Reflections on Priestly Celibacy

My grandmother has always played an instrumental part in my growing up and in my faith development. She was proud to be Catholic and above all she knew to put God first in life, no matter how difficult things got. What made her stand out to me as a role model was my grandmother’s living out of her faith: as she took care of my grandfather while he suffered from Alzheimer’s, the commitment she made to go to Mass every Sunday, and the countless acts of service she performed for my family when my mother was put on bed rest because she was having twins. She took her faith seriously, and so would I.

My grandmother moved in with my family when I was a sophomore in high school when she never quite healed from a back operation. About 15 years later, she started suffering from dementia. My mother asked me to come over once a week and sit with my grandmother so that she could get out of the house for a while. I agreed, and once a week I went over to my parents’ house to sit with my grandmother.

‘Where Are Your Children?’

One visit in a special way sticks out to me. She and I were watching television, and I could tell that she was getting agitated about something. She finally turned to me and asked, “Tom, where are your children?” This concerned me for a couple of reasons. First, because she knew I was a priest and that I did not have any children.

Second, she was a staunch Catholic in the sense that she did not need to know the “why” of something the Church taught. All she had to know was that if the Church taught it, that was good enough for her.

She knew that priests could not have children, and I had seen her defend priestly celibacy on many occasions when talking with other relatives who were not Catholic, her only argument in favor of celibacy simply being “because the pope says so.” So you can imagine my surprise when she asked me this question.

I gently informed her that I was a priest and that I did not have any children. She became quite angry and began demanding that I tell her where my children were. After about 10 minutes of her getting more worked up and frustrated, I gave in and informed my grandmother that my children were at home with my wife. This immediately calmed her down.

About an hour later, she turned to me and asked again, “Where are your children?” This time I thought the best way to handle the situation was not to upset her and give her the answer that calmed her down the last time. I responded that they were at home with my wife. My grandmother stared at me, gave me a look indicating that she was very disappointed in me and, finally, responded with “Priests should not have kids.” All I could do was laugh, for this was truly one of those times that I could not win for losing.

Fast-forward a couple of months. As I was telling the above story as part of my homily for my grandmother’s funeral at her home parish, there was noise at the side entrance of the church. The youth group from my parish had just arrived and were trying, but failing, to quietly enter the church. I had no idea that they were coming. They explained later that they were late for my grandmother’s funeral because they went to the wrong “Holy Trinity” church. Something in my heart told me that this was God’s way of showing me that these noisy youth were my spiritual children and affirming my spiritual fatherhood.

A Unique Position

During the last two years, I have found myself in a unique position to reflect deeply on the idea of celibacy. One of my classmates from another diocese has since left the priesthood and gotten married. He has a beautiful wife and three children, and we are still very close. On the other hand, my pastoral associate is a former Anglican priest who is studying to be Catholic priest through the Pastoral Provision. He is three years younger than I, and he and his wife have four beautiful children, with the oldest around seven years of age.

My classmate tells me that, while he wishes his exit from the priesthood had not hurt as many people as it did, he believes it is important for him to be a husband and a father and that this would not leave him the time needed to be a good priest.

My pastoral associate has told me as we talk that he knows he has a challenge ahead if he is ordained a Catholic priest because higher demands are placed on the vocation of the priesthood in the Catholic Church then in the Anglican Church. He also told me, and I sense that he is sincere, that he sees the value of celibacy and that my example has shown him that celibacy is not about giving things up but rather is a gift that God has given me to embrace the larger Church.

As I wrestle with the two situations, I believe I see things in the light of God’s mercy in that my pastoral associate is not being punished for not being Catholic growing up. In fact he has told me that his family was pretty anti-Catholic growing up and that, in his high school and college years, becoming Catholic was the furthest thing from his mind.

As his search for the Truth brought him to the Catholic Church, I admire his willingness to make the leap of faith that he has. He left a comfortable job (being pastor of two Anglican parishes) because he could no longer reconcile his studies with the Anglican faith and he wanted his children to be raised in the correct religion.

As I stated before, this has been a unique perspective for me to reflect on the idea of celibacy. Here are a few of my thoughts. The first is that my celibacy has been fruitful, and I have many spiritual children out in the world. I know that some of these children, especially the ones older than I am, could not have reached without the extra time, energy and unique standing that celibacy gives me.

A Gift that Comes With a Task

Second, I have learned that celibacy is a gift that comes with a task. When my grandmother helped me purchase my first car, she gave me not only a gift — the car — but also the task of taking care of the car. When I made the commitment to celibacy, I also made a commitment to maintain my celibacy through healthy life choices.

I have discovered that it is easier to maintain these healthy life choices when I am aware of all that the gift of celibacy allows me to accomplish for God’s glory. I know that the harvest is plenty and laborers few. There are so many people out there who need a good spiritual father and, through the gift of celibacy, God gives me the gift to be that father to so many, even if it is only for a moment.

Turn Solely to God for Support

The final thought on celibacy is this: I do not have to be celibate to be a good priest. I know that when my pastoral associate’s time comes to be ordained a Catholic priest through the pastoral provision, he will make a great priest. He will be a priest who is strongly orthodox and lovingly pastoral to the people of God.

His being married will limit his priesthood in some ways as he struggles to balance the two equally important vocations of marriage/family life and Holy Orders, but so far he has been able to do that pretty well here in the parish. Why then do I want to remain celibate or feel that God has asked so many of us to live a celibate life?

I often joke with my pastoral associate, when his children are crying and fighting with each other, that I am glad that I am not him and that he has reconfirmed my celibacy. I can only joke this way because I feel the true gift of celibacy is God’s call to a deeper relationship with Him. As my classmate and pastoral associate can turn to their wives for support and understanding, being celibate has forced me to turn solely to God for support and understanding.

This deeper reliance on Him has helped me forge a bond with God that, while not better than others, is maybe stronger and more direct because there is a greater reliance for both parties. God trusts me to care for His people, and I trust Him to provide the blessings of countless friends and families (Mt 19:29). Seeing God’s faithfulness to this promise makes celibacy worth it.

I hope that my reflections on celibacy will help strengthen the idea that celibacy is truly a gift from God. It is one thing to know that in one’s mind, and it is another to know it in one’s heart.

As I conclude, I would like to offer St. Joseph as a role model. While there are times when I think being a husband and father would be nice, I call upon St. Joseph because I am sure that he had his own plans of what his future would be like, and he tossed it all aside to be a part of God’s greater plan. I never want my ideas of what things should be or will be like to get into the way of God’s plan for me and the role that He has me playing for others.

FATHER PASTORIUS, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is pastor of the Epiphany of Our Lord in St. Louis, Mo.