Rev. Pang Joseph Shiu Tcheou
As a transitional deacon eagerly awaiting priestly ordination this past year, I was confronted with the challenge (amidst many others!) of attempting to finish my last significant academic work: my Master of Arts thesis. Fortunately, the topic that I chose was one that is very intimately connected to the destiny that the Lord had mapped out for me: priestly celibacy. Studying the history and theology of priestly celibacy not only allowed me to hand in something substantial and of value to the seminary as part of my Master of Arts program but was, providentially, a beautiful way for me to meditate on and prepare for the incredible life that awaited me. In the little essay that follows, I would like to share the heart of this thesis and how, as a priest ordained for less than three months, I have humbly come to see the beauty and the glory that is the priesthood, lived out in celibate and chaste love.
In the last two decades, a wealth of new scholarship has been written on the subject of priestly celibacy. For those who wish to learn more, especially about the historical and juridical aspects, I refer the reader to four wonderful books: The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, by Father Christian Cochini; Clerical Celibacy in the East and West, by Father Roman Cholij; The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations, by His Eminence, Alfons Maris Cardinal Stickler; and Celibacy in the Early Church, by Stefan Heid.1 Although an abbreviated treatment of their arguments would never do justice to the work of these scholars, a summary of their findings can be attempted.
The main point that these authors present in their works is that the practice of priestly celibacy has its origins in the time of the Apostles. It did not come out of nowhere centuries after the time of Christ. Rather, these theologians argue, the subsequent legislations on priestly celibacy (the first of which can be found in the later 300s A.D., at the Council of Elvira, in Spain) presupposed an already existing practice, one that was handed down from the Apostles themselves. The practice that was presupposed by the early Church to have already existed was the practice of clerical continence, the abstention from marital rights after sacred ordination. It is obvious that if one reads the Sacred Scriptures, one will notice that most of the Apostles themselves were married and that Saint Paul demands that a bishop-to-be can only be married once (1 Timothy 3:2). However, these theologians argue in their work that the expectation in the early Church was that if an ordinand was married, he was expected to live as a brother to his wife after his ordination. Father Cochini, in his thorough work on priestly celibacy, presents the marital situation of many of the clerics known in the early Church and cites many of their writings, which speak of how, after ordination, they were no longer able to live as husbands to their wives because of the sacred duty that had been entrusted to them.
This same practice of clerical continence later developed into the practice of the Latin Rite followed to this day. It is true that celibacy as we know it today, that is, celibacy in the literal sense of “not being married,” was not the official norm in the early Church, since many clerics were married men. However, the practice that was the norm in the early Church was the practice of clerical continence, the abstention from marital intercourse after ordination. Cardinal Stickler, in his little book on this subject, argues this point very well. The subsequent legislations on priestly celibacy did not appear in a vacuum. Rather, the Cardinal writes that the celibacy norms that arrived three centuries after Christ were norms that sought to affirm a tradition that already existed.
From that time onward, local synods and councils, Church Fathers, and popes would defend the practice of clerical continence, declaring that it was indeed an apostolic practice. The Cardinal and the other theologians already mentioned put the argument in this way: Why, if the legislation on priestly celibacy was such a novel and seemingly inhumane discipline that was imposed on a predominantly married clergy, was there no dramatic backlash against the legislation and a demand for reasons and evidence of precedents in the early Church? The answer was that the practice of clerical continence already existed. During the time of the persecutions (which ended around the 300s), the practice of clerical continence was faithfully handed down, as it had been since the time of the Apostles. It was a beautiful way for the ordained clergy of the New Covenant to manifest and live out the glorious gift that they had received through sacred ordination, a way that signed in time the new order of grace brought by Jesus Christ. With the end of the persecutions came time for reflection and debate about a host of topics—-not just celibacy, but also Christology and Mariology, for example. The legislations (similar to the canons protecting and clarifying the truths of the faith) were enacted and promulgated to protect, defend, and safeguard clerical continence, which was now being questioned and challenged by many in the Church. One cannot help but notice that in our own time, in places where the Church is no longer (or perhaps not yet!) under threat of full-scale persecution, some of Her most beautiful and carefully guarded treasures, like priestly celibacy, are still being attacked.
