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There has been much talk recently about priestly celibacy. Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s new Secretary of State, gave an interview to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, in which he discussed continuity and change in the Catholic Church. The interviewer raised the question of celibacy, and the archbishop replied that celibacy “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition,” dating to the early centuries of the church.
There was nothing new in Parolin’s comments. Celibacy is a church discipline, very different than a dogmatic teaching like the resurrection or doctrines defending the sanctity of all human life. Such teachings go to the heart of the faith and thus cannot be changed. Celibacy is a different kind of rule, open to change. While celibate priesthood became the universal norm in the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the Vatican has always respected the practice of married priests in the Eastern Churches united with Rome, and in recent decades has made special provision for married, Anglican clergy who convert to Catholicism.
Though I am a priest, I do not have a stake in the game really. I’m a Jesuit, and men in religious orders, like the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and the like, profess vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and live together in community. Marriage vows would be incompatible with the vows that bind me to God and to the Jesuits with whom I live and work. The question posed to Parolin goes to diocesan clergy, those mostly serving at your local parish and living in a rectory.
In this reflection, I do not want to speak for them, or settle the question about whether priestly celibacy should be optional again. Instead, let me address the more personal question: Why do I choose celibate chastity as a Jesuit, now for 17 years? What I write here about living in celibate chastity I could also say about living in poverty and obedience, for all of the vows are intended to help me love in the way that God calls me to love. In other words, trying to live chastely, poorly, and obediently frees me to love and serve in ways that give me great joy. This life is no better or worse than any other vocation (like marriage) or way of life, but it is mine.
I joined the Jesuits when I was 29 years old, so I lived as a single adult, on my own, for a number of years. In my 20s, I worked as a corporate lawyer and a high school teacher. I enjoyed this life, but even in committed, romantic relationships, there was something missing, some void that needed to be filled. I wanted to give even more to God and God’s people. As much as I loved one person, I wanted to love more broadly. Now 46 years old, I can say with confidence that I love best as a Jesuit priest.
Sometimes the vows do sting. It hurts sometimes not having an exclusive, intimate, romantic relationship. As I get older, it hurts more often not having children to call my own. Given their age, students here at Georgetown often ask me about such things: “What’s it like giving up sex, marriage, and family?” (They are mostly concerned with the first!). These are all very good things, I tell them, beautiful gifts of God.
Instead of focusing on what I may be missing, I ask them to consider what I am given by living the vows. God is very generous, I remind them, and can fill a human life in many different ways. Those vows gave me the freedom to come to Georgetown in the first place, and to work, teach, and even live in a residence hall where I am available at all hours to the 300 students who live there with me. In quieter moments, God has filled me with deep-seated peace in prayer. God has filled me with zeal to work for justice on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable. God has given me the good company of other Jesuits with whom I live and of friends and coworkers from many walks of life. Even the struggles with my vows are a gift. Those struggles make me much more compassionate with the very natural challenges that others face in their life commitments.
As a priest, I am privileged to be with people at the most intimate moments of life: births and deaths, marriages and breakups, times of great achievement and of profound shame. I do not have my own biological children, but I have over 6,000 here on Georgetown’s main campus! I have many sons and daughters who call me “Father.” This name humbles me, for it is given with a sacred trust to create a safe place where people can experience the love, mercy, and encouragement of God. To share that space, even for a time, even knowing that I must let them go, is an immeasurable joy.
If the vows ever become for me simply an endurance contest or spiritual athleticism just to prove myself, they would not do much good for me or anyone else. The vows only make sense if they turn me outward to embrace a world, as Jesus did, which is so beautiful and so broken, and turn me inward to know God who so loves that world
Much of what I have written about my vows could be said of couples who stand before me at the altar on their wedding day. Any vows whether those of a priest or of a married couple are profound acts of faith, hope, and love. Honoring such vows can be challenging because they are so counter-cultural. In a world that tends to avoid commitment, prize independence, esteem competitiveness, value instant pleasure, and reduce everything to the practical and material, both the couple and I profess by word and action that the most authentic and joyful human life is one lived for another.
Wherever the debate ends up, my experience of celibacy has been a gift. The costs have made sense only because of the unexpected return in God’s mysterious economy of grace: the more we give of ourselves, the more we are filled.
Kevin O’Brien, S.J. is a Jesuit priest and serves as Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University, where he also lectures in the theology department.