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Posted March 27, 2007

Cardinal Hummes on Priestly Celibacy

"Christ's Precious Gift to His Church"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 24, 2007 - Here is an article written by Cardinal ClŠudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, on "The Importance of Priestly Celibacy." It was published in the Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano.

Value of chastity, celibacy

Even before it is a canonical disposition, celibacy is God's gift to his Church. It is an issue bound to the complete gift of self to the Lord.

In the distinction between the age-old discipline of celibacy and the religious experience of consecration and the pronouncement of vows, it is beyond doubt that there is no other possible interpretation or justification of ecclesiastical celibacy than unreserved dedication to the Lord in a relationship that must also be exclusive from the emotional viewpoint. This presupposes a strong personal and communal relationship with Christ, who transforms the hearts of his disciples.

The option for celibacy of the Latin Rite Catholic Church has developed since apostolic times precisely in line with the priest's relationship with his Lord, moved by the inspiring question, "Do you love me more than these?"[23] which the Risen Jesus addressed to Peter.

The Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological reasons for celibacy, all rooted in the special communion with Christ to which priests are called, can therefore be expressed in various ways, according to what is authoritatively stated in "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus."

Celibacy is first and foremost a "symbol of and stimulus to charity."[24] Charity is the supreme criterion for judging Christian life in all its aspects; celibacy is a path of love, even if, as the Gospel according to Matthew says, Jesus himself states that not all are able to understand this reality: "Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given."[25]

This charity develops in the classical, twofold aspect of love for God and for others: "By preserving virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, priests are consecrated in a new and excellent way to Christ. They more readily cling to him with undivided heart."[26]

St. Paul, in the passage alluded to here, presents celibacy and virginity as the way "to please God" without divided interests:[27] in other words, a "way of love" which certainly presupposes a special vocation; in this sense it is a charism and in itself excellent for both Christians and priests.

Through pastoral charity, radical love for God becomes love for one's brethren. In "Presbyterorum Ordinis" we read that priests "dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and of men. They are less encumbered in their service of his Kingdom and of the task of heavenly regeneration. In this way they become better fitted for a broader acceptance of fatherhood in Christ."[28]

Common experience confirms that it is easier for those who, apart from Christ, are not bound by other affections, however legitimate and holy they may be, to give their heart to their brethren fully and without reserve.

Celibacy is the example that Christ himself left us. He wanted to be celibate. The encyclical explains further: "Wholly in accord with this mission, Christ remained throughout his whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified his total dedication to the service of God and men. This deep connection between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and the Eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood."[29]

Jesus Christ's historical existence is the most visible sign that chastity voluntarily embraced for God's sake is a solidly founded vocation, both at the Christian level and at that of common human logic.

If ordinary Christian life cannot legitimately claim to be such if it excludes the dimension of the cross, how much more incomprehensible would priestly life be were the perspective of the crucified One to be put aside.

Suffering, sometimes weariness and boredom and even setbacks have to be dealt with in a priest's life which, however, is not ultimately determined by them. In choosing to follow Christ, one learns from the very outset to go with him to Calvary, mindful that taking up one's cross is the element that qualifies the radical nature of the sequela.

Lastly, as previously stated, celibacy is an eschatological sign. In the Church, from this moment, the future Kingdom is present. She not only proclaims it but brings it about through the sacraments, contributing to the "new creation" until her glory is fully manifested.

While the sacrament of marriage roots the Church in the present, immersing her totally in the earthly realm which can thus become a possible place for sanctification, celibacy refers immediately to the future, to that full perfection of the created world that will be brought to complete fulfillment only at the end of time.

Being faithful to celibacy

The 2,000-year-old wisdom of the Church, an expert in humanity, has in the course of time constantly determined several fundamental and indispensable elements to foster her children's fidelity to the supernatural charism of celibacy.

Among them, also in the recent Magisterium, the importance of spiritual formation for the priest, who is called to be "a witness of the Absolute," stands out. "Pastores Dabo Vobis" states: "In preparing for the priesthood we learn how to respond from the heart to Christ's basic question: 'Do you love me?'. For the future priest the answer can only mean total self-giving."[30]

In this regard, the years of formation are absolutely fundamental, both those distant years lived in the family, and especially the more recent years spent at the seminary. At this true school of love, like the apostolic community, young seminarians cluster round Jesus, awaiting the gift of his Spirit for their mission.

"The relation of the priest to Jesus Christ, and in him to his Church, is found in the very being of the priest, by virtue of his sacramental consecration/anointing and in his activity, that is, in his mission or ministry."[31]

The priesthood is no more than "'living intimately united' to Jesus Christ"[32] in a relationship of intimate communion, described "in terms of friendship."[33] The priest's life is basically that form of existence which would be inconceivable without Christ. Precisely in this lies the power of his witness: Virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a real element, it exists because Christ, who makes it possible, exists.

Love for the Lord is authentic when it endeavors to be total: Falling in love with Christ means having a deep knowledge of him, it means a close association with his person, the identification and assimilation of his thought, and lastly, unreserved acceptance of the radical demands of the Gospel.