The discipline of clerical continence, in time, logically developed into the practice of celibacy in the strict sense that we know it today, so that at the Council of Trent, the practice of ordaining only celibate men to the holy priesthood became the official norm in the Latin Rite. Hugh Ballantyne, in an article on priestly celibacy in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, points out that in the early Church there did not exist a large pool of young, educated, and celibate men from which to choose candidates for the priesthood.2 In the early Church, the main leaders of the infant Church were older, married men. Thus, it made sense for the ordained ministers to be taken from these candidates. However, as was already noted, the candidates for ordination had to then live in continence for the rest of their lives. The Church intuited that the priesthood called for special discipline. Christ Himself was not married. The Apostles and their successors, after ordination, lived in continence. As the centuries went by and as the Church now had the time to train and form men for the priesthood, it made sense then, because of the already existing tradition of clerical continence, to choose only unmarried men. By the time of the Middle Ages, fewer and fewer candidates for holy orders were married men because now there existed the time and availability to accept and train young unmarried men.
We can see the beautiful connection between celibacy and the priesthood by reflecting on the Holy Eucharist. The gift of the Most Holy Eucharist is possible because of the great mystery of the Incarnation, when the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, true God, condescends and takes on human flesh in the virginal womb of Blessed Mary. In taking on our human flesh, the glory of the Godhead that is His for all eternity is veiled in our fallen world, a glory that was glimpsed only briefly at the Transfiguration. However, it is through His flesh that the salvation of the world is achieved and it is His very flesh that is given to us for our salvation and our sustenance, the “Food for the journey” that the Lord has left for us on our pilgrim way, else the journey may be too difficult for us.
The Most Holy Eucharist is made possible and can only be confected by an ordained priest of Jesus Christ. In that way, the priest brings the glory of Christ into the world, albeit still veiled, in the appearance of bread and wine. And the priest himself, in his very body and life, is also meant to be a veil for Christ and His glory. He does this most supremely in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when he lends his body, his voice, and his hands to Christ so that Christ can be present. But he is also a veil for Christ when he lives out the sacramental gift that has been entrusted to him by dealing with the day to day worries and cares of this passing world. Just as the glory of Christ is veiled in the appearances of bread and wine, so is the glory of Christ veiled in the celibate life of sacrifice and service that the priest freely and lovingly lives out each day.
Our late and great Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in the beautiful Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, 3 which was dedicated to the formation and identity of priests, wrote that “the priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one High Priest of the new and eternal Covenant. The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the Priest.” 4 The Holy Father continues: “Therefore, priests are called to prolong the presence of Christ, the One High Priest, embodying his way of life and making him visible in the midst of the flock entrusted to their care.” 5 The Holy Father teaches us that the priest, through sacred ordination, is specially configured to and participates in Christ. This special gift enables the priest, through his very being and life, to be a sign, a living icon, of Christ Himself, embodying Christ to and for the world. Christ is the supreme model for all priests. Each and every priest is called to conform his life ever more to the Person of Jesus Christ.
Just as Christ is the Virgin Bridegroom of His Bride the Church, the priest, configured to Christ, is also meant to see the Church as his Bride. On this point, Pope John Paul II wrote that “sacred Ordination… configures the priest to Jesus Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church. The Church, as the Spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church and with the Lord.” 6 Through the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God has redeemed fallen humanity and has ushered into our weary world the new order of grace. Thanks to this mystery, the fleshly existence of the Church’s ordained ministers now possesses a meaning that is truly incredible: In the celibate life of the priest, the virginal and spousal love of the Lord Christ for His Bride, the Church, can be made manifest to the world.
