Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thoughts on celibacy by a celibate on my 25th Anniversary of Priesthood

Sorry this is so long….

Where do I begin to describe my life and my choice to follow God's call of celibacy? For some reason I've been thinking a lot about celibacy lately. I'm not exactly sure why? I'm not in a crisis or anything. I promised to live my life as a celibate over 30 years ago and I have no intention or even desire to break that promise. I regularly pray for the grace to continue on the road I started so many years ago.

To many or most in our world my choice to answer God's call and live a life of celibacy doesn't make any sense. It is just so plainly counter cultural that it seems foolish, or forced, or worse. Some would go so far as to say that my choice to live a celibate life puts me at greater risk for pathologies and anti-social behaviors. I've never seen any credible evidence to back up such claims. There are lots of people with anti-social behaviors who are not celibates. But I sadly can guess why people could feel or think that way. I don't judge them for their thoughts-- no matter how much they give me pause or even at times cause me pain.

Why am I a celibate? I guess I would have to say that that I have chosen to live this life because I believed God called me to it. I believe that I was created to be a celibate and I am convinced that God created me to be a priest. Being celibate is part of my God given vocation. Being celibate and being a priest are integral to the way that I fit in God's plan. Did I understand what it would take to live as a celibate when I entered the Order at a ripe young age of 18? No, obviously not. But, I was willing to give it a try because I believed that celibacy was what God, and God's Church, God's people, wanted from me, needed from me.

Over the years, my celibacy, has presented different challenges to me at different times. When I was younger there were moments when I thought that giving up sexual intimacy for my whole life seemed daunting and fool hardy. Many a day I asked myself if it was worth it. I asked myself if this was indeed what God wanted me to do. In our hyper-sexualized culture often I would and do find myself being tempted to take the easy way out or just give up. Thankfully those moments of temptation have changed over time but to be honest they are still there. In my 20s everywhere I looked there were couples. Couples holding hands couples, walking arm in arm. Public displays of affection were the rule not the exception in Italy during my seminary day. However, I have come to see that celibacy is so much more than just giving up sex or sexual gratification. It may not be possible to live without food or water or air, but it is possible to live without sex. It is possible to live without sex and still live a normal happy holy and productive life. I hope I am an example of such a life.

As I continued on my walk with celibacy in the early years of my priesthood, I started noticing couples with children. I watched attentively as many of these couples seemed in awe of the beautiful little children that God had given them. I have known many young men and women who seemed to experienced the presence of God almost for the very first time in their lives when they held their new born in their arms. Sometimes, when I baptized the beautiful babies that couples brought to me I would feel pangs of envy as they walked out the door together with their child. When children are born, when the two become three or four or whatever, a whole new kind of life begins. This new family life calls for loving sacrifice each and every day for years and years, but from these lives shared, life-long loving relationships develop. Your family is your family is your family and there is no one like them. While a few parents seem to want to push their kids and their stuff out of the car door as they slowly drive by our Residence Halls on Freshman Orientation day, for most parents it appears to me that even the thought of being separated from their child as they drive away is bittersweet indeed. Yes, celibacy means that I will never have children of my own. I will never hold my offspring in my arms. I will never watch their first steps or cheer them on as they face the challenges of life. For many years this was and at times continues to be a challenging sacrifice to make.

A couple of years ago I went to see Pride and Prejudice it is definitely a "chick flick" and even I was surprised I went. It definitely did not fit into my normal movie fare. As strange as it may seem I almost felt that I was providentially called to see it. I won't go into details about why I felt this way or what the movie was about, all that is important is that the movie ended with a beautiful scene of intimacy between a young man and his new wife. The last scene showed them as they knelt facing each other and promised their love in a beautifully tender way. As the movie ended I remember feeling overwhelmed with awe and then sadness. I remember saying to myself as my eyes welled up, "I will never ever be able to share my life with another person like that, an experience like that will never be a part of my life". Once again my vocation to celibacy had shown itself as a sacrifice or a challenge. This realization was not a surprise to me. I have always known that denying myself this type of intimacy was part of my call to celibacy however, as I walked down the corridor of the E Street Theater that day it may have been the first time I ever felt the cost of my call so powerfully.. (More to follow on that little experience)

At first glance I don't seem to be painting a very pretty picture do I? Celibacy demands the absence of sexual gratification, there will be no children of my own to hold raise or nurture, celibacy means I will never share my hopes, my fears my joys and my failures with another person as I lay in their arms. It is easy to see why so many people at first glance run from even the idea of such a life. I admit that without the eyes of faith, freely chosen celibacy may seem to be folly indeed.

Over the years, it has become impossible for me to understand my life outside of God's loving plan, or without the eyes of faith. So here goes... These are some of the reasons I see value in my call to celibacy even with all its challenges, the challenges I have already faced and mentioned and even the challenges unknown which I will face in the future. Even with everything I've said above I still believe that God called me to live a celibate life and here are some reasons why:

I have come to clearly see that celibacy frees me to serve God's people. By calling me to celibacy God has called me for Himself and then he has given me to you and you to me. As a celibate man I am His and I am yours. As your celibate priest I am at some of the most significant moments of your life your baptism, your first communion, I witness your weddings, together we will bury your parents. I am yours when you or your loved one is sick or hospitalized. Sometimes we rejoice together at your successes and cry together when you mess up. I believe that for whatever reason I was created to share my life with the church in this unique way. I am not torn between the needs of my own little family and the needs of the people of God. In fact I see the Church as my family, you are my family. I know that there are married people all over the world who faithfully minister to God's people. I have shared, or better yet tried to share my life with the people of God for 25 years. Experience has proven to me that one reason God has called me to celibacy is because he wants me to be available to his people day in and day out, 24/7 as they say in the vernacular. Being celibate frees me to share my love and my life with many people in many circumstances. In a sense I guess you could say that I feel wed to God, His people, His church.

