At first, Quinton Thomas was not worried about the promise of celibacy when he entered seminary.
After about a year into his priestly studies, the “honeymoon” phase gave way to some fears, doubts and grief about the loss of the life he was possibly giving up. But today, he’s embraced the call to celibacy as it’s meant to be — a gift.
“I’ve discovered now it’s one of the things I'm most excited about being a priest,” Thomas said. “It affords you the opportunity for intimacy with God, unmediated intimacy with God. It’s a privileged call.”
In a sex-driven culture, clergy and religious share about their call to live celibate and chaste lives, along with the joys and challenges it brings.
In the simplest of definitions, continence is abstaining from sex or sexual acts, and celibacy is the promise or vow to that life and more. For a person following a religious calling, it’s abstaining from an intimate, exclusive relationship with another person, replacing it with a supernatural connection with God.
In a Feb. 19 Catholic News Service article covering an international conference on the priesthood at the Vatican, it explained celibacy is not “intrinsic” to the Church, given the fact that during the first millennium of the Church, priests were often married. However, Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda explained celibacy was favored, and there were requirements for married priests at the time not to have sex.
Diocesan priests make promises to celibacy when they are ordained to the diaconate, typically a year before their priestly ordination and renew that promise upon ordination. The rite states in “The Roman Pontifical,” in part: “Compelled by the sincere love of Christ the Lord and living this state with total dedication, you will cling to Christ more easily with an undivided heart. You will free yourself more completely for the service of God and man, and minister more effectively in the work of spiritual rebirth.”
Father Jeff Hebert, vocations director for the Diocese of Little Rock, said the Church looks to both the examples of Jesus and his mother Mary.
“Our society makes it seem that if you're not in a sexual relationship, you’re probably going to be miserable. And the Lord has shown us otherwise. He himself was celibate,” he said.
Misconceptions about the charism of celibacy can range from a repressed sexuality to “someone just wasn’t good looking enough” to find a partner, he explained.
“I think there has been a gradual loss in the Western society for the value of living celibacy, as a witness to the life to come,” Father Hebert said. “Because the Lord rose from the dead and several times he said, like at the resurrection, there's no marriage. No one's getting married (in heaven). And so celibacy or consecrated virginity and religious life, it's all a witness to the life that's coming.”
In reality, the calling to be celibate is separate than the calling to the priesthood.
“I think the biggest misunderstanding is that celibacy is a requirement to be a priest. So if you want to be a priest, you have to be celibate in order to get what you want. We actually don't allow guys to get ordained that have that understanding,” Father Hebert, 39, said. “So it is a calling, it's a supernatural call, just like priesthood is a call. And it's actually — there's theologians who disagree perhaps — the more fundamental calling. So the Church has decided that it will only call to the priesthood men who are already called to celibacy.”
According to a 2015 study by the Barna Group called “The Porn Phenomenon,” half of young adults come across porn at minimum once a week, whether they seek it out or not. Sex is also consistently depicted in TV shows, movies and advertisements.
It’s why Thomas, 22, explained that his generation may not be as obsessed with the idea of sex as many may think.
“I think people my age are probably more open (to celibacy) because if there was any doubt in our mind about what sexual liberation would be like, it would be gone by now because we’ve really tested all of the waters and all of the restrictions we used to embrace, at least outwardly, are gone, and I think we have seen how empty that feeling leaves us,” he said. “People of my generation are typically a little more open to that than previous ones because we’ve seen what society told us about sex is not true.”
Father Patrick Boland, OSB, a monk for 16 years and a priest for seven at Subiaco Abbey, made his solemn profession of vows, obedience, stability and conversatio morum or “fidelity to the monastic way of life,” which includes embracing celibacy. He was married from 1992 to 1997.
“If my wife and I were on the same page maybe with Natural Family Planning, I think we may have understood that bedroom to be the ultimate union, to be one in the flesh,” Father Boland said. “We weren’t emotionally or theologically (invested); it was just, for lack of a better word, sex.”
Though not in contact, he admits he loves his ex-wife better now because of the understanding and freedom of celibate love.
“Everybody has a need for affection, but there are different ways of receiving affection. And being single until I was 30, being married and then being single again, I have more experience being ‘alone,’” Father Boland, 59, said. “Therefore, I have learned where my affection comes from. We are to feel loved. There’s more ways than in the bedroom to feel loved.”
Mother Mary Clare Bezner, prioress at Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro, had a front row seat to promiscuity while serving almost three years in the U.S. Air Force at just 19 years old.
“I’d still go out and party with them, but I wouldn’t end the night the way a lot of them ended the night,” she said, adding she took a personal vow of chastity. “I think it was like a challenge (for them). I was propositioned to have my chastity and celibate way of life taken away — specifically, flat out said those things to me.”
Mother Mary Clare explained they were “not bad people,” but wrapped up in the culture. She is still friends with some of them today.
“Maybe they saw there was something more authentic in the friendship because I wouldn’t allow it to go into that space,” she said.
A Benedictine sister for 15 years, Mother Mary Clare, 45, made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but more specifically celibate chastity.
“Not everybody is called to it, and it is not meant for everybody,” she said of sex. “It is also something that is not ugly. It’s something that’s beautiful. … I am a sexual being, made by God in beauty and a feminine being that has a role because of that on this earth. Each one of us is unique in our role to live that out.”
Celibacy takes work, as not all sexual desires stop or clergy and religious are suddenly OK with loneliness often accompanied with a vocation. In fact, Father Hebert said it’s a “red flag” when a man considering the priesthood has “no interest in relationships at all.”
“Christianity is all about relationships, principally with God, but also in communion with the whole body of Christ. So if someone is not interested in human relationships at all, that's a red flag. One, they're not fit for ministry, but also probably it's not a call to celibacy,” he said.
It is natural to feel sadness for the loss of an exclusive relationship with another person. Father Hebert said a crucial part of seminarian formation is the cultivation of “affective maturity,” in Church terms, typically referred to as emotional maturity. If they find a particular layperson attractive and realize they are more willing to meet with that person because of it, they can be honest and “aware of those movements in the soul” and bring it up with a spiritual director.
“The goal of priesthood and celibate life is not to try to ignore your sexuality or repress it or bottle it up. But instead, the psychological term would be ‘sublimating it,’ which is to say, redirecting it, because at its core, sexuality is a desire for intimacy. And it's a motivator for relationships and even service and self-gift. And so when you understand it in kind of the more abstract sense, it becomes a motivation for ministry,” Father Hebert said, adding it’s also about bringing those fears of loneliness to the Lord.
“If he's calling us to this life, it must mean that it's possible to live it out with joy,” he said.
Father Boland and Mother Mary Clare pointed to the truths in St. John Paul II’s famous compilation of addresses called the “Theology of the Body.” Mother Mary Clare said her heart strings have been pulled watching a mother with her child and wanting that for herself, but then she offers it to God.
“I just remember being so happy to hear that I was made for love. But that love would be greater than what the world saw love to be,” she said upon diving into “Theology of the Body.” “I just remember thinking it’s so much bigger than what they think it is. But then realizing it was sacrificial in nature and that’s what love is. That it was going to be something I was going to grapple with and struggle with my entire life. I don’t think it’s ever going to be something to say ‘Got that, check the box.’ It will be something that each stage of my life will bring a new challenge to.”
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