Because of the shortage of priests in many countries, we are seeing renewed efforts in vocation ministry. Many dioceses and religious orders are increasing their commitment of personnel, time and money, in order to attract and invite young men to apply for the seminary. This increase seems necessary.
However, just as there should be truth in advertising commercial products, there should be truth in advertising the priesthood. I have been a priest for over thirty years. And if I were doing the advertising, I would stand up and shout the truth that the priesthood is one of the most interesting and most challenging vocations on the face of this earth. The priesthood gives a person the sublime responsibility to preach God's Word, to celebrate the Eucharist, and to lavish the Lord's forgiveness. A priest works directly with human beings, the most fascinating of all God's creatures. And we bring God's sacramental and healing presence to these human beings at the most crucial times in their lives, e.g. birth and death, marriage and divorce, growing up and aging. We teach, counsel, and administrate. We minister to the physically sick and the emotionally ailing. We are present to people in their successes and in their failures. We laugh with them. We cry with them. We gather them together and lead them in beseeching God, thanking God, and worshiping God. We walk hand in hand with our people across the holy ground where their journey of faith takes place. Because of all this, priestly ministry is profoundly meaningful. It challenges and stretches every talent a person has. It requires constant growing. I can't imagine a priest's life ever becoming boring. However.
However, before we let any new candidates apply to the seminary, we should tell them the whole truth. In order to minister as a priest, there is a price to pay. And the price is celibacy. If a person is genuinely called to both the priesthood and to the vocation of celibacy, this should present no problem. If a person is called only to the priesthood, but not to celibacy, they should be told the truth: expect one lifelong struggle.
When many of us followed the call to priesthood, Church law stated that we had to be celibate too. That was part of the package. Surely there were those among our number who felt called to both vocations. But for others of us, celibacy was basically a rule imposed and a sacrifice to endure, not a vocation we felt called to. And in due time many of our number left the active ministry and married. Others of us, still not called to celibacy, have chosen to stick it out. As young men we thought, "Hey, we can tough it out for the sake of priestly ministry." Sure, it would be difficult to give up a wife and children. But as men who grew up in an era of machismo, with a philosophy that touted rugged individualism, and in a church heavy into penitential practice, we thought we could do it. A little repression and denial never hurt anyone. And someone told us we could "sublimate" sexual energy, which apparently is done with greater ease by those called to celibacy. What many of us didn't know as idealistic seminarians was the deep toll the law of celibacy would take on the soul of one not called to that way of life. With each passing year, the burden simply gets heavier.
Every priest realizes, as Blasé Pascal said, that in the human person there is an abyss that only God can fill. So, realizing this, I think most of us who have stayed in the priesthood have done so with an active prayer life. Through our sacramental ministry, Divine Office, meditation, retreats, spiritual direction, spiritual reading, etc., we have tried to let God fill the abyss that only God can fill. What a lot of us didn't know but have come to experience more each passing year is that there is also a "near abyss" that only another human person can fill. God didn't intend to fill both abysses. In the story of creation in Genesis, after saying that it isn't good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18), God didn't conclude, "Well, I'll fill that need." No, for that purpose God created a woman. And for most of humankind this was and still is God's plan. Over the years, I have come to believe that this is also God's plan for many of the priests I've known. Unfortunately, those who enforce the laws (and are able to change the laws) for the Western Church still can't see this, -- or choose not to see.
Like truth in advertising, truth in vocation ministry should tell those interested in joining the seminary exactly what celibacy will hold out for them if they are not called to it. A few generations ago, those who recruited young men for the priesthood may have warned them that celibacy meant giving up the pleasures of physical union in marriage. What many recruiters didn't tell them was what Carl Jung noted, that marriage is principally a union of souls. It is a matter of balance, oneness, wholeness, "the ultimate unity, the community of the Masculine and the Feminine in their totality in God."
Some say that marriage can distract one from a deep spiritual life, which is what the apostle Paul saw in Corinth (Cf. 1 Cor 7:32). In the lives of husbands and wives who share the same faith, I have frequently observed the opposite to be true. In their married union, they have discovered that their life together is not a distraction from God but a doorway to the Divine. They support and encourage each other in their life of faith. They participate in Eucharist together. They pray and read Scripture together. They constantly "die and rise" together as they parent their children. Many minister together in their local parish. They walk in the presence of Christ at home, in church, and in social settings because, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst" (Matt 18:20). (I believe Tertullian was one of the first to apply that scripture passage to the Sacrament of Marriage.) Through their sacred union husband and wife are one heart in love with God, one will in choosing God, one soul in celebrating God. They experience an ongoing discovery of God as they continue discerning the depths of each other.
