Sermons: The Gift of Celibate Shepherds
We hear today that Paul and Barnabas are preaching at Antioch (modern day Turkey but then a Greek city). The Jews who hear them, though, reject them. Instead of getting discouraged, they “turn to the Gentiles,” citing the prophet Isaiah, through whom the Lord called the Jewish people to be “a light to the Gentiles, that [they] may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” Hearing this, “the Gentiles were delighted.”
These “gentiles” (non-Jews) listening to Paul preach are “God fearers,” people who had grown tired of the old pagan religions and frequented the Jewish synagogues, becoming familiar with the Old Testament, Jewish history, and the One God who far transcended their pagan idols. These God-fearers strove to follow the moral law as contained in the Old Testament, but had not yet totally embraced Judaism. They were respectful, but they were not “all in” until Paul and Barnabas arrived to show them that being truly “all in” for the one God did not mean conformity to Jewish ritual law, but rather Baptism in Christ.
Like the God-fearers, we can also be attentive listeners to God’s word, and putting forth a real effort to live uprightly, but might not still be 100 percent “all in” for the Lord. Their excitement at hearing the Apostolic preaching invites all of us to consider the ways in which we are still hanging out on the fringes, not committing ourselves all the way.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because today we contemplate the image of Christ as our Good Shepherd. Today is also an important opportunity for us to renew our prayer for the shepherds of the Church, those who to lead Her in the Lord’s name, and to pray for an increase in young men willing to follow the Lord’s call to be shepherds. To serve the Lord as a priest is to give an example of being “all in” for the Lord, especially through the radical renunciation of self involved in adopting the celibate state – giving up the possibility of marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Just as Paul and Barnabas and those who became Christians through their preaching experienced misunderstanding and persecution, so likewise there is a lot misunderstanding about what is involved in accepting this call, which is as counter-cultural today as it was two thousand years ago.
Many people believe that the Church (at least in the Latin West) requires celibacy for Her ministers and for religious because the Church believes that marriage is not holy. But this is not the case! The Church has always taught that the Sacrament of Matrimony involves a great call to holiness. A person who embraces the married state is by no means automatically less holy than one who does not.
Likewise, the Church chooses Her ministers from among those with a charism to celibacy not in order to separate them from the world, nor so that they will be more available to their parishioners. Certainly there is a certain benefit in not obligating the parish to pay a salary to the priest that could support a whole family, or in the priest’s availability during times that might normally be occupied by family activities. But many married men and fathers are also generously available to serve the Lord, and the goal of celibacy goes far beyond the practical.
Rather than being motivated by a disparagement of marriage or practical concerns, the celibacy of our shepherds is about a witness to the life of the world to come. In Heaven, the goal of all our lives, Christ tells us that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). This is why marriage vows are “until death,” because marriage ceases with the death of one of the spouses.
Celibacy is also not because intimacy is bad. Every human person has a need for intimacy, which goes far beyond physical intimacy. The availability for which celibacy is intended is an availability of the heart to God. The celibate state is a consecration to reserving one’s heart for the Lord.
Most importantly of all, our shepherds are celibate because Jesus was and is celibate. The Scriptures make clear that His bride is the Church, to which He totally gave Himself in this same exchange of chaste intimacy. This is also why the Catholic priesthood is reserved to men – not only because Christ (who otherwise made many very counter-cultural choices) chose men to be His first priests, but because Jesus Himself is a biological male. In more recent years, certain fictional accounts have speculated about a hidden marriage between Jesus and perhaps Mary Magdalene. Or, less egregiously, we could ask, “What if the Gospels just didn’t mention His wife, and the business about marriage to the Church is a metaphor? What if He really was married?”
Spoiler alert: He wasn’t. Being an unmarried rabbi would have been weird. It would have been a serious flaw in His credibility. The evangelists would never have unintentionally or accidentally presented Him as unmarried. If the Gospels present Christ as unmarried, it cannot be accidental. Being married or unmarried was the furthest thing from inconsequential in 33 A.D.
In our own day, the celibacy of Catholic clergy and religious is an important witness to a world that thinks that the human person is incomplete without sexual activity. Whether it is same-sex attraction, pre-marital chastity, or the dignity of unborn human life, rejection of the Church’s teaching is motivated in part by this belief that a life without the privileges of marriage is not a life worth living. We need the example of celibate men and women in the priesthood and religious life to show that all people are meant for much more.
What about the fact, though, that many of the Church’s shepherds have not been faithful to this important commitment to celibate chastity? Abuse does not happen because of pent-up energy, and marriage is no solution to the problem of abuse. Thinking that we can solve the problem of the need for ever greater and vigilant protection of minors and all vulnerable persons by eliminating the discipline of celibacy is a distraction from the hard work that the Church does need to do and is doing in this area.
From time to time, well-meaning people tell me, “I wish they would let you get married.” Celibacy is not, though, a rule that the Church imposes on men who would like to be priests. It is a charism, a gift from God, that we have discerned within ourselves through the light of the Holy Spirit. The Church chooses Her priests from among those men who have received this charism – this gift of renouncing marriage for the sake of the Kingdom – from the Lord. We have joyfully and freely chosen this life of total consecration to the Lord, and words like this, even if well-meant, are ultimately insulting. It’s the same as telling someone who is already married, “I wish they’d let you marry someone else too.” Seven years ago, on the happiest day of my life, I gave my entire life to the Lord and His Church. Embracing the life of celibacy – a life of consecration to the Lord that was not only spiritual but bodily as well – was not a hindrance to that joy, but an essential part of it. Anything else would have been an incomplete gift.
This is why we won’t solve any “priest shortage” by watering down what it means to be a priest, just as we will never attract more people to Christ’s Church by watering down His challenging teachings. Vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life flourish where the Faith and the priesthood are lived in all their radicality. We should thank God for living in such a place here in the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend, which in recent years has seen one of the highest amounts of new priests ordained per parishioner in the entire country, and for getting to experience the zeal and joy of newly ordained priests here in our own parish these past three years.
The witness of priests and religious who embrace the celibate state for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven ought to inspire all of us to be “all in” for the Lord. Our commitment to celibate chastity is a source of joy and deep love from the Body of Christ, the Church, and from our consecration to the Lord. Encourage your sons to consider whether God might also be calling them to this beautiful, joy-filled, and counter-cultural life! There is no need to fear the Lord’s call.
Young men, the call to celibacy – forgoing the great good of marriage for the even greater good of consecrating yourself to the Lord – could be yours as well! Every young Catholic man ought to ask the Holy Spirit to open his heart to the possibility of this great calling, and to enlighten you to know your vocation, your calling from the Lord.
If the stirring of that call is present inside you, do not be afraid! The Lord’s call is a result of His love for you and you can trust His guidance of your life. And don’t be afraid as well to talk to someone you trust – your parents, and especially a priest! – about what God is doing in your heart. We’re here to help you figure out what God wants from you and how He is calling you to follow Him.
The Good Shepherd is risen! We give thanks to God today for the gift of celibacy in the Church, for calling men to be our shepherds with hearts totally consecrated to the Lord. We pray that this example might inspire each of us to commit ourselves more deeply to Christ – to not only be God-fearers, but to be “all in” for the Lord.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday of Easter, A.D. MMXXII