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Celibacy is in the air again. Or rather, Cardinal O’Brien’s recent comments have stirred up a debate about the obligation of celibacy for Catholic priests in the Western Church.

I thought I’d copy here a personal reflection on celibacy, and then some historical notes. The personal reflection is from something I wrote for the BBC News website three years ago; and the historical sections are copied from a recent post by Fr Tim Finigan.

This is the short piece I wrote for the BBC:

On 13 July 1997 I made a lifelong commitment to celibacy. In a chapel overlooking Lake Albano on the outskirts of Rome I promised to remain unmarried ‘for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind’.

I had a real sense of peace that day, but a few months earlier I had been in turmoil. I knew all the theory: Catholic priests were following the example of Christ; celibacy gave you a freedom to serve others, etc. But it hadn’t become real for me.

I was wrestling with all this one afternoon that spring. I realised that I had been seeing celibacy in negative terms: ‘No’ to marriage, ‘No’ to sex, ‘No’ to children – when in reality it was a profound ‘Yes’. It was a way of putting Christ at the centre of your life, of giving your whole heart to those you would serve as a priest. It was a way of loving others with a generosity that wouldn’t be possible if you were a husband and father. Celibacy wasn’t a negation or a denial – it was a gift of love, a giving of oneself, just as much as marriage could be.

My experience over the years has confirmed this. Yes, there are practical aspects to celibacy. You’ve got more time for other people, and more time for prayer. You can get up at three in the morning to visit someone in hospital without worrying about how this will affect your marriage. You can move to a bleak estate in a rough part of town without thinking about how this will impact on your children’s schooling.

But celibacy is something much deeper as well. There is a place in your heart, in your very being, that you have given to Christ and to the people you meet as a priest. You are not just serving them, you are loving them as if they were the very centre of your life – which they are. I think Catholics sense this. They know that you are there for them with an undivided heart, and it gives your relationship with them a particular quality.

It’s true that you can’t speak from experience about every aspect of human life. But you gain an awful lot of understanding from sharing in people’s lives over the years. Husbands and wives will confide in a sympathetic priest. You end up drawing on this experience as you preach and counsel people. Besides, people want a priest because he will show them the love of Christ, and not because he has lived through all ups and downs that they live through.

There are struggles. Times of loneliness; sexual desires; dreams about what marriage and fatherhood would be like. I don’t think most of this is about celibacy – it’s about being human. The husbands I know struggle with the same things, only they dream about what it would be like to have married someone else! What matters is trying to be faithful, instead of pretending that another way of life would be easy.

You need balance in your life, you can’t be giving all the time – this was emphasised in our training. You need affection and human intimacy. I’ve got some wonderful friends. I get home to see my family every couple of weeks. I escape to the cinema now and then. And I pray. Not to fill the gaps, because some of them can never be filled, but because the love of Christ is something very real and very consoling.

I’ve been incredibly happy as a priest over these twelve years. I don’t think about celibacy a lot now – it’s just part of my life. But I’m aware that it gives me a freedom of heart that is a unique gift. It helps me stay close to Christ, and draws me closer to the people I meet each day.

And these historical comments are taken from Fr Tim Finigan’s post, “Some notes on clerical celibacy“:

In the synoptic gospels we hear of how Our Lord cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from fever. In the discussion of clerical celibacy, this text is routinely brought out as a knock-down argument. The apostles were married so why can’t priests marry? Oddly, though, we never hear anything of St Peter’s wife, or indeed of any of the wives of the other apostles.

“Then Peter said: Behold, we have left all things, and have followed thee. Who said to them: Amen, I say to you, there is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting. (Lk 18.28-30)”

This suggests the possibility that St Peter had in fact left his family to follow the Lord. Such a course of action would be unacceptable in our time, but in the culture of Palestine in the time of Our Lord, the extended family would mean that it was possible.

