

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