While my relationship with God's people is vastly different from the communion of life and love that a husband and wife share, it can still be fruitful. I have come to see how it is fruitful in a different ways. I have come to understand over the years that even though I will never have children of my own I can still be generative. I have had the privilege of sharing my life with so many people, so many wonderful people. I have been blessed with the ability to see that my words and my life and my prayers and my fasting, my sacrifices make a difference in people's lives. Even a celibate man can leave his mark, even a celibate man can live on in the lives of people who have crossed his path. Yesterday I received an email from a young man who is serving in Iraq, I had not heard from him for 6 years. He thanked me for being a part of his life. As I read the email once again I experienced the grace of God's tears. One of my greatest joys is to hear from one of "my children", to hear how they are doing, to listen to their dreams and the accomplishments to help them with their struggles. For many years now I have received calls, text messages, cards or emails on Father's day. To have someone even think to call me or remember me on Father's day brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart. I am not sure when it became the custom to call celibate priests Father, at first glance it doesn't really seem to make sense does it? However, that is how many people see me and how I often see myself. I am in awe of the gift of my spiritual paternity.

My eyes of faith have convinced me that from the very first moment of our lives God has had a plan for each and everyone one of us. Every one of us has a place in His providential love. Being celibate keeps me focused on God's love for me and allows me to focus on following his will in a unique way. I do not claim to be holier than anyone else, sadly quite frequently I feel the opposite is true. Being celibate allows me to be dependent on God. I have become convinced that it is easier for the poor to draw close to God because they don't have the luxury of many distractions. In the same way I believe that being celibate draws me into a unique relationship with God. It is not a better relationship but a different kind of relationship. For many years I have tried to encourage married couples to go on dates to continue their courtship. I have tried to help them see the importance of investing time in each other. I have also challenged myself to go on dates. In addition to my prayer life with the friars one night a week I try to spend time doing something with God. I read, I sit, I listen to spiritual music, I do whatever I can find to draw my heart to Him When I was younger someone some place encouraged us as young celibate men to allow God to be "our enough." That phrase has stuck with me for years and years and years. It is still my goal, my hope, my dream, my desire to allow God to be enough for me, "Be my enough oh God."

Recently I was listening to a tape on the Theology of the Body, by Pope John Paul II. As you can tell from my writing I am no theologian but the tape helped me see another aspect of my vocation of celibacy that I never really understood before. In the world view I really don't make sense, as I mentioned before, my life, my dreams, my motivations, don't make sense to many. When people see me coming in my Franciscan habit, there is frequently a question in their mind, " What is he about?" they ask themselves. Even the way he dresses is weird. John Paul the II's theology of the body helped me see that my life as a celibate is a sign, maybe even a powerful sign which points to something more, something different. It points to God's plan and God's will. Hopefully the lives of celibate men and women should cause people to stop and ponder how the Kingdom of God is present in their lives. I am grateful for this new insight. It is just another confirmation of God's plan for me.

As married men and women walk down the road of life together every age of their communion of life offers them new opportunities to explore the depth and beauty of each other's person. I believe it is impossible to ever come to a complete understanding of the gift that another person can be for us. I also have come to believe that my vocation as a celibate Franciscan priest will continue to offer me surprises and wonder as I walk down the road of life with the Lord and with His Church.

I feel the need to place a disclaimer here. I fully realize that I am not worthy of this wonderful vocation which God has given me. I also realize it that I have not always lived it well. I am so far from perfect. There are areas of my life which need work lots of work. This is not the place for me to go to confession but that is exactly what I try to do every week and I always have enough to say. For my lack of faithfulness, for my moments of weakness or worse for my moments of selfishness I humbly ask God the Church and anyone I've failed for mercy and forgiveness. I say without exaggeration that possibly the only place in my life where I have been faithful is in asking for forgiveness. The words "Have mercy on me a sinner" have never been far from my lips.

On this the 25th anniversary of my ordination I reaffirm my commitment my desire, my hope to follow God's plan wherever he takes me for as long as he wants. " I will love him and honor Him, I will love his Church and honor her all the days of my life."

Remember that movie and my moment of sadness, as I continued down the corridor toward the exit I heard a voice which said to me as clear as day: " I love you, I have always loved you, and I will always love you." Those of you who know me know that I am not a "hearing voices kind of guy". Wishful thinking, you ask ? I believe that in that moment of wonderful consolation I was being held in the arms of God, I believe I was called to the "chick flick" for precisely that reason. As I pushed open the doors of the E Street Theater all of my fears and all of my doubts left me and I walked out into the world that God has given me to love.

Thank you Lord. Amen.

July 23, 2008
On the 25th Anniversary of my ordination


sodajunkie said...

Father Bob,

I'm glad to have known you for at least half of the 25 years. In many ways you have more children and more people who admire, respect and love you than any man I have ever known. We are your family. We are your loved ones. We are the ones you have set straight. We are the ones that you have re-introduced to God. You have the largest family of people who genuinely care about you. This was most likely God's gift back to you for the loving sacrifice that you made when you were a teenager.

Thank you for being you! Here's to another 25 years!

John R.

Lauren said...

Thank you for this, and for giving me and so many others, i'm sure, our lives back.

God bless,