One of the wonderful things to watch as the Bishops meet in Synod in Rome, their main focus on the truth and gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, is how many areas of Church life are discussed, all connected to Eucharist.
A case in point is the matter of priestly celibacy: the chaste priest.
In the document of the Second Vatican Council on the Priesthood the section on “Special Spiritual Requirements in the Life of the Priest” begins by reflecting first on humility!
The Council quotes 1 Cor. 1:27: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
As priests we are ordained, by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, in persona Christi, in the person of Christ who invites us to learn from Him for He is “meek and humble of heart.” [Mt.11:29]
This holy tradition in the Latin Rite of the Universal Church is no mere law. It is so deeply part of the gift and mystery of priesthood I would argue that any man not willing in the deep yearning of his heart to embrace the cross and joy of chastity is unlikely to have an authentic vocation to priesthood.
Where there is error and great tragedy in the priesthood today, with the result of unchaste priests, is in a mindset that assumes something pseudo-automatic, both in seminaries and rectories, and yes among the laity, about priestly chastity.
Chastity, like the self-gifting of spouses in holy marriage, requires a willingness to take up our cross, the cross of our very humanity, each day and follow Jesus.
A major reality of Jesus’ own chastity was not just the unique aloneness of being the only Incarnate one, but the very real limitations on human intimacy, obviously physical but also emotional and spiritual, which those called to oneness with Him in the gift and mystery of priesthood must also accept, with joy.
My heart believes the frequent references in the Gospel to Jesus withdrawing by Himself to a lonely place to pray contain this example of humility which knows the direct connection between chastity and communion of love with the Father.
Indeed in the Vatican Council’s teaching on priestly chastity the Council urges priests to “demand” the grace necessary to be faithful.
I know of no other instance in all the documents of the Council, where such a definitive word is used regarding prayer.
However it is not just priests who should be “demanding” this of the Holy Trinity. The laity, and here I would ask every person of faith of every religion to join in this universal petition of God, should demand for we priests fullness of the virtue of holy chastity.
I pray to God things are better now than when I was in the seminary because when I was a seminarian two things were never stressed: 1] be it chastity, humility, obedience, poverty, etc., etc. no true teaching on virtue and holiness, much less the ordinary means of prayer, vigils, fasting, consecration to Jesus through Mary, daily Holy Hour, etc., was ever mentioned let alone encouraged, much less ‘demanded’ of us.
2] neither were we taught about a thirst for the salvation of souls and hence what it actually means to be in persona Christi: total gift of self to the humble service of others, participation completely in Christ’s own loneliness and passion.
When all of the experts have finished discussing the psychological, formation or lack thereof, administrative, etc., etc. reasons for priestly impurity, be it through sins against the innocent, unholy relations with other adults, or self, etc., there still will be no infallible litmus test to prevent priestly impurity or further scandal and harm.
The only way to ensure a completely sinless priesthood would be to demand God ordain only Angels.
So we need to understand that quotation by the Council from First Corinthians is telling us a simple truth: it pleases the Incarnate, Suffering Servant to chose mere men to be configured by the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Orders to be priest.
Because we are human beings we have a history from conception to ordination marked by all those elements which mark every human being.
But equally, if not more importantly, we have access to grace, actual grace offered in every moment of our lives. A key way of assuring we cooperate with all grace, actual and sanctifying, is through consecration Totus Tuus to Our Blessed Mother Mary, Mother of Priests.
Each day too we have access to sanctifying grace offered most especially through the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion.
No priest can nor will remain pure unless he is strengthened by regular, preferably weekly, honest and humble sacramental confession, authentic spiritual direction from a truly holy and wise brother priest and most foundationally through the daily celebration of Holy Mass renewing his self-gift and receiving the Pure Priest Himself in daily Holy Communion so that the priest’s entire physical, emotional, spiritual being is permeated by the self-gift and purity of Christ Priest.
For spouses to remain physically, emotionally, spiritually faithful is a moment by moment daily choice to love.
For priests to remain physically, emotionally, spiritually faithful moment by moment each day demands the same choice, and the foundational root of our choice must be, like Jesus, to spend much time in communion of love with the Father.
Because of the horror of abuse we priests must live in a climate of incredible hostility, suspicion, wherein our very sense of worth and being is under constant assault by a cacophony of voices: some crying out from legitimate pain and frustration because they are victims; some who simply hate and dishonour victims of abuse by using their pain as the justification for hatred of priests.
Looming large in this hatred is the secular media. But they are, sadly, not alone.
The abuse scandal has caused priests to be at war with one another, for these days it seems many priests have forgotten the Gospel of compassion and mercy, forgotten that in reality the Church IS the church of second chance: need I mention Matthew, Magdalene, Augustine, de Foucauld etc. etc.?
The resulting climate of daily stress and pain exacerbates the ordinary loneliness constitutive of the chaste life.
Perhaps never before in history, save during periods of persecution by blood, have we priests had such a wonderful opportunity to truly lay down our lives for our friends, that is for every human being.
Perhaps never before have we had such an opportunity to be one with the lonely Christ, the accused Christ, Christ in the garden and on the cross.
Hence we actually have a unique opportunity to profoundly open wide the doors of our being to joy!