Celibacy is often atop the list of fears for men discerning the priesthood, and for many different reasons. For some men, the question is how they can be happy and fulfilled without the intimacy and companionship of a wife and children. Others may wonder whether sexual desire or past mistakes will keep them from peacefully and joyfully living out celibacy. Not helping matters are strong cultural messages that associate true masculinity and happiness with sexual activity and being attractive to women. All of this can be very daunting, leaving men wondering how to sort through it all.
One way to begin cutting through any anxiety is to look at what celibacy is for. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ himself indicates that some are granted the gift of renouncing marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” and “whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matthew 19:12–13). Paul notes that “an unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32), while a married man must also be concerned with pleasing his wife and providing for his family.
Jesus and Paul reveal two very important aspects of clerical celibacy: it is a gift given by God, and this gift is given for total dedication to the Lord and the mission for which Jesus came, to save souls. Not all are called to receive it; far from it. But God does want some men to have this gift, including His priests. By choosing to accept it, priests learn to love God and people more passionately and enthusiastically, loving the way the saints love in heaven.
Christ sent the apostles on a mission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), and the priest shares completely in this mission to save souls. Celibacy is one of the ways the priest is conformed to Christ. The priest is free to be fully dedicated to the needs of the Church, not only in the time he spends celebrating sacraments, visiting those sick and homebound, and running a parish, but by being available to move around at any time to where he is needed at the request of the bishop. Because he lives celibately, a priest is much more easily able to minister to those who need him most.
By remaining unmarried for the sake of the kingdom, a priest gives the world a glimpse into the reality of heaven, where the children of the resurrection “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30). Choosing a life of celibacy and living it out joyfully sends the convincing message that, contrary to what our culture or world may tell us, the deepest joys are found in union with God and not in earthly goods. The deepest relationship in a priest’s life must be the one he has through prayer with Jesus, and in his celibacy, his life gives witness to that deep relationship and inspires others to grow closer to Christ.
It’s no accident that Jesus brings up celibacy in Matthew’s Gospel at the same time he teaches about marriage. Far from being a kind of all-expenses-paid bachelorhood, celibacy has a lot in common with marriage. Both bring forth new life and both require significant discernment and self-knowledge to live out well. And just as in any vocation, we are fulfilled to the extent that we give ourselves away by loving as the Father loves—in this case, the Church and the people of God. With the Church as his bride, the priest, through his preaching, teaching, baptizing, healing, anointing, and consecrating, brings forth thousands of spiritual children who all call him “Father.”
Just like discerning the priesthood in general, you don’t have to have a call to celibacy figured out all at once! In fact, it’s normal for men to be unsure whether they have received the gift of celibacy even when they enter the seminary. While discerning celibacy takes place over a long period of time, learning to love that deep love that celibacy requires is something you can work on now.
To start, think about how you see yourself. Do you see your sexuality as a gift from God? How open are you to receiving God’s love as his beloved son? How are you growing in the virtue of chastity? How would you rate your generosity, in general?
Think also about your relationships with others. Do you have good, mature friendships with both men and women? Do you see others as made in the image and likeness of God and to be respected and loved, not used?
We all have room to grow in charity, chastity, and every other virtue, so don’t be discouraged by your shortcomings. Perfection is not a requirement for priestly discernment or thinking about seminary, and that’s true about loving others in chaste celibacy. God wants to give each of us the grace to grow in self-mastery, generosity, and love and only asks us to be open to receiving it. Ask for these graces to grow and the Lord will show you what he desires for you.