Bishop Mark Davies’ homily on Priestly Celibacy

The Right Rev. Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, led a day of recollection at Oscott College this weekend. During Mass today he preached on Priestly Celibacy. Here is the text of his homily and an audio recording.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)

Today I want to reflect with you, men preparing for the priesthood, on how we are called to be such witnesses of Christ by the consecration of our lives in apostolic celibacy. Pope Benedict reminds us that this feast of the Ascension of the Lord is not a feast of Christ’s “absence” or “disappearance.” Rather, the Holy Father reflects, this mystery urges us: “to consolidate our faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in history: without him we can do nothing effective in our life or our apostolate.” The Church was not born and does not live, Pope Benedict explains, “to compensate for the absence of her Lord who has “disappeared” but on the contrary finds the reason for her existence and mission in the invisible presence of Jesus, a presence working through the power of his Spirit” (24th May 2009).

In a similar way celibacy, by which we seek to give our whole lives in the Priesthood, might also be seen as an “absence”, a “void” which leaves us without the possibility of marriage. Yet it is in reality a radical self-gift by which we give ourselves completely to Christ and make ourselves totally available to him for the service of His Church. It is a life to be lived, as the Gospel and the Catechism emphasises “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” (CCC 1579). It must be a life filled with Christ or it would, indeed, be an empty life. This is a life which constantly points, as does the celebration of this day, towards Heaven, to the resurrection and to the life of the world to come.  In a culture today which often seeks to live as if God and eternity do not exist, this witness of celibacy is more needful than ever. As Pope Benedict said at the end of the “Year for Priests,” “celibacy is an anticipation, a foretaste of the future,, made possible by the grace of the Lord who draws us to himself and anticipates the world of the resurrection.” If this world alone were sufficient we would close the doors to the greatness of our existence. But the meaning of celibacy as an anticipation of the future, the Holy Father declared, “is to open these doors, to make the world greater, to show the reality of the future which should be lived by us as already present” (Vigil in St. Peter’s Square 10th June 2010).  In this way, we can see our call to celibacy in the light of the Ascension of the Lord and its profound meaning.

In those remarkable conversations with priests which Pope Benedict has engaged in, he speaks of “the scandal” of celibacy, the scandal of a life, the scandal of a witness you seek to embrace. “For the agnostic world,” he says, “the world in which God does not enter” this is a very great scandal. The celibacy of the Catholic Priesthood lived in its integrity “is a great sign of faith, of the presence of God in the world”(10th June 2010). It has been a hallmark of the Catholic Priesthood which never ceases to draw the fascination of the world. Yet this way of life would be unthinkable and unimaginable without Christ. “It exists because Christ, who makes it possible, exists” (Cardinal Hummes, reflections on 40th Anniversary of “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus”). And Christ exists not, we recall today, as an historical memory for those who must wonder “what would Jesus have done?” No! He is the Lord who is truly present, loving and redeeming us now.  To this the celibacy of the Catholic Priest gives a constant witness.

Sometimes people will say to you celibacy is an unnecessary imposition, and it is often easier to explain celibacy on grounds of practicality. Yet this celibate life, this gift of self, rests on grounds of faith. Where faith is lacking, where the perspective of the Ascension and of Eternity is lost, celibacy would indeed seem to be an incomprehensible imposition by ecclesiastical authority. But as Pope Paul wrote in the Encyclical Letter he promised the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council he would write powerfully affirming it as a priceless gift, priestly celibacy is a brilliant jewel, guarded by the Church for centuries. Pope Paul wrote: “by a daily dying to himself and by giving up the legitimate love of a family of his own for the love of Christ and of his Kingdom, the priest will find the glory of an exceedingly rich and fruitful life in Christ …” An element of real sacrifice is, of course, part of every Christian vocation, not least the vocation of marriage and the family.  From my own experience, and the experience of countless generations of priests, the sacrifice involved in celibacy seems small compared with the joy of a gift which allows us to give the whole of our lives to Christ as a priest.

