A writer who spoke about the fascination of chastity is the Italian, Pier Vittorio Tondelli. Before he died of AIDS at 36 years of age in 1991, he renounced his behavior, underwent a moral and religious conversion, and returned to the Catholic Faith. The last text he read before dying was St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, on the margins of which he jotted the poignant words: “Literature does not bring salvation, never. Only love, faith and falling back into grace saves.” This was the man who called chastity “a mystic virtue…. and perhaps the most superhuman use of sexuality.”
Throughout history men have felt this “most superhuman use of sexuality” to be necessary for those designated to approach close to God. In ancient Israel, Moses, the Machabees, and others ordered the men who would accompany them to the mountain or temple of God to abstain from sexual intercourse during the days beforehand. And not only in Israel. In other ancient religions and contemporary non-Christian cultures contact with God and purity are closely connected. Why this instinctive connection? Even if in any culture this is due to a denial of the goodness of the sexual act, that is certainly not the case in Catholicism which proclaims that all that God has created is necessarily good. Is it not that within the heart of man there lies the deep intuition that purity is a sacrifice so deeply pleasing to God that he wills it to be a privileged way of entering the precincts of divine intimacy? Is this not especially true when a man or woman offers the sublime sacrifice of renouncing marriage and parenthood for the sake of loving God and souls? Is it not because such love speaks of depths of self-sacrifice that reach deep into the masculine or feminine psyche making celibacy nothing less that a most sublime self-offering to God?
In our contemporary world jaded with sexual hedonism, for thoughtful people the priest, because of his sacred celibacy, is recognized as counter-cultural and for that reason is seen as extraordinary, mysterious, mystical, and otherworldly. He fascinates a world grown old in decadence, with its innocence long lost and yet with some faint intuition that in chastity lies something it is missing out on.
But only too often the world’s fascination is followed by its fury.
Why? Why does the priest’s sacred chastity attract the rage of our times like a lightning rod? “Curiously,” remarked a German journalist, Peter Seewald, “nothing enrages people more than the question of celibacy even though it directly concerns only a tiny fraction of the people in the Church”. Behind this rage there may be more than human rage. On the merely human level of explanations, it is most plausible that a society viewing self-mastery over the sexual instinct as impossible or unnecessary will often peer at celibacy with suspicious eyes, and will give vent to almost fanatical attacks on it in the mass media.
Why this strange phenomenon? After all it’s not as if the Church were trying to impose celibacy on the Western world! And it only affects a tiny fraction even of Catholics. Sandro Magister, journalist of the secular Italian weekly, L’Espresso, highlighted the connections Pope Benedict XVI made in various speeches between this aggression on celibacy and the “anti-God” mentality present in the cultural nerve-centers of our society:
“For celibacy is –as the Pope said on June 10, 2010 – an anticipation ‘of the world of the resurrection’, the sign ‘that God exists, that God matters in my life, that I can base my life on Christ, on the future life’. For this reason –Benedict XVI continued – celibacy ‘is a great scandal’. Not only for today’s world, ‘in which God does not matter’ but for Christianity itself, in which ‘God’s future is no longer considered, and the now of this world alone seems sufficient’. Pope Joseph Ratzinger has said repeatedly that “making God present in this world” is the priority of his pontificate, particularly in the memorable letter he addressed to the bishops of the whole world, dated March 10, 2009.
“But connecting the question of God with that of the priesthood and of priestly celibacy is by no means a given. And yet this is precisely what Benedict XVI does constantly. For example, at the end of 2006, making an assessment of his trip to Germany that had made an impression because of his lecture in Regensburg, after emphasizing that “the great problem of the West is forgetfulness of God,” he continued by saying that “this is the central task of the priesthood: to bring God to men.” But the priest “can do this only if he himself comes from God, if he lives with and from God.” And celibacy is a sign of this full dedication:
“Our world, which has become totally positivistic, in which God appears at best as a hypothesis but not as a concrete reality, needs to rest on God in the most concrete and radical way possible. It needs a witness to God that lies in the decision to welcome God as a land where one finds one’s own existence.”