Then we come to St Paul’s injunction in 1 Timothy 3.2 that the Bishop should be the husband of only one wife. It would be improbable to suggest that St Paul was dealing with a problem of polygamy. Much more likely he was saying that the Bishop should not be someone who had married a second wife after his first wife had died.

These indications from scripture are tantalising but need further illumination. Fortunately, there have been a number of studies that have cast light on the historical practice of the Church, arguing that the discipline of clerical celibacy is of apostolic origin.

Christian Cochini presented the historic debate between Bickell and Funk over certain key texts from the Council of Nicea, the Council of Elvira and others. He also exhaustively examined all of the cases from the first seven centuries of the Church’s history which were relevant to the issue of clerical marriage. His work supported the thesis that there was an apostolic rule of continence for those clerics who were married and that the legislation of the Church against the clerical use of marriage is witness to this ancient tradition.

Roman Cholij examined in particular the Council in Trullo of 691, concluding that the Council’s permission for the clerical use of marriage was an innovation, giving rise to the legislative anomaly in the East (and occasionally in the West) whereby married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry. This law, which is still a part of modern codes of canon law, makes little sense apart from the historic rule of continence…

Cardinal Stickler’s brief account is a most useful summary of the case for clerical celibacy. He notes that there have been a number of important recent studies devoted to the history of celibacy in both the East and the West, and that these studies have either not yet penetrated the general consciousness or they have been hushed up if they were capable of influencing that consciousness in undesirable ways.

This unfortunately remains the case as articles continue to appear without finding it necessary even to address the research of these scholars.

The later imposition of a rule that clerics should be unmarried was a recognition of the growing impracticality, with the development of marriage, and the problems of inheritance, of ordaining men who had been previously married, even if there were a rule of continence. It obviously makes sense today when people would find it hard to understand a system in which men who are married would be expected to change and live a life of continence…

Throughout the history of the Church, the discipline of clerical continence or celibacy has been transgressed by some clerics. The Church has consistently fought to reform the life of clerics in the face of immorality which has been greater at some times than others. Today we live in a time when reform is needed again. We should remember that when St Charles Borrommeo went to Milan, the vast majority of his priests were living in concubinage – and he reformed his diocese. The Council of Trent was largely successful in reforming the clergy.

At the present time, we should give thanks for the faithfulness and purity of most students and young priests. They have been formed at a time when appallingly bad example has been given by some of their senior brethren. They have reckoned the cost and turned into the storm with courage and resolution. Let us pray that they become the vanguard of the new reform of the clergy, following in the footsteps of their forbears in the counter-reformation and at many other times in the history of the holy Roman Church.

References

Cholij, R. Clerical Celibacy in East and West Gracewing. Herefordshire. 1989
Cochini, C. The apostolic origins of priestly celibacy Ignatius. San Francisco. 1990
Heid, S. Celibacy in the Early Church. Ignatius. San Francisco. 2000
Stickler, A. The case for clerical celibacy Ignatius. San Francisco. 1995

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Yesterday on Radio 4’s Something Understood Mark Tully looked into seminary life, past and present. John Cornwell reflects on his experience in ‘junior seminary’ many years ago, and I try to explain what things are like today at Allen Hall. You can listen here – the programme is available online until Sunday 17th June.

St Joseph’s College, Upholland, where John Cornwell went to ‘junior seminary’

Here is the blurb:

In Something Understood this week, Mark Tully is intrigued by life in a Roman Catholic seminary. How are young men trained for the priesthood?

At Allen Hall Seminary in the busy heart of London, Dean of Studies and Formation Advisor Father Stephen Wang explains the need for his students to train for their pastoral role within the Catholic community. Seminarians at Allen Hall spend much of their time in local parishes, schools and hospitals preparing for life as a Diocesan priest. And yet it’s also crucial that they have the quiet, contemplative space they need to develop spiritually. They must become men of God and men of communion.