We were told in the old days that celibacy is a "witness to the kingdom". The implication was that marriage is not such a witness. What we didn't hear was what Vatican II would tell us, "They (husband and wife) will bear witness by their faithful love.to that mystery of love which the Lord revealed to the world by his death and resurrection." Over the years, in my ministry to married couples, I have found these words in the Roman Wedding Liturgy Ritual of Canada to ring true: "Marriage, then, by its position in the order of creation, is already a sacrament: it is the most powerful symbol of God's love for the world."
There has been a lot said by Pope John Paul II extolling the vocation of celibacy, and pointing out the spiritual opportunities of the single life. All of the above is not to argue against that. For those who are called it, celibacy must be a very meaningful way of life. But celibacy is a unique and rare call. For those who receive this call, celibacy is their way to God. For those who don't receive this call, there is a problem. There is no automatic power or holiness that comes from merely observing a law. Celibacy is not a sacrament that works "ex opere operato." Lawmakers cannot impose a vocation that only God can grant. Lawmakers cannot decree a holiness that comes only from God.
So what is the present state of many priests today? As we stated above, it was Adam to whom the Lord declared in the beginning, "It is not good for the human person to be alone." In the words of Cyril of Alexandria, "God created co-being." So, for those not called to the vocation of celibacy, to attempt to go it "alone" is to try to be something that God didn't intend for them. It is much like fish trying to swim on land, or birds trying to fly under water. That's not how God designed fish or birds. It would be arrogance on the part of fish or birds to try it. A human being trying to live an entire lifetime without a spouse is not the plan God had in mind for most people from the beginning. On the sixth day of creation, God made them to be in his "image and likeness" (Genesis 1:26-27), beautifully crafted as male and female to be one as God is one.
Consequently, what does the Western Catholic Church have today? It has a lot of dutiful priests who minister by sheer grit. They are generously smiling outside, while barely hanging on inside. These priests may have good friends, supportive parishioners, clergy support groups, and fellow religious who try to help. But such well-meaning people are not able to replace the "almost abyss" of a spouse and a family. Thinking that the only legitimate way out of celibacy is death, many priests labor away, waiting for, eventually longing for, the final curtain. Then they will have successfully "endured", but at what cost to their humanness and to the priestly ministry? All this, because of a man-made law. These priests could have joyfully witnessed God's love in a married priesthood, except for our lawmakers and the stubbornness of their hearts.
Galileo received a posthumous apology from Pope John Paul II for the Church's unfair treatment of him years ago. Families of Holocaust victims received an apology from the pope for the Church's inaction during World War II. Eastern Orthodox Christians recently heard him speak words of repentance for injustices of centuries ago. Who will apologize to the many good and faithful servants of today who, not called to celibacy, are paying the ultimate price in order to minister as priests?
All the beautiful words above to extol the vocation of marriage are not to deny its problems. Every priest has counseled (or attempted to counsel) troubled husbands and wives. The high divorce rate is a constant reminder of the difficulties people encounter every day in the married state. If truth in advertising the priestly vocation means telling about the problems of celibacy, truth in marriage preparation (in schools, parish programs, and esp. at home) means telling the truth about the challenges and difficulties that marriage presents today. This article is not meant to encourage the vocation of marriage to anyone not called to it. My purpose is simply to speak against clamping celibacy upon anyone who doesn't feel called to it, but who is still called to the priesthood.
When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba two years ago, he was asked what the United States should do regarding its relationship with that island. The pope responded, "To change, to change." It takes courage to change. And to change an old church law may require more courage than our present pope has within him. But a positive dream and a hope-filled vision can make change exciting. A positive hope-filled vision can help the people in authority find the courage to face necessary changes. So I would like to close with such a vision.
Dream of a parish church where the homilies deal regularly with sacred sexuality in the context of married spirituality, homilies preached by one who is living that vocation.
Envision a diocese where married couples, esp. parents, feel truly affirmed in the beauty of their vocation, because many of their clergy share the same way of life.
Picture a society where young people no longer turn to movies and TV to learn about sex. Instead they are instructed from the pulpit by a believable preacher, whose experience of married sexual love guides the minds and hearts of our youth.
Imagine a church where there is no longer a shortage of quality Eucharistic liturgies on Sundays. The priests are not burnt out by endless hours of ministry and the total number of Masses already celebrated that week. There are enough priests, married and celibate, so that a well-prepared Mass and a well-prepared homily is the norm for every Sunday in every parish.
Think of the believable witness that a religious congregation of celibate priests would give, if people knew these priests chose celibacy when they were free to choose both priesthood and marriage. (Unless celibacy is made optional, religious life will never be distinctive, and it will soon die.)
Because of the growing shortage of priests in their diocese, many bishops have brought in clergy from foreign countries to help out. May God bless these men for their generosity. But visualize a healthy diocese that is ministered by married priests who come from that very community, who know what life feels like in that community, who speak the community's language and are easily understood by them.
Imagine an understanding pope, not afraid to grant "amnesty" to the thousands of priests who are presently married. These priests would be allowed to return and minister once again to the people they still love and are still ordained to serve.
