The Immaculata’s Formation of the Celibate Heart

The Lord God said: It is not good for man to be alone.”[1] Nor should he be. Yet the Church asks her priests to live a life of celibacy that they may be wholly devoted to God and the sheep of their flock. An essential question remains, how can the celibate priest, in light of what God has said in Genesis, live a full life? Is what God has said true and, if it is, how do we square that with celibacy? A common misconception about the celibate priesthood is the notion of the priest as someone who is “lonely.” Of course, there is “an essential felt loneliness in the priesthood because there is an essential felt loneliness in the cross.”[2] This felt loneliness, however, does not equate to actual loneliness. The celibate priest is, in fact, one who loves more, not less. He loves out of an overabundance of love, not a lack of it. The priest, however, is not one who should mount the cross on his own. He requires a helpmate to aid him in his ascent up Calvary and, ultimately, a woman who can receive the gift of his offering.  I wish to argue that as Adam discovered who he was in Eve, so the priest discovers who he is in and through Mary. In his relationship with Mary, the celibate priest finds the woman who determines his heart, receives his offering, and fulfills his celibacy. This relationship has implications on the very life of the priest, how he loves, and how he exercises his ministry. I wish to show that when the priest pursues this relationship with Mary, the ideal feminine heart, his entire priesthood becomes alive and gives way to the “abundant life.”[3]

“The Lord God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said: This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken.”[4] Notice Adam’s expression of surprise yet fulfillment in seeing the one he would call ‘woman.’ “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”[5] This expression notes a sense of relief that he has, at last, found one who compliments him. Prior to this encounter with ‘the woman,’ Adam did not fully understand who he was and what it meant to be a man. It’s not until he encounters her that he determines who he is in his masculinity. He discovers in her an understanding of who he is both bodily and ontologically. Essentially he finds, in difference, who he is fully. Ultimately this truth is not only based in scripture but in the very makeup of the human person in his or her sex. A man is a man all the way down to his very chromosomes; a woman is a woman all the way down to her chromosomes.[6] This truth reveals something of significance, namely, “that human beings were made for relationship, made to come out of ourselves and develop as a man or woman through a complementarity that lies outside themselves.”[7] Thus, in light of this reality illustrated in Genesis and as designed by the Creator, it is shown that “man is in an essential, indispensable relationship with woman,”[8] and he finds himself in casting himself forward, outside himself, in love.[9]

In recognizing the truth that man discovers who he is wholly in woman, how can the Church affirm the teaching and practice of a celibate priesthood? First, it is essential to recognize that the Church “will not ordain a man to his priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild.”[10] The Church does not deny the passions of man, nor does She desire ‘asexual’ men for the priesthood. She desires men who have a passion and natural desire for marriage and the complementarity of a woman. In other words, the Church is looking for men who genuinely seek the love and affirmation of a woman, not men running away from this ontological reality. The Church hopes that men in formation may, in recognizing their masculinity, discover the Church who can rightly order and tame his passions in a way that provides real supernatural fruit. Fr. Griffin comments on this, saying that “if a man is uncertain of his own masculinity, uncomfortable in his own manhood, or experiences any gender ambiguity or confusion, then it will not be possible for him to reflect the deep, masculine love of Christ for his people.”[11] The priest, then, is one who has a genuine desire for the complementarity of a woman and allows that desire to be formed and rightly ordered by his love of the Church and mission to wash the feet of his flock. Thus, the priestly vocation is not a diminishing desire for a woman but a fulfillment of that desire in chaste celibate love that fulfills his passions.

Acknowledging the genuine necessity for a woman to compliment the heart of the celibate priest, a question remains, namely, how is this accomplished? Msgr. Cihak argues that in marriage, a man is changed by his wife, “he allows himself to be determined by her…he must attune himself to her, and she engages his heart and helps to develop his eros love into agape love.”[12] The celibate, Cihak argues, needs this as well, although not engaged with a woman physically. He is, as previously determined, “in an essential, indisputable relationship with woman.”[13] I argue, similar to Msgr. Cihak, that this necessity for the feminine heart is realized in the celibate priest by the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Lady is one who actively engages the desires of the priest and deeply engages the disorder of his passionate eros into a true ordering of his desires and a fulfillment of his celibate agape love.[14] “It is not good for man to be alone,”[15] and Mary recognizes this, not allowing the priest to give himself to no one. Instead, Mary is there to determine his heart, receive his sacrificial offering of self, and, in so doing, fulfill his celibacy.