The consummation of the virginal and yet fruitful love of the Bridegroom, Christ, and His Bride, the Church, was accomplished in the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. The event of the Paschal Mystery is made present for us now through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was on the cross that a Bride was fashioned for the New Adam from His side, just as Eve was fashioned from the side of the old Adam. The Mass, which now in time allows us to experience the Paschal Mystery, makes present for us this encounter between Christ and His Bride. In every Mass, the priest offers himself to Christ so that Christ can use him to make Himself present in the Eucharist. As Christ faced His Bride, the Church, during the Paschal Mystery, so the Priest, standing in the Person of Christ, faces his Bride, the Church, as well.
It is in the mystery of the Eucharist that the ordained priest will find his greatest sustenance and source of strength for the labor at hand. It is in the Eucharist that he will find the meaning and purpose of his chaste celibacy. The priest’s incredible task is to make the glory of Christ present to the world, first and foremost through the Eucharist and then, derivatively, through his living out of the priesthood. His heart will find rest only in the Eucharist, and not in any other person or created thing. It is in the Eucharist that he encounters his reason for being. The priest, as Pope John Paul II writes, is called to be the “prolongation” and the “visible presence” of Christ. The holy priesthood, being the visible presence of Christ in the world, is meant to be lived out in and through celibacy: living, loving, and acting as Christ did, embodying the very life of Christ, and loving the Church of Christ as exclusively and as beautifully as Christ does. This daily living out of the priestly office in celibate love for the Church is meant to culminate in the extraordinary outpouring of fruitful grace and love each and every time the priest celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The inscription that I chose for my holy card to commemorate my priestly ordination was the beautiful passage from Saint Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, Chapter 2, verses 19b-20: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given Himself up for me.” The priest, through sacred ordination, is crucified with and in Christ, as Saint Paul was. The life of the priest is no longer his. His life is now destined for only one thing: to give the world the glory of Christ, a glory that, although veiled by the life, flaws, and imperfections of the priest, is the glory of Christ nonetheless. And all that he is ever meant to be, all that he is ever meant to have, all that he will ever offer of lasting value is Christ. Christ desires to live in the priest, to be made manifest through him, to be shared with the world by his very life, as Saint Paul says. The chaste and holy celibacy of the priest of Jesus Christ manifests to the world the glory of the virginal and fruitful love that Christ perfectly and selflessly offers to His Bride, the Church. In living out faithfully and selflessly the priestly life through his celibacy, a life that without the eyes of faith is indeed the most absurd lunacy, the priest stands before the wolves of the world as the very image of the selfless and unending love of Christ, a love that all the elect will behold at the eschaton, but which is already present here and now in this passing world through the veiled sign of the life of the priest.
Since the time of the ancients and since the time of Our Lord Himself, many have asked for signs. Many have sought the glory of the divine. Many have wanted a piece of Heaven. The beauty is that all of that has already been given to us, although veiled in form. The sign in time and history of the exclusive and virginal love of the Lord Christ for His Church is given to the world through the celibate and humble life of the priest. Immortality and the glory of God Himself have been given to us, although given behind the veils that are part of this fallenworld. And yet the glory that is the Most Holy Eucharist, since the night of the first Mass two thousand years ago, cannot help but radiantly shine forth for the eyes of faith to see, despite the ordinariness of the appearance of bread and wine. The same ordinariness of the weary and seemingly impossible celibate life of the priest of Jesus Christ also cannot help but radiate its veiled glory for those who believe to see. In the end, when “all things will be made new,” as the Eternal Judge declares, all these veils will at long last be lifted. And what will be revealed? I humbly believe that it will be the precious and glorious gift of the love the Lord Jesus has for His Bride, a gift that receives unique expression in the persevering, selfless, and courageous living out of the celibate life by each of His priests.
The Rev. Pang Joseph Shiu Tcheou is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg and an Editoral Advisor to Dappled Things.
1. [Christian Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990; Roman Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in the East and West, Worchester: Billing & Sons Ltd., 1989; Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995; Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.]↩
2. [Hugh Ballantyne, “The origin of priestly celibacy,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 53 (7), April 2003, 52.]↩
3. [John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1992.]↩
4. [Ibid., no. 12.]↩
5. [Ibid., no. 15.]↩
6. [Pastores, no. 29.]↩