Over the weekend I provided cover in a parish which had recently lost its resident priest. I was hearing about this sad situation from a lady who stopped to chat as she came out of Mass. “Of course,” she said of his replacement, “they’ll have to be married priests.” She proceeded to rehearse the usual stuff about how celibacy was only a discipline enforced in the second millennium and the Apostles were married, etc, as though, even if they were accurate, these points constituted a definitive argument.
Two related things dismayed me about hearing such arguments repeated. The first was the naïve belief that there was a ready solution to the vocations crisis and this was it. The second was that she appeared to have absolutely no sense of the enduring supernatural value of celibate chastity. The idea that priestly celibacy finds it value in relation to its object – the Lord Jesus, who wishes to be loved with an undivided heart because that’s how he loves me – or that celibacy is a radical kind of loving, espousing the Church in imitation of Christ so as to become a father to those born of water and blood, didn’t seem to figure in the analysis at all. Instead, celibacy was presented as an outmoded discipline of an institution, apparently only “relevant” to priestly vocation if embraced on one’s own terms, rather after the fashion of a pre-nuptial agreement.
To be fair, there is no question that the abuse scandals have drastically weakened the currency of priestly celibacy, but we cannot accept such a valuation. All Christians are called to be chaste, whatever their state, and marriage, virginity, celibacy and chastity are the tectonic plates of a world of sexuality created by God. When any one of these shifts significantly, it triggers earthquakes both microcosmically within the world of individual relationships and in the macrocosm of the Church and society we inhabit.
It was therefore a source of profound inspiration, reflection and renewal to be present at the solemn profession of a Benedictine nun on the feast of the Sacred Heart, and to see presented in ritual the mystery of how a person responds fully to God’s call and makes a gift of her whole life to Him, recognising that such a gift must be a bodily reality; it must be incarnated. The ceremony showed that the commitment to perpetual virginity stems from the nature, the lore, of love itself, which must first win us over.
Such a decision is not a pragmatic one. After the nun to be professed has prostrated herself before the altar during the Litany of the Saints, a solemn prayer of consecration to perpetual virginity is prayed over her. The text dates back to the 6th century. It proclaims that this consecration, like the baptism on which it builds, is an invitation to experience on earth “those good things to be attained in the world to come, and though we are still fettered by our mortal condition, even now you draw us to the life of angels”. But this is no spiritual escapism. The theology is completely grounded, explaining how counter-cultural this is precisely because “the law of nature, the freedom of desire, the force of custom and the excitement of youth” could all be advanced as pragmatic objections to such a perpetual vow.
It would be impossible to make such an offering unless the intention was inspired by the Lord, “if you [God] did not gently enkindle this flame, lovingly foster this desire and provide the strength”. This desire is not a rejection or a diminution of marriage; it is a call only to “some souls” who actually desire and love with the same intensity of spousal union. They “do not imitate the act of matrimony but love what it signifies”. Virginity is not something negative. It derives from the same image of God in man, which urges every person to discover the spousal meaning of the body, in this case by “consecrating itself to the bridal chamber of him who is the Spouse of perpetual virginity just as he is the Son of perpetual virginity”.
All the world loves a lover. This ceremony was more eloquent of how to solve a crisis in vocations than a thousand symposiums asking how to make vocation more “relevant”. In the words of St Bernard, “The Love of Jesus, what it is, none but his lovers know.”