Over the centuries it has been an essential hallmark of our Church to proclaim the truth, no matter what the cost.
- The truth is that there are two separate vocations, priesthood and celibacy.
- The truth is that these two vocations are not always bestowed together.
- The truth is that many are called to priesthood who are not called to celibacy.
- The truth is that their priestly ministry is urgently needed today.
- The truth is that the present moment is always the right time to speak truth.
The hour is late. I believe it is time for those working in vocation ministry to proclaim the above statements in the spirit of honesty and integrity.
I was encouraged by the recent words of Pope John Paul II when he addressed the Eastern Orthodox Christians in Kiev, Ukraine. He spoke of the need for greater unity and said, "The world is rapidly changing. What was unthinkable yesterday is within our reach today." I believe those exact same words apply to the issue of marriage and the priesthood.
The late Dag Hammarskjold advised, "Never 'for the sake of peace and quite' deny your own experience or convictions." I pray that more clergy and faithful give voice to their experience and convictions. I know that many would confirm my observations.
The year is 2001. The time is upon us for the restoration of a married clergy, "priests forever.. according to the order of St. Peter." May St. Peter and his wife intercede for the Church.
Fr. Alan Phillip, C.P.
Sierra Madre, CA
Earlier response to THE TABLET editor,
You asked, "Is there any point in raising one's voice at this particular moment?" I certainly believe so, for the following reasons:
a) The situation here in the U.S.A. gets worse by the day. As old priests retireor die off, and few new men are ordained, the work piles higher and higher. More Sunday Masses, more weddings, more funerals, more counseling, more meetings, etc., etc. I could quote you the numbers but you probably know them. Burnout among the clergy is a constant danger. Meanwhile, the faithful are receiving less priestly ministry, less both in quantity and quality. How far can you stretch a man before he becomes tired, ineffective, and dies before his time?
b) Some bishops over here are trying to "solve" the clergy shortage by bringing in priests from foreign countries. I addressed this issue gently in my article. But please read the paragraphs below (from a recent NCR article) by the recently deceased Fr. Jack Egan. My sentiments exactly.
c) My article mentions the almost total lack of preaching (at least here in
America) on the spirituality of marriage. I submit that this lack is a significant contributing factor for the increased breakdown of Catholic marriages, and the increase in the number of our young people living together without the blessing of the sacrament. There is little credible direction offered. These situations will only get worse until married people (clergy and lay) speak from our pulpits about their personal experience of holiness in marriage. When I or other celibates dare to preach about marriage, the person in the pew can easily say, "But what do you know about it?"
d) Years ago our seminaries attracted the "best and the brightest." No one
makes that claim today. Opening up the priesthood to married men or making marriage possible for seminarians would once again attract the best and the brightest amongst us. Then the people in the pews would be energized to promote priestly vocations once again.
e) Vocation "ads" aimed at recruiting for the priesthood continue to be
one-sided, or leave out part of the picture. I haven't see any ads advising that, as for right now, an interested candidate better be sure he is called to both celibacy and priesthood. The result is that many young men, attracted to a life of service, enter the seminary, get ordained, and then subsequently discover that they are also called to marriage. They leave active ministry amidst much pain, pain for themselves and for the people they served. My article addresses this, and will be helpful for anyone discerning his callings before ordination.
f) Many of us hoped that Pope John Paul I would deal with the issue of the married priesthood. And then he died. That was over twenty years ago. I believe the problems with the law of celibacy need to be constantly in the headlines of our Catholic publications, so that the next Pope will take the necessary steps to a solution.
g) I believe the time for me to speak is now. At age sixty-one, the time is
overdue for priests like me to share what we have learned. If enough of us
still "in the ranks" speak out, we just might get the point across. To repeat a
quote from my article, "Never 'for the sake of peace and quiet' deny your own experience or convictions." - Dag Hammarskjold
h) Finally, and most importantly, "Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now - always." -- Albert Schweitzer
Footnote: Words of Fr. Jack Egan, printed in the NCR, June 1, 2001.
"But in Catholic theology and practice, only an ordained priest can
celebrate Mass - the primary source of the Christian spirit. So the Mass is
becoming less and less available.
I find it interesting that the (American) bishops at their meeting considered the use of foreign priests to fill the gap. Such a solution is unrealistic. The areas from which there priests are recruited all have larger numbers of Catholics per priest than we have in this country. Are we going to import priests from Africa, Asia and South America to the detriment of Catholics living in these needy areas?
Are we even taking into consideration the cultural adjustment and
competency levels in the English language required of such foreign priests? In addition, foreign priests simply do not understand how to navigate the
governmental and neighborhood structures in our society. Today's parish
requires that the priest be able to relate to the whole community.
Despite the good will of these men from foreign lands, such importation is not the answer to the crisis."