When I was in high school, we had the greatest thing ever: open lunch.
If your school hasn’t blessed you with this gift, open lunch means that all of the students who wanted to could leave the campus for lunch. We could head to the local mall food court, run home to grab homework we had forgotten, or pick a fast food restaurant. I once watched our high school football team destroy the all you can eat pizza buffet, nearly putting the place out of business!
It was a great freedom. Until we got a new principal.
Everyone liked the new principal, but one day he wondered aloud if the school ever have a bigger cafeteria with more food options.
That’s all he said.
Within hours, the entire school was ready for a revolt against the new principal – he was going to change everything, take away our open campus, and ruin every tradition we had.
That was over 20 years ago. The football team still isn’t allowed back to the pizza buffet . . . but the campus is still open and the traditions are still the same.
The New Guy
In our Church, we’re still in the “new principal” phase with Pope Francis. Everything that he says or does is an opportunity for people to either agree or disagree. Even people who don’t go to our school (as in, aren’t Catholic, if we’re keeping this analogy going here), have huge opinions and want to weigh in with them.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that NBC wrote an article last week noting that the Pope’s Secretary of State (take note that the article calls him “the Pope’s No. 2,” as if he’s like Vice Pope or Pope Runner Up. The Pope doesn’t have a second in command . . . he’s the Pope!) said that the idea of priestly celibacy is “open to discussion.”
The article seems to imply that the Vatican may be saying that priests could be married. Lots of people have decided to offer their opinions, either for or against it. And some of those opinions are very uneducated about the Church, her teaching, and her beauty.
What He Really Said
The Secretary of State for the Vatican actually did say something that is true. But it’s being misunderstood.
He said: Priestly celibacy (that a priest makes a promise not to marry and thus to remain a chaste celibate) is a discipline required by the Church in most of the world. It is not a dogma, which would be a formal theological truth handed down by the Church which is unchanging.
The fact that priestly celibacy is not a dogma but a discipline, the Secretary of State says, means that it could be discussed. Like the principal wondered if we might want a nicer cafeteria.
The Secretary of State didn’t say that it should be discussed. He didn’t say he thought that the discipline should be changed, or that it is changing. He simply said it could be discussed. In the entire course of a 36 minute interview, he talked about it in only three sentences.
So the first thing is to put it into perspective that in many ways this is a non-story. But because the issue is one that interests Catholics and non-Catholics alike, let’s quickly review the three most basic reasons for a priest’s celibacy:
1. Single-Minded Men
It allows us to be single-minded in service to God’s people. While married men and women serve the Church in powerful ways and serve in many capacities, there is something unique about the priest. The priest has to be available to his parish as the first priority. When they call, he must be there.
Yet for a married man, he has already sworn before God that his wife will be his priority in life and that he will pour himself out to her freely and without reservation. Clerical celibacy allows the priest to make his service to God’s people freely and as his greatest effort and priority. It leaves him free from the commitments of married family life in order to enter the lives of all he is called to serve.
2. Just Like Jesus
It is imitation of what Jesus Himself did. We know that Jesus took no wife and had no physical children. The Church alone is His bride, and He gave His life for her.
The priest is called to be as much like Christ as possible, a living symbol of Jesus for the people and in some cases, to act in the person of Jesus Christ in the offering of the Sacraments. For that reason, a priest imitates Jesus in remaining celibate in his work for the Kingdom of God.
3. A Sign of Heaven
The Priest stands as a sign of what is to come in heaven. Marriage here on earth exists to be a living sign of the unity that we will have with God in heaven. But in heaven we will not need marriage as a sign for that unity, because we will be living united with God with no distractions or sin!
A priest is a reminder to the world that everyone – married or not – is called to live with heaven in mind. When you see a priest, you see a man who says, “the promise of heaven is enough for me” and invites us to remember that this world is passing but life with God is eternal.
Just a reminder, we have a new Pope, and he wants great things for you and for the Church. When you hear people rushing to put words in his mouth or believing he is going to push for big changes in the Church, it is important to listen to what he really says – not what people think he is saying through another Vatican official.
And what he’s really saying is that we need to pray, to love the poor, to go to Mass, and to stay faithful. Pay attention to those things he tells us because those are the things that will lead you and me to heaven!