It is only possible to be witnesses of God through a deep experience of Christ; the whole of a priest's life depends on his relationship with the Lord, the quality of his experience of martyria, of his witness.

Only someone who truly has Jesus for his friend and Lord, one who enjoys his communion, can be a witness of the Absolute. Christ is not only a subject of reflection, of a theological thesis or of a historical memory; he is the Lord who is present, he is alive because he is the Risen One and we live only to the extent that we participate ever more deeply in his life. The entire priestly existence is founded on this explicit faith.

Consequently, the encyclical says: "The priest should apply himself above all else to developing, with all the love grace inspires in him, his close relationship with Christ, and exploring this inexhaustible and enriching mystery; he should also acquire an ever deeper sense of the mystery of the Church. There would be the risk of his state of life seeming unreasonable and unfounded if it were viewed apart from this mystery."[34]

In addition to formation and love for Christ, an essential element for preserving celibacy is passion for the Kingdom of God, which means the ability to work cheerfully, sparing no effort to make Christ known, loved and followed.

Like the peasant who, having found the precious pearl, sold all he had in order to purchase the field, so those who find Christ and spend their whole lives with him and for him cannot but live by working to enable others to encounter him. Without this clear perspective, any "missionary urge" is doomed to failure, methodologies are transformed into techniques for maintaining a structure, and even prayers can become techniques for meditation and for contact with the sacred in which both the human "I" and the "you" of God dissolve.

One fundamental and necessary occupation, a requirement and a task, is prayer. Prayer is irreplaceable in Christian life and in the life of priests. Prayer should be given special attention.

The Eucharistic Celebration, the Divine Office, frequent confession, an affectionate relationship with Mary Most Holy, spiritual retreats and the daily recitation of the holy rosary are some of the spiritual signs of a love which, were it lacking, would risk being replaced by unworthy substitutes such as appearances, ambition, money and sex.

The priest is a man of God because God calls him to be one, and he lives this personal identity in an exclusive belonging to his Lord, also borne out by his choice of celibacy. He is a man of God because he lives by God and talks to God. With God he discerns and decides in filial obedience on the steps of his own Christian existence.

The more radically a priest is a man of God through a life that is totally theocentric, as the Holy Father stressed in his Address at the Christmas Meeting with the Roman Curia on Dec. 22, 2006, the more effective and fertile his witness will be, and the richer in fruits of conversion his ministry. There is no opposition between fidelity to God and fidelity to man: On the contrary, the former is a prerequisite for the latter.

Conclusion: a holy vocation

"Pastores Dabo Vobis," speaking on the priest's vocation to holiness, having underlined the importance of the personal relationship with Christ, expresses another need: The priest, called to the mission of preaching the Good News, sees himself entrusted with it in order to give it to everyone. He is nevertheless called in the first place to accept the Gospel as a gift offered for his life, for himself, and as a saving event that commits him to a holy life.

In this perspective, John Paul II has spoken of the evangelical radicalism that must be a feature of the priest's holiness. It is therefore possible in the evangelical counsels, traditionally proposed by the Church and lived in the various states of consecrated life, to map out the vitally radical journey to which, also and in his own way, the priest is called to be faithful.

"Pastores Dabo Vobis" states: "A particularly significant expression of the radicalism of the Gospel is seen in the different 'evangelical counsels' which Jesus proposes in the Sermon on the Mount, and among them the intimately related counsels of obedience, chastity and poverty. The priest is called to live these counsels in accordance with those ways and, more specifically, those goals and that basic meaning which derive from and express his own priestly identity."[35]

And again, taking up the ontological dimension on which evangelical radicalism is founded, the postsynodal apostolic exhortation says: "The Spirit, by consecrating the priest and configuring him to Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd, creates a bond which, located in the priest's very being, demands to be assimilated and lived out in a personal, free and conscious way through an ever richer communion of life and love and an ever broader and more radical sharing in the feelings and attitudes of Jesus Christ. In this bond between the Lord Jesus and the priest, an ontological and psychological bond, a sacramental and moral bond, is the foundation and likewise the power for that 'life according to the Spirit' and that 'radicalism of the Gospel' to which every priest is called today and which is fostered by ongoing formation in its spiritual aspect."[36]

The nuptial dimension of ecclesiastical celibacy, proper to this relationship between Christ and the Church which the priest is called to interpret and to live, must enlarge his mind, illumine his life and warm his heart. Celibacy must be a happy sacrifice, a need to live with Christ so that he will pour out into the priest the effusions of his goodness and love that are ineffably full and perfect.

In this regard the words of the Holy Father Benedict XVI are enlightening: "The true foundation of celibacy can be contained in the phrase: Dominus pars (mea) -- You are my land. It can only be theocentric. It cannot mean being deprived of love, but must mean letting oneself be consumed by passion for God and subsequently, thanks to a more intimate way of being with him, to serve men and women, too. Celibacy must be a witness to faith: faith in God materializes in that form of life which only has meaning if it is based on God.

"Basing one's life on him, renouncing marriage and family, means that I accept and experience God as a reality and that I can therefore bring him to men and women."[37]