It takes a real man to be a Catholic priest—and I don’t mean that in the stoic, chest-beating sense. What I mean is that the Catholic priesthood authentically engages all of what it means to be a man. The priesthood builds upon the natural desires of the masculine heart. Those deep-down, built-in desires are for intimacy (physically, sexually, and emotionally in marriage), for fatherhood, for greatness, and, ultimately, for fulfillment. Any man discerning the priesthood who is honest with himself about those desires will likely experience an inner tension between the strong natural desire for marriage and a family and an attraction to the celibate priesthood. Sometimes this tension can be not only confusing but even heart-wrenching as one is torn between choosing two good, holy, and beautiful vocations.
I remember going to a friend’s wedding during college with the idea of the priesthood in the back of my head and feeling envious and that I would be missing out on life if I became a priest. It more or less ended in a pity-party. If you’ve ever experienced anything like that in your discernment, I have good news: that tension can be resolved. A better word for this would be “integration” coming from the Latin verb integrare meaning “to make whole.” There is a wholeness that can be found with the integration of our masculine desires in the call to the priesthood. Now let me tell you, even now as a seminarian who journeys toward that wonderful vocation, how and why.
A fourth-grade girl from the religion class I was teaching this past year asked me an interesting question: “did Jesus ever have a girlfriend?” I told her we are fairly certain that he did not (in case you were thinking otherwise), but what was insightful about the question was that it shed some light on the reason for the celibate vocation. I tried to explain in fourth grade language that Jesus’ love for people is so great that it would be unfair for him to give it all to just one person only. Instead, he gives his love to all. The person who has embraced celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom has come to realize—and sometimes even painfully—that “another person, a family, children, all of these were not enough for them.” God is asking them for an undivided heart with which to love him, and out of this love comes a radical availability from which they can make a gift of themselves to others.
The trouble that many men discerning the priesthood often face is the fear of loneliness or unhappiness when they picture themselves being a priest. The promise of celibacy tends to be seen as a burden and not a gift and a blessing. Part of this is because celibacy is difficult to come to terms with in a culture whose entertainment industry throws in our face the myth that someone cannot be happy without sexual intimacy. The world we live in tends to reduce fulfillment to sensual gratification and neglect the spiritual. Many Catholic young men in my own generation are prone to “buy-in” to this myth even subconsciously. The reality we tend to forget is that sex is one facet of marriage and that marriage entails much more than sex. In the celibate priesthood, a man’s sexual desires are not suppressed or eliminated but sublimated. In other words, the desire for sexual intimacy is sacrificed or offered up and one’s energies are spent in service of a higher cause, that of the Kingdom. The priest offers his body as a living sacrifice: “This is my body, which is given for you” (Lk. 22:19).
On this note, I think it is really essential for a man discerning the priesthood to want to be married and to have a family. I say this because the degree of self-forgetfulness that the married father needs in order to provide for his children’s health, holiness, and happiness will be the measure of what will be asked of him in the priestly vocation for his spiritual children. In fact, priests learn so much from good earthly fathers what it means to truly be a spiritual father. If a man would make a great husband and father, then he will make a great priest and spiritual father. The natural desire for marriage and fatherhood can be harnessed and appropriated in a supernatural (beyond the natural) way for the priesthood.
Through ordination, the very identity of a man is configured to Christ the Priest. In receiving the grace of holy orders and making the promise of celibacy a manly task is given to the priest. He is given a responsibility—literally, the ability to be a sponsus, which is Latin for “spouse.” Christ’s sacrificial love for his Bride, the Church, is alive in the priest. He is called to be a chaste spouse and must decide to attune himself to the heart of his Bride, the Church. He must care for her, comfort her, and protect her in her vulnerability. He must look beyond his own pain and suffering and look to her needs thus having all that is best about being a man rise up in him through a celibate gift of himself.
Furthermore, the priest is not only called to be a chaste spouse, but also a spiritual father. A well-known priest once said that what makes a man a father is when he takes responsibility for someone other than himself. I’ve experienced that to some degree as a seminarian in working with the youth who, when seeing the collar, look to you as a fatherly figure—someone who will mentor them, provide guidance for them, and give them attention. How much more is that fatherhood lived out upon ordination when a priest baptizes, hears confessions, and ministers to the family of his parish?
And, concretely, this means the experience of intimacy in his vocation. The celibate priest enjoys time with the Lord that someone who is married cannot necessarily give since they must care for their family though both are called to the same holiness of life. He also shares profound intimacy with Christ and others through providing the sacraments. In celebrating the Eucharist, his own hands hold the Body and Blood of Christ to be given to feed his spiritual children. In the sacrament of Reconciliation people shed their masks in complete vulnerability by confessing their sins to Christ’s mediator on earth who is able to absolve sins and give counsel on His behalf. At anointings and funerals as well as at weddings, the priest is privileged to encounter people in their greatest moments of crisis and joy. When he baptizes, he brings a new spiritual child into the world. There is no lack of intimacy in the priesthood, it just looks different than that of marriage.
I hope you can see that when Christ is calling a man to the priesthood, he is summoning all of his natural masculine desires to be placed at the service of his supernatural vocation. The man who responds to this call forgoes one natural good for the sake of another supernatural good. And in responding to the call, his true desires are not eliminated but integrated in the identity of priestly celibacy. Where there was once tension and confusion there can be clarity and integration, for “man…cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” I’ve experienced this myself. When I attend weddings now, both vocations become more beautiful and more desirable, yet I find myself attracted to give myself in the way that the priest does. There is a wholeness that can be felt in the priesthood that outmatches the perceived sting of celibacy. And this integration leads to the freedom of receiving the vocation to celibacy and the priesthood as a gift and not a burden.
Let me close with a few final remarks. St. John Vianney said that “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” I think that there is dual-meaning here. The priest must know and love the heart of Jesus through devotion to the Sacred Heart. Further, the priest is given Christ’s own heart. In an entirely unique way, the priest makes present the Heart of Jesus in the world. This is a quality of all good priests—the heart of Christ burns within them. Lastly, a holy priest-mentor I know said that the intersection between the desire for fulfillment and the fulfillment of all desire is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is there, in the heart of God, that we will find our ultimate fulfillment. What magnitude of greatness and wholeness of fulfillment waits for those men called to the priestly vocation who themselves go to the heart of Christ in the depths of prayer to discover that the Father is blessing them with exactly what they want in bestowing on them the gift of the priesthood. Why not respond courageously and generously by receiving this gift?
And You Are Christ’s: the Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life (Fr. Thomas Dubay)
Virginity: A Positive Approach to Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap)
To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide to Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood (Fr. Brett A. Brannen)
This post was originally featured on NCpriest.org