The Supernatural Gift of Priestly Celibacy
by Michael Garry, Seminarian of the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota
After four years of life as a seminarian for the great Diocese of Duluth, I have found that of all the questions people ask me about the seminary and the priesthood, there is typically one burning question that people are dying to ask, and yet, more often than not, they never do. I have found that this one question can even become (for the inquirer anyway) a so-called elephant in the room, a sensitive subject, much too awkward for them to actually bring up. The question is that of life-long celibacy.
So what exactly “goes through my head” as I discern celibacy and the priesthood? I certainly consider the obvious things to be given up: a wife, sex, kids, etc. However, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to discerning celibacy honestly the most important things to consider are the specifics. For example, I know that there is a very real and acute joy to be experienced when one finds the perfect match, when one finally works up the courage to buy the ring, to get down on one knee, and she says, “yes.” Or again, the joy to be experienced when one’s first child is born, to see him or her take their first steps, to be able to give that jovial nudge to one’s father and say, “Grandpa!” Or even one day to be called “Grandpa.” These are the things that I consider daily and that I know I would miss deeply as a celibate. One cannot forget too that the promise of celibacy is a life-long sacrifice, that it is keenly felt for the entirety of one’s life; and so I also consider all the nights that I would come home to a quiet and empty rectory, again and again, and I know that will never change or go away.
So how do I make sense of such a sacrifice? As any priest will tell you, the priesthood is all about conformity to Christ. Priests and seminarians alike are called to be fully aware of the sting of celibacy and to press that ache—along with all their struggles—into the wounds of Christ, to learn anew each day how to make their sacrifice in love, and to be conformed all the more to the sacrificial love of Christ. Celibacy is a sacrifice that cuts to the heart of man; he feels it in the deepest part of his being. I’ve heard it said that such a sacrifice sounds impossible or too much for any person to handle, but I believe otherwise. Jesus himself was a celibate. He is our eternal High Priest—the Priest of all priests—He is our model priest and He has already blazed the way for all priests to come after him.
I have also come to realize that celibacy is first and foremost a gift. It is something received, not something that one merely “does” or “endures” by his own strength (and this has been of great relief to me!). I did not understand celibacy as a gift, however, until I first understood that celibacy is fundamentally supernatural. I have often heard it said, “Celibacy is so unnatural,” but it took me a few years to realize just how right they were in saying so. It is indeed unnatural because to be celibate is to have one foot in this world and the other in the next, and who among us could take such a step without the superadded grace from above? Thus, it seems to me that the only way to make any sense of celibacy at all is to first understand it as supernatural and as a gift.
Our Lord says of celibacy in Matthew 19:12, “Let anyone receive this who is able,” and so my task in the seminary has been first to discern whether or not this gift is being offered to me personally, and secondly, to ask myself whether or not I have the faith to receive such a gift. Naturally, the closer I come to ordination, the more real these questions become, but the Lord has indeed provided. I can honestly say that the nearer I get to ordination the simpler the question has become. More and more I am beginning to understand that celibacy quite simply comes down to a matter of faith. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ makes a promise to all who choose to receive the gift of celibacy: “[Jesus] said to them, 'In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive many times as much in this present age and, in the world to come, eternal life'” (Luke 18:29-30, emphasis added). In this passage Christ promises happiness to celibates not only in the next life, but also in this life as well—and “many times as much” at that. This is really where the rubber hits the road for the seminarian; at this point I must ask myself, “Is it possible? Can Christ really provide happiness even if I give Him everything I have in this life? Is Christ someone who can be trusted?” I also have to ask myself whether or not I am honest when I say that I am a Christian, that Christ is truly the sole source of my joy and my happiness. My prayer of course, is that I will always have the faith to respond to these questions with a wholehearted resounding “Yes!”
Today, few things are more countercultural than celibacy—and for this reason we need it all the more. Celibacy is a blatant reminder of the world to come, and it also shows us that a life of virtue and self-control are truly possible with the Lord’s help. Let us pray for our priests and religious! To live a life of celibacy is not easy; it takes character, integrity, faith, and most importantly, the Lord’s grace—which comes through our prayers. Let us also pray for all men and women who are discerning a call to a celibate vocation, that they would have the faith and courage to follow the Lord wherever He might lead, at whatever the cost. Lastly, on behalf of all the seminarians, I would like to publicly thank all who have so faithfully prayed for us. In all sincerity, it makes all the difference. I’d like also to thank all the joyful priests and religious who have shown us that a life of sacrifice in the Lord can be the source of such great joy and hope. May God bless you all.
This article originally appeared in 2009 in the Northern Star, the diocesan publication of the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota. At that time, Michael was a seminarian at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained a priest on June 21, 2013.