You often hear voices calling for an end to priestly celibacy as it has been lived in the Catholic Church. From my own reading of history, those voices have never been lacking. Yet this is precisely because the witness to which we are called is a radical one. I would ask you always to question their view not so much of celibacy but of the Priesthood itself. When we reflect on the Priesthood as it has been taught and lived by the Church and witnessed to in the lives of countless saints the giving of a life, of my life and yours, seems very little. St. John Vianney, our patron, was overwhelmed by the greatness of this gift and the task entrusted to a human creature, “How great is a priest,” he would say, “If he realised what he is, he would die not of fear but out of love …only in heaven will the priest fully realise what he is.”When we recognise the reality of the Priesthood we would wish to give all of ourselves, all of our lives in return knowing this would never be enough.

We know celibacy is not demanded of the Priesthood by its nature yet we also see through the centuries that this intimate connection of celibacy and the priesthood is not a contrived one. Celibacy was not an arbitrary imposition of an ecclesiastical law arising from historical conditions which have now passed. The councils which enacted laws of celibacy in the earliest centuries, of perfect continence for the clergy, had no doubt that they were acting on an apostolic tradition and they explicitly declared this. The Popes of our own time have reaffirmed the celibate Priesthood in powerful and moving terms. We think of Blessed John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II, and our present Holy Father Pope Benedict. This is, I believe, because the witness of the celibate Priesthood is not something less needed today: it is more needed than ever before! Our Lord tells us on this day of the Ascension: “when the Holy Spirit comes on you, then you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth”(Acts 1:8).  In all that apostolic celibacy gives witness to yesterday and today may we be such witnesses, joyful witnesses, to the end of our lives. Amen.

Download the audio of this Homily (Courtesy of Vocationcast.org)

The above was posted May 20th on the student blog of St Mary’s seminary, Oscott.

Please pray for the seminarians and their dedicated staff.

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14 Responses to Bishop Mark Davies’ homily on Priestly Celibacy

  1. Mimi says:

    What a lovely homily — very inspiring! I have always looked at priestly celibacy in the light of a man giving his whole life and his whole self to God, but I had never before considered the aspect of its being a radical witness. It is indeed a priceless gift and a brilliant jewel.

  2. toadspittle says:

    .

    Nothing wrong with celibacy in itself. Perfectly reasonable, and laudable, way to live.
    Not a “scandal” for one moment.

    The problem arises when people who have never had any sexual experience lecture others on what they should, and shouldn’t, do in this interesting and importnat department.

    Like Toad explaining to his dogs why, when, where and how – to chase and catch a rabbit.

    Derisive canine laughter would be the outcome.
    If they even stood still long enough to listen to him.

  3. Mimi says:

    “The problem arises when people who have never had any sexual experience lecture others on what they should, and shouldn’t, do in this interesting and importnat department.”

    That’s just silly, Toad.

  4. JabbaPapa says:

    Yes — and :
    The problem arises when people who have never had any sexual experience — is nonsense — I would assume that MOST priests have had sexual experience prior to their ordinations at the very least, and there are now some priests who are even married, and a few who are widowers.

  5. kathleen says:

    Yes I agree; that was a silly remark of Toad’s. Personal experience of something (in this case, sex) is not a requirement to be able to understand its complexities. Nor is sexual experience ‘prior to ordination‘ necessary.
    This sort of argument is a non-starter.

    Two of the most famous priests of all times were St.Jean Vianney and St. Padre Pio. It is almost certain that neither of these chaste men had any personal experience of sex, yet men and women from far and wide sought their help and advice in Confession on sexual matters.

  6. toadspittle says:

    .
    You are all correct. Toad should have been more sexually graphic, and used words like “copulation.”.
    But he’s a bit prudish.

    “Personal experience of something (in this case, sex) is not a requirement to be able to understand its complexities.”

