Few things were as countercultural as The First Modern Pope’s bold statement in 1967. Then, amid the sexual revolution that was gaining momentum across the western world, Paul VI reaffirmed the practice of priestly celibacy in his encyclical letter On Priestly Celibacy. Needless to say, the instruction met strong opposition from all camps.
Despite frequent calls for revision of this stance, the Church’s position remains unequivocal: prior to being ordained deacon, the candidate is to publically assume before God and the Church the obligation of celibacy. Many reasons can be given for or against the celibate priesthood, ranging from the shortage of priests and a presumed better example set by married priests on one side to the unrestricted dedication of time and energy of the celibate priests to their flock on the other.
Whatever the reasons, and as I reflect on celibacy, I sense that it is a gift, to be humbly received in an attitude of complete trust in God, conscious of one’s fragility and weakness. The majority of the formation programme at the seminary targets directly or indirectly the integration of the affective capacities of the individual. Rather than the restrictive attitude towards celibacy, I believe that it is a desire to stretch one’s heart wide to embrace the whole of humanity, especially those who thirst for God’s love, which they have been denied because of human egoism and injustice.
In the end, none of the practical reasons really makes sense to me since they all can be made up for by other human endeavours. There is however one sentence from Paul’s encyclical, which sums up the crux of this immense gift:
By reason of his celibacy the priest is a man alone: that is true, but his solitude is not meaningless emptiness because it is filled with God and the brimming riches of His kingdom. (Para 58.)
It is in the absurdity of solitude that the silent presence of God becomes discernible, opening up oneself to the little presences of the Absolute, while being changed into a visible, tangible sign of God in the world.