By Fr. Thom Hennen
Occasionally, when I ask a young man if he has ever thought of being a priest I am met with this response: “Well, Father, I think I really want to get married and have children.” At this point he figures I will leave him alone. After all, this is the classic defense against an invitation to consider the priesthood. But it doesn’t work with me. When I hear this response from a young man I say, “That’s great! Why would the Church want a man for the priesthood who didn’t at some level want to be a husband and a father?” The desire for marriage and family life is for me a good indicator that a man may indeed possess a priestly heart. Conversely, if a young man approached me and said, “Father, I think I’m called to the priesthood because I can’t stand the idea of marriage and I hate children,” then I would say, “Then you definitely do not have a vocation to the priesthood.”
This is because the priest is called in a very profound way to both spousal and fatherly love. The priest stands in the place of Christ the bridegroom in relationship to his bride, the Church. He is called to imitate the fatherly and generative love of God the Father and of Christ himself in begetting spiritual children, nourishing them with the sacraments, and instructing them in the ways of faith. This is not an imaginary or simulated fatherhood or an imaginary or simulated spousal relationship, but is very real.
A classmate of mine who is also in vocations work told me he had recently invited a young man to consider the priesthood and was met with this response: “I’ve thought about it, but I want to be a real father.” Little did he know that my classmate had just written his doctoral dissertation on priestly celibacy and supernatural fatherhood. I would have loved to hear the conversation that followed. In a world in which fatherhood is often reduced to either a biological function or a paternalistic notion of the past, it is hard to speak of the fatherhood of the priest. And yet, the fatherhood of the priest is essential to who he is and to the ministry he carries out. It is not by accident or merely custom that we call our priests “Father.”
Last month I attended a symposium on the charism of priestly celibacy at the University of Notre Dame. The keynote speaker was Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M., CAP., preacher to the Pontifical Household (e.g., the priest who leads the pope’s retreats). He made a very interesting point that St. Pio of Pietrelcina, a celibate Capuchin friar, is known universally as “Padre Pio.” In the same way, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is known more readily as “Mother Teresa.” And so, we recognize the very real fatherhood or motherhood of these celibates.
In a time in which celibacy is too often seen as a merely practical discipline of the Church (so that the priest has more time for ministry), it is also hard to speak of the “spousehood” of the priest. And while it is true that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood (we have had married priests in our tradition), it is nonetheless something that is very important and is rooted in the celibacy of Christ himself, the bridegroom. It is my opinion that this great spiritual gift that allows the priest to be a spouse in a different but no less real way should not be so quickly set aside for purely pragmatic reasons (e.g., the hope that doing so would foster more priestly vocations).
We have just celebrated two wonderful feasts that allow us to ponder both spiritual fatherhood and fruitful virginity, namely, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary (March 19) and the Solemnity of Annunciation of the Lord (this year March 26). Let us ask the prayers of St. Joseph and of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Church and for the world to help us to understand better the reasons for the gift of celibacy.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)