Mark explores the history of the seminary system, with readings from Anthony Kenny and Denis Meadows, and hears music written by ancient monks in isolation. He speaks to writer and academic John Cornwell, whose own time at Upholland Seminary in the 1950s left a strong imprint on his spiritual life. The Junior Seminary system he experienced from the age of 12 no longer exists, but John believes that there are still serious flaws in the way the Catholic Church trains its priests. He argues that seminarians are too separated out from the world and from the people they are destined to serve once ordained.

Ultimately, becoming a priest requires huge dedication – what Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe described as a ‘falling in love’ with God. Perhaps what is also needed is a balance, between the prosaic and the spiritual, between being within the world and being apart from it.

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Do make some time to watch the first episode of a three-part documentary called ‘Catholics’ that showed this Thursday, 23 Feb, at 9pm on BBC4. You can watch it on iPlayer here.

Richard Alwyn and Jennifer Forde spent most of the spring of last year filming the series, and the first episode focusses entirely on Allen Hall and the vocational journeys of some of the men here. It’s an honest, unaffected, sympathetic and uncensored look into the life here. I’ll put a link to the iPlayer version when it is up after the broadcast: See the link here.

This is from the production company’s blurb:

Filmed over six months and with extraordinary access, CATHOLICS – PRIESTS is an intimate behind-the-scenes portrait of Allen Hall in London, one of only three remaining Roman Catholic seminaries in Britain.

CATHOLICS – PRIESTS is the first of a remarkable new three-part series directed by award-winning documentary film-maker Richard Alwyn about being Catholic in Britain today. The three films – one about men, one about women, one about children – are each portraits of a different Catholic world, revealing Catholicism to be a rich but complex identity and observing how this identity shapes people’s lives.

As the Catholic priesthood struggles to recover from the scandal of child abuse, numbers of men applying to join have fallen greatly. In 2010 just 19 men were ordained in the whole of England and Wales.

In this first film, Alwyn meets the men who still feel themselves called to the priesthood.

Rob Hunt is in his first year at Allen Hall. A cradle Catholic, he ignored his faith for years, had several relationships and worked in various jobs, spending time as a roadie for a Funk band, before deciding his life was veering off course. With little education, he thought he had as much chance of becoming a priest as an astronaut. Today, surrounded by box sets of The Sweeney and Harold Lloyd, he is adapting to seminary life.

At the other end of the seminary, Andrew Gallagher is in his final year. Now 30 years old, he worked in a City law firm before joining the seminary.  He sees this not as a career change but as a response to a life-long calling – at school, his nickname was “Priest”. Andrew Connick, is also in the last year of his ‘formation’. Intensely private, it was only at the end of his university years that he felt he too could no longer resist a calling that had been with him all his life.

CATHOLICS – PRIESTS follows Allen Hall’s seminarians as they pursue a timetable that swings from the esoteric to the practical – from Biblical Greek to lessons on how to live a celibate life. But Alwyn’s film reveals how seminary is no “Priest School”; beyond learning the tricks of the priestly trade, the seminarians believe that they are being prepared to be fundamentally altered as human beings… only then able to celebrate the Eucharist and perform the act that is central to Catholic life – the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This mystery is what Catholic priests exist for – to make Christ present in the world.

“I will give you shepherds after my own heart”, said the prophet Jeremiah, stating God’s chosen method for guiding and caring for His people. In CATHOLICS – PRIESTS, Richard Alwyn brings rare and moving insight into the lives of those who believe themselves to be God’s shepherds in the 21st Century.

CATHOLICS is a Wingspan Production in association with Jerusalem Productions.