    So, you would have no qualms Kathleen about, say, being driven up the M1, by someone who told you, “I’ve never actually driven a car before, but it’s all right, I’ve read a big book all about it?”
    Or had a lobotomy performed on you by someone who said, “I’ve never done an operation before, but, don’t worry, I understand all the complexities’”

  7. JabbaPapa says:

    toad seems to think that sex is the proper focus to use for the discussion of people’s married lives with priests.

    Except that it is, of course, all some pretty simple advice — don’t commit adultery, because if you do you will screw up your marriage ; sleeping with as many people as you can is bad for your health, so don’t do it ; anal sex is extremely bad for the health, so don’t do it.

    Why does toad imagine that advice about adultery should be provided by the adulterous ? about promiscuity by the promiscuous ? about unsafe gay sex by those who habitually engage in it ?

    Is moral advice about theft to be sought from convicted burglars ? Advice concerning manslaughter to be taken from abortionists, death clinic employees, and convicted murderers ?

  8. Gertrude says:

    I think perhaps some might be missing the point here. Celibacy, and in the case of women – chastity, is a very personal gift freely offered to Our Blessed Lord. It is not a feeling to be bargained with, or a ‘must have done at least once’ emotion. Since Noah was building the ark women religious have been described as ‘brides of Christ’.

    Such a vow requires a genuine vocation; it is too bigger a deal to just say ‘OK – I’ll do that’, but if the vocaction has been properly discerned it is a joyful vow made as unto God, and few religious, either male or female waste time wondering!.

  9. toadspittle says:

    .
    “Why does toad imagine that advice about adultery should be provided by the adulterous ? about promiscuity by the promiscuous ? about unsafe gay sex by those who habitually engage in it ?”

    What a jaundiced view of sex Jabba has. We might ask why? But that would be nosey.

    We might easily imagine a happily-married priest with five kids, saying to one of his flock, “I know just how difficult these things are and I sympathise. My wife and I have been in the same situation many times. My advice to you is…”

    But no. Adultery, promiscuity, perversion. That’s it.
    There’s more to life than that. Trust Toad.

  10. JabbaPapa says:

    toad started complaining about some “people who have never had any sexual experience” lecturing those who have ; he then regretted not having been “more sexually graphic”, tongue-in-cheek hopefully, but he then reinforced his point about lack of experience in the form of a straw man driving up and down the M1 ; but then declares me “jaundiced” when I point out the general absurdity of toad’s position by means of some well stuffed straw men of my own, not that toad seems to have acknowledged at all the fact that most priests are not in fact strange little virgin men without a clue about anything that goes on either between the sheets, nor during the day-to-day course of a normal relationship, has he, which might have been helpful towards avoiding this festival of straw, mightn’t it ?

    Toad does, it seem, appear to be in an unusually critical mood concerning this whole priests & marriage business, though I’m not at all sure why the Catholic clergy has become the target of his moodiness.

    FWIW it would be a nice development IMO if some worthy married deacons were to be granted dispensations of celibacy in vue of ordinations into the clergy, if this is what the fuss is all about – though in that case, I’ve no idea why toad didn’t just out and say so !!!

  11. toadspittle says:

    Toad vows to desist in his traducing of priests (if that is, in fact, what he has been doing) among whose diminishing ranks he numbers several good friends.

    And will redirect his energy to papal butlers.

  12. Tracking says:

    If the church is happy to have married vicars as priests the argument of celibacy is definitely weakened. The argumant for only having men as priests is supposedly based on Christ only choosing men as apostles yet then the church decides that priests must be celibate yet Christ chose married men. Hmm

  13. Grungey says:

    Tracking you have hit the nail on the head. When it suits, the church is more than happy to take on married vicars and thus we have married priest. And the Maronite church has had them for many many years. Are their married priest and the anglican converts not as holy as celibate priests ????

  14. Tracking says:

    Sadly the Church has its rules too often to suit itself or just to prove it can rule. In my life time I fear I have seen the vatican etc become further away from the people – we need a leadership that is of this world not to be trendy but to serve the people of God.

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