First, she determines his heart by entering into the very vocation of his celibacy. She meets the passions of his heart and fills his desires. Jesus promised that He had come so that we may have life abundantly.[16] This is as true for the celibate as it is for the married man. Mary’s activity in the celibate heart of the priests prompts him to a full life that comes first from Mary, the new Eve. In discovering his celibacy, the priest finds Mary, who is there to receive him as he is, and allows him to realize his vocation fully. As Adam reacts in astonishment and relief when discovering the ‘woman,’ so does the priest, in finding the new ‘woman,’ Mary, who takes and determines his heart. The celibate finds in Mary an answer to who he is in light of his vocation. The celibate priesthood is no longer a simple “giving up” on marriage and spousal love but a reordering of it that Mary fills in the complementarity of her feminine presence. This reality is most apparent at the foot of the cross when Mary takes St. John, in his priesthood, into her heart, and likewise, he takes her into “his own.”[17] Quite literally, as the Greek indicates, St. John takes Mary not only into his home but into “everything he is.”[18] The priest takes her into the very substance of his person and, therefore, his vocation, which is not an accidental quality but a reality intertwined with his very purpose as a son of God.

Mary not only determines the priest’s heart as a wife does for her husband, but she also receives his sacrificial offering of self. In a genuine and authentic way, the priest mounts the altar of the cross and gives himself over to the sheep. As Christ has, the priest lowers himself, ties a towel of humility around his waist, and washes the feet of tax collectors, sinners, and believers. He gives of himself and, in so doing, finds himself in his authentic vocation. The priest, however, does not mount the cross alone, nor does Jesus Christ. Along the road to Calvary, Mary is with Jesus every step, locking eyes with him and pushing him forward. Jesus mounts the cross not on his own but with His mother, whom herself experienced the sorrow of the cross.[19] Man cannot give himself to nothing; he needs someone who is there to receive his offering. As Mary receives the offering of Christ on the cross and, in so doing, becomes the prototype of the Church, she receives the offering of the priest on the cross who pours himself out for the sheep he loves. The sheep receives the priest’s offering imperfectly, but she receives it perfectly and orders it to fullness. In a sense, she makes the cross worth it. Something about her gaze and her reception of the priest’s offering of self gives the priest the confidence to say, “it is finished.”[20] Thus, St. John Paul II can say, with such fervor and confidence, man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”[21]

In determining the priest’s heart and receiving his sacrificial offering of self, Mary fulfills his vocation and the very reality of his celibacy. In encountering her, the priest, in his celibacy, can honestly say he is “filled to the brim.”[22] This reality is paradoxical and not the culture’s expectation which looks at the priest and says, “how can he love?” How is the celibate man supposed to live a full life if he promises to never give himself to a heart that meets him and determines him? Essentially the point is this: the priest is not alone. The celibate has genuinely found a home in the heart and loving mantel of the Blessed Mother. Therefore, the priest who has encountered the real presence of Mary’s heart in his vocation loves in a way that overflows from relationship into his ministry. A priest that allows his ministry to fill him is a dead priest because he feeds himself on the flock, not his relationship with God and his mother. The priest who aims for relationship as son and, in a sense, spouse of Mary is one who fully enters into the gift of his celibacy. This priest is joyful, overwhelmingly given to the flock, and one who does all he can to defend his people spiritually and, when needed, physically. In drawing close to Mary as one who in her fiat gave her all, the priest likewise, in looking to her, learns how to give his all for all. Essentially, a priest who is close to Mary is a priest full of life because he allows his celibacy to be determined by a woman who receives his gift of self.

The priest is not meant to be alone; he requires a woman to determine and comfort his heart. Although Mary plays an essential and active role in the priest’s heart, it must be noted that celibacy is, nonetheless, a real sacrifice that only makes sense at Calvary. The priest must take solace and find his home on the cross. From the depths of his masculinity, the priest unites himself to Christ in celibate love that is achieved not alone but with Mary. Sacrifice, however painful, does not equate to emptiness. Mary can, and does, fill the priest’s heart and make his offering whole. This relationship requires trust and fidelity to grace. When the priest recognizes Mary’s activity in his vocation, he becomes fully alive and completely in love.

[1] Genesis 2:18.

[2] Msgr. John Cihak, “The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role in the Celibate Priest’s Spousal and Paternal Love,”, 6.

[3] John 10:10.

[4] Genesis 2:22-23.

[5] Genesis 2:22.

[6] Msgr. John Cihak, “The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role in the Celibate Priest’s Spousal and Paternal Love,” 3.

[7] Ibid, 3.

[8] Ibid, 2.

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love (1952; repr., San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 96.

[11] Fr. Carter Griffin, Why Celibacy? (2019; Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing), 99.

[12] Msgr. John Cihak, “The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role in the Celibate Priest’s Spousal and Paternal Love,” 3.

[13] Ibid, 2.

[14] Ibid, 4.

[15] Genesis 2:18.

[16] John 10:10.

[17] John 19:27.

[18] Msgr. John Cihak, “The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role in the Celibate Priest’s Spousal and Paternal Love,” 5.

[19] Luke 2:35.

[20] John 19:30.

[21] Gaudium et Spes, 24.

[22] John 2:7.

John Paul Shanahan

About the Author: John Paul Shanahan

Seminarian John Paul Shanahan is in his First Theology Year at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary. Read more about him on our website at "Answering the Call" - "Meet Our Seminarians".