And this is from an article by Joanna Morehead:

A few years ago he was a roadie with a band, living what he admits was a rock’n’roll lifestyle. Today, 42-year-old Rob Hunt is training for the Catholic priesthood in a seminary in central London. It’s a very different way of life from what he’s been used to. […]

The rethink that followed brought Mr Hunt to Allen Hall in London’s Chelsea, one of the four remaining Catholic seminaries in Britain, where he is one of 51 men studying for the priesthood. His story features in Catholics, a new BBC series starting this week, which lifts the lid on how priests are trained. In the film, Mr Hunt’s room in the seminary is shown, its walls covered with pictures of St Thérèse of Lisieux and the Virgin Mary. “In the past, you would have found slightly different women on the wall,” he says.

The documentary paints a picture of a life that borders on monastic. But another of those featured in the film, 26-year-old Mark Walker, who’s in his fifth year at the seminary and who expects to be ordained in summer next year, says it’s not all it seems. “You’re living in a mostly male environment, but there’s plenty of freedom to come and go,” he says.

Mr Walker says that, though the celibacy he must embrace as a priest seems strange to many, it’s not too difficult to accept. “There’s a belief that a good sex life is essential, that it’s what you need to make you happy,” he says. “But it’s not that your sexuality is turned off once you’re ordained, but you learn to fold it into the rest of your life.”

Mr Walker says he “always had a nagging thought” that the priesthood would be the right path for him. He was raised a Catholic, and it was on the day of his first communion, at the age of seven, that a priest suggested that he might have a vocation. “It planted an idea in my mind that never quite went away,” he says.

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the Catholic Church’s National Office for Vocation in London, says that although the number of men enrolling in seminaries hit an all-time low at the start of the 21st century, it is now significantly on the rise.

“In 2001, the number of men joining seminaries in England and Wales was 26, the lowest in living memory,” he says. “But from 2006 onwards the figure started to go up, and in 2010 there were 56 new recruits.”

The rise in seminarian numbers has been due in part to the setting up of “discernment groups” for Catholic men and women, Fr Jamison says. “It’s not about straightforward recruitment into the religious life. It’s about helping both men and women work out what’s right for them in their lives.”

In the wake of the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, the application process for would-be seminarians is, Fr Jamison says, extremely rigorous. “We have an in-depth psychological analysis including an explicit analysis of their sexuality. Candidates are asked to describe their sexual history; they are given tests by a psychologist and interviewed by a psychiatrist.”

Let me know what you think, and what impressions it makes, in the comments below.

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We have just had a ‘Day of Recollection’ – 24 hours of silence and retreat in the house, from Friday supper to Solemn Vespers on Saturday evening.

An elderly woman from the Igorot tribe in Banaue, Philippines

Dom Brendan Thomas, the novice master at Belmont Abbey near Hereford, led the retreat, sharing some thoughts about beauty, prayer and love, and showing us some breathtaking images.

He read this beautiful poem by Padraig Daly, which was written on the occasion of a priestly ordination:

 

SINGLENESS by Padraig Daly

 

There will be joy too in your singleness

As when gloom lifts while you listen

From some heart fastened to sorrow,

 

As when children in schoolyards ambush you

And drag you off to riotous play,

As when affection swamps you in a festive

congregation,

 

As when ailing women you visit in shabby flats

Fall silent

Before the mystery of broken bread,

 

As when the dying bless you

With their last,

Most precious smiles,

 

As when, sitting in the silence of automatic prayer,

You know suddenly

You are being visited by God.

 

The old will shelter in your untidy heart,

The young will know in you

The laughter of Yahweh;

 

And the wretched see

You have no bride

But them.

 

I don’t know Padraig Daly. This is from the Dedalus Press site (I presume he is the same poet!):

PÁDRAIG J. DALY was born in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford in 1943 and is now working as an Augustinian priest in Dublin. He has published several collections of poetry, among them The Last Dreamers: New & Selected Poems (1999) and The Other Sea (2003), as well as his translations from the Italian of Edoardo Sanguineti, Libretto (1999) and Paolo Ruffilli, Joy and Mourning (reissued 2007). His latest collection of poems is Clinging to the Myth (2007) in which he reflects on grief and personal bereavement and uses the voices of 18th century Gaelic poetry to respond to the challenges of a post-Christian Ireland.