“It is therefore no surprise that, just before his election as pope, Ratzinger called for a reform of the Church that would begin with purifying God’s ministers from “filth.” It is no surprise that he conceived and proclaimed a Year for Priests intended to lead the clergy to a holy life.
“It is no surprise that the liturgy is so central to this pontificate. The priest lives for the liturgy. It is the priest that God “has enabled to set God’s table for men, to give them his body and his blood, to offer them the precious gift of his very presence.”
“The generous extension for the use of the ancient rite of the Mass, the lifting of the excommunication for the Lefebvrist bishops, the welcome extended to the Anglican communities most attached to tradition are parts of this same plan. And they are all promptly the object of attack.
“There is a mysterious clarity of vision that unifies the attacks on the current pontificate. As if an “invisible hand” were at work in them, hidden from their immediate authors. A hand, a mind that glimpses Benedict XVI’s basic plan, and therefore does all it can to oppose it.
“In the Gospel of Mark, there is a “messianic secret” that accompanies the life of Jesus and remains hidden from his own disciples. But not from the “enemy.” The devil is the one who recognizes Jesus immediately as the savior Messiah. And shrieks at him.
“The paradox of today’s attacks on the Church is that, precisely while they intend to reduce it to impotence and silence, they reveal its essence….As Pope Benedict XVI stated at the close of the Year of Priests when he alluded to this ultimate underlying strategy : “It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the ‘enemy’. He would have preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world”. (Sandro Magister: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1344604)
For the “driving out” of God from the world is ultimately the goal of all the horrendous sins of our age: those committed inside the Church’s walls and the lies asserted outside, the thrust by those who want a society without a moral North Star and the appeasement by those who refuse to confront them.” Hence, in a culture war where the core issues are sexual, the priesthood is the highest remaining fortress not stormed by the enemy. It occupies a strategic position for it shouts from the roof-tops that man is capable of rising above his animal passions, that love is not mere instinct, that it is a free action based on the truth about man and that sacred celibacy is “the most superhuman use of sexuality”. Stronghold of the Culture of Life, defiant of all the besieging forces of the Culture of Death wanting to raze it to the ground, even holding back “enemies within the gates”, the celibate priest remains “the city on the hilltop”, the highest visible reminder of who man is and where lies his destiny because his commitment proclaims that man is called to use his life on earth not merely to gain the greatest amount of pleasures in time but to set foot in the land of undying happiness in God’s eternity.
When the promise of celibacy is made by a man about to be ordained a priest, good people –Catholic and non-Catholic – recognize not only the young man’s love for God but also his love for his fellowmen. They recognize that by his giving of his body to God, he has given himself to all; indeed that in some mysterious way priestly celibacy is the condition for universal love. They recognize that his “no” to marriage is because of a greater “yes” to a higher love of God and humanity. Here is a visible witness for them of the deep and universal love of Jesus Christ who came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). And it is a source of strength for these lay people as a woman once remarked while speaking before a group of seminarians: “I can only imagine,” she said “the sacrifice all you handsome young men have made in order to be here. I think it’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” And she wept.
When our contemporaries view the priest with eyes of innocence, they have a special reason to be attracted to him for his sacred chastity is a magnet for so many suffering deep loneliness, desiring to have a spiritual father to confide in. The sublime love and self-mastery implicit in the priesthood guarantees that finally they have someone to whom they can open the deepest recesses of their hearts: they have found a spiritual father, a friend of the soul who is a guardian of secrets. A guardian not only in the sense of keeping confidential the secrets revealed to him but also in the sense of one who is guardian of many “secrets” of the spiritual life for the good of others since all of his own psychic powers and energies have been dedicated to God.
Consequently priests convert merely by being genuinely celibate. By living it from the depths of their heart, I suspect that they have inspired more than a few Catholics to convert from sin; and who knows how many non-Catholics have crossed the threshold of the Church moved by initial bewilderment and then admiration at the superhuman grandeur of men whose presence has power all of its own: “Well, for me”, said the Nobel prize-winner François Mauriac, “the most effective sermon of the priest has always been his life. A good priest need say nothing to me: I look at him and that is enough.”