Since the priest by his entry into the order of the priesthood is identified with Jesus Christ as Head of the Mystical Body, the reference point for the priest’s celibacy is not sociological or pragmatic (“having more time for priestly work”) but Jesus Christ as he lived, worked, suffered, died and resurrected: the priest as Another Christ is called to the most complete identification possible with the life and mission of the Redeemer.
As priest he is called to act in persona Christi at two levels: ontologically ex opere operato whenever he acts sacramentally; existentially in every moment of his life since his thoughts, words and actions must be coherent with his identity.
Therefore he is called to give himself to the imitation of Jesus Christ Head of the Mystical Body by configuring his intelligence and heart to Christ’s priestly mind and heart; indeed with his entire psyche and body, with his masculinity, by the gift of pure virginal love as the most fitting and sublime expression of who he is and who Jesus Christ is and how he relates to him by the character and graces of ordination.
Celibacy therefore is not an unexpected appendix added on to the book of the priesthood but the very paper on which to write the sacramental character in all its dynamism and splendor. Certainly there can be dedicated married priests -as allowed by the Church in some rites – but that does not detract from the fact that sacred celibacy is the only way to live out existentially the nature of the priesthood as Alter Christus in the deepest and fullest way.
Sacred celibacy empowers the priest to identify with Jesus Christ in fixing the gaze of his eyes, the strength of his will and the depth of his heart in love for God: the priest, to an extraordinary degree is called to be a Man of God, “a man set apart” for God, called to give himself exclusively to God, to be His. Such a vocation calls for extreme commitment: heart and mind and body must belong to God – exclusively- so that we “may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph.3:18-19) All the energies of the masculine heart – which could otherwise have gone in some degree to a woman and family – now go to love God, the things of God, the souls of God in a love that is all– consuming.
Celibacy was necessary for Jesus because it was the only way in which he could as man allow the fire of love for his Heavenly Father to burn unreservedly, without restriction. Celibacy in the priest, within his limitations as fallen man, achieves the same purpose: it is the channel through which the waters of grace, received in priestly ordination and in actual graces, flow through his thinking, feeling, desiring and acting in order to irrigate his spirit, transforming it into a resemblance of Jesus Christ.
Just as celibacy was the way by which Jesus Christ revealed the Fatherhood of God in his own person, so celibacy is the way the priest reveals and empowers his own fatherhood of souls.
Sacred celibacy empowers the priest to be unreservedly Christ’s ambassador of salvation for men. It unleashes the redemptive power of Jesus Christ through the priest’s action and indeed just by his very presence. Celibacy showed Jesus Christ to be the mediator of all men, without restrictions; celibacy shows the priest to be for all people, unreservedly. Celibacy allowed Jesus Christ to teach through his body: his body, offered in celibacy and offered on the Cross becomes a sign of God’s Love for man. And so likewise with the priest unleashing within himself the power of the salvific love of God sacramentally held in thereservoir of his heart from the day of ordination.
Celibacy in Jesus sanctified men because it was the infinitely meritorious offering of his body to God; celibacy in the priest’s generous and at times painful sacrifice is united to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and thus becomes meritorious for the salvation of souls.
Just as sacred celibacy in Jesus Christ revealed man’s meaning and ultimate destiny, so likewise does the priest’s celibacy shout that man is made for Heaven “for in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”(Mt.22:30). Thus man learns that although marriage has its God-given purpose and nobility, it is a reality only for this life while celibacy, which expresses a total self-giving to God, endures forever in the ecstatically joyous experience of the Beatific Vision.
What other road can man take in order to live out the fullness of the priesthood if not sacred celibacy?
Sacred chastity then becomes “supernaturally natural” as the crowning expression of oneness-with-the-Hero. It becomes “the obvious, congenial expression of the priest’s relationship to God and man” (John LaFarge), for “love loves unto purity” (George MacDonald). By vowing chastity, man is privileged to declare to Christ “I am yours exclusively and forever”.
Through the lens of the archetypal relationship between hero and loyal comrade-in-arms the clear image of the celibate priest comes into view as the supreme instance and historical embodiment of all that history, mythology and great literature had pointed towards in so many heroes and their closest followers. They were prefigurements of the relationship between the Hero of History, the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ and those whom he called to perpetuate his salvific action through the Sacrifice of Calvary until His Second Coming: his priests.
Lord Jesus, Heroic Savior,
I give you my feet to follow your way,
I give you my hands to consecrate and absolve,
I give you my eyes to see the world that you make visible,
I give you my mind to be Christlike in thought,
My tongue to be Christlike in speech
My heart in sacred chastity to love with your love the Father, your Mystical Body the Church and all mankind;
May my love be a fire no waters avail to quench, no floods to drown;
For love may I give up all that I have in the world – and think nothing of my loss.
Heroic Heart of Jesus, I trust in the power of your heart now and forever. Amen.