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No, I’m not converting – I’m very happy as a Diocesan priest! But I had the joy of being present at the Final Vows of Fr Simon Bishop SJ on Saturday, at the Oratory of St Thomas More in the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy. Fr Simon and I met as undergraduates twenty-five years ago. We’ve been close friends ever since, and we’ve supported each other through the twists and turns of our respective vocational journeys over these years.

St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits

It’s a simple and very moving event. The Mass is celebrated as usual. But as the host is held up by the priest, just before the ‘Behold, the Lamb of God…’, the Jesuit kneels before the altar and addresses these promises to Almighty God himself, in these words:

I, [name] make my profession, and I promise to Almighty God, in the presence of the Virgin Mother, the whole heavenly court, and all those here present, and to you, Reverend Father [provincial’s name], representing the Superior General of the Society of Jesus and his successors and holding the place of God, perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience; and, in conformity with it, special care for the instruction of children, according to the manner of living contained in the apostolic letters of the Society of Jesus and its Constitutions. I further promise a special obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff in regard to the missions according to the same apostolic letters and the Constitutions.

Notice the famous ‘Fourth Vow’ at the end – to obey the Pope in regard to the missions. That is, not to do anything the Pope requests (however wild or subversive or treasonable – cf. English mythology), but to follow the wishes of the Pope insofar as it is his role to discern the wider missionary needs of the universal Church.

In most religious orders, you have to take your final vows before you are ordained; you have to prove, as it were, your commitment to the order (and the order’s commitment to you) before the gift of priesthood is entrusted to you. With the Jesuits, the final vows come a few years after ordination. James Martin SJ has an enlightening post about the meaning of the Jesuit final vows here.

What you choose to put on the back of your final vow booklet is always significant. Fr Simon chose to print some words of St Ignatius from the Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus. It’s the original ‘vision statement’ of the Jesuits, approved by Pope Julius III in 1550. It’s powerful stuff. Here is the full version:

Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the Name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind.

He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the Word of God, and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments.

Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

For the sake of greater devotion in obedience to the Apostolic See, of greater abnegation of our own wills and of surer direction from the Holy Spirit, we have nevertheless judged it to be supremely profitable that each of us and any others who will make the same profession in the future should, in addition to that ordinary bond of the three vows, be bound by this special vow to carry out whatever the present and future Roman Pontiffs may order which pertains to the progress of souls and the propagation of the faith; and to go at once, without subterfuge or excuse, as far as in us lies.

If you want to find out more about the Jesuits in Britain, see their website here.

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I’m not trying to argue someone into accepting the importance of celibacy for Catholic priests (I’ve already given my own personal perspective in a previous post); but if you want you want to have a summary of the meaning of celibacy in the life of the Catholic priest and deacon, as the Church understands it, there is no better place to look than the ordination rite for a ‘transitional’ deacon who is on the road to priesthood.

This image is from last year's ordinations, but Lorenzo (holding the book) was one of the three ordained this year!

Three of the seminarians from Allen Hall were ordained deacons at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday. The beautifully phrased words of their commitment to celibacy really struck me, and reminded me of what my own commitment (made fourteen years ago) is meant to mean in all its richness.

Here are the words the bishop uses:

By your own free choice you seek to enter the order of deacons. You shall exercise this ministry in the celibate state for celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.

By living in this state with total dedication, moved by a sincere love for Christ the Lord, you are consecrated to him in a new and special way.

By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart; you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth.

By your life and character you will give witness to your brothers and sisters in faith that God must be loved above all else, and that it is he whom you serve in others.

Therefore, I ask you:

In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?

The candidate replies: ‘I am.’ There is quite a lot contained in those two short words.

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How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?

It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.

I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.

Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:

It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.

That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.

Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.

Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.

This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.

The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.

That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.

I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.

PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:

Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.

Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…

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