Imitation of Jesus, Priest and Victim, and the Grace of Celibacy

By reason of our priestly consecration, we are called to be perfect imitators of Christ; we are called to be priests and victims in the manner of Jesus who is the Priest and Victim.

(This was a talk delivered at a day of recollection for a group of young priests in Rockford, Illinois, in 2011.)

Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the Eternal High Priest who offered himself on the Cross as the true Paschal Lamb and Unblemished Victim for our redemption. By reason of our priestly consecration, we are called to be perfect imitators of him; we are called to be priests and victims in the manner of Jesus who is the Priest and Victim.

In his homily for the Chrism Mass of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI links Christ’s dual role as Priest and Victim to Our Lord’s own priestly prayer of consecration at the Last Supper, and shows how, with these same words, Jesus instituted the priesthood with his Apostles. At his Last Supper discourse, our Lord invokes the Father and prays:  “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:17-19).

First, Benedict identifies priestly consecration with sanctification and with sacrifice, and says that consecration understood in this sense:

 … defines essence of the priesthood:  it is a transfer of ownership, a being taken out of the world and given to God…. a departure from the milieu of worldly life—a “being set apart” for God…. (It means that) the priest is removed from worldly bonds and given over to God, and precisely in this way, starting with God, he must be available for others, for everyone.

In regard to Christ’s own priesthood, he asks:  How can Jesus, the “Holy One of God” (cf. Peter’s words in Jn 6:69), who is the source of all holiness, consecrate and sanctify himself? Benedict explains:  “When Jesus says, ‘I consecrate myself,’ he makes himself both priest and victim;” moreover, he says we can rightly translate the phrase, ‘I consecrate myself’ to ‘I sacrifice myself.’ Therefore, we can now see that our Lord’s words, ‘I consecrate myself for them,’ constitute:

…the priestly act by which Jesus—the Man Jesus, who is one with the Son of God—gives himself over to the Father for us. It is the expression of the fact that he is both priest and victim. I consecrate myself—I sacrifice myself:  this unfathomable word, which gives us a glimpse deep into the heart of Jesus Christ, should be the object of constant renewed reflection. It contains the whole mystery of our redemption. It also contains the origins of the priesthood in the Church, of our priesthood.

“Only now,” continues Benedict:

… can we fully understand the prayer which the Lord offered the Father for his disciples—for us. “Sanctify them in the truth”:  this is the inclusion of the Apostles in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the institution of his new priesthood for the community of the faithful of all times. “Sanctify them in truth”:  this is the true prayer of consecration for the Apostles.

In light of this teaching, we see that Christ’s words, “Sanctify them in the truth,” constitute his consecratory formula for making his Apostles priests.  His words, “Do this in memory of me,” are a mandate to continue to offer the un-bloody sacrifice—words which we may say constitute the second part of the ordination rite of the Apostles, which completed it.

Moreover, in light of Benedict’s teaching, we can say that while in baptism a person is consecrated to God, is set apart and sanctified for God, with the sacrament of holy orders, a man enters into a deeper form of consecration which configures him in a special way to Christ, which enables him to act in his very person, as his living human instrument.

Commenting further on these same words, “Sanctify them in the truth,” Benedict says that for the Apostles and all ordained priests who follow, Christ “prays that God take them away from themselves to make them his own property, so that, starting from him, they can carry out the priestly ministry for the world.”

Yes, truly, after our priestly consecration, we are no longer our own.  As priests who are sealed and sanctified in a unique manner and set apart from among all the baptized, we now belong to Christ in a most special way.  Not only are we set aside as the property and slaves of Jesus Christ—as are all the baptized—we truly become an alter Christus, truly other Christs. This enables us to perform sacerdotal actions with him acting in us and through us:  to give spiritual birth to souls in baptism, to raise the dead to life by forgiving their sins committed after baptism, and to re-present his sacrifice on Calvary in an un-bloody, sacramental manner at every Mass.

This last action, offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is the supreme glory of the priesthood and is really what separates us, as priests, from all others, as well as from other Christian communities.  In the words of the Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon, S.J., the best definition of Protestantism is “priest-less Christianity.” 1  It is the priest, and only the priest, who can offer the Sacrifice of the Mass; without priests, there is no Sacrifice of the Mass.  And to again quote Fr. Hardon:  “We need oceans of grace from a merciful God to bring people back to their senses”—to bring them back from idolatrous self-worship to the worship of God; from adherence to their own will to submission to God’s will; and it is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that “provides a sinful world with the single most powerful source of grace that it needs to obtain the mercy of God.” 2

We return again to Benedict XVI, who says that Christ’s prayer, “Sanctify them in the truth,”

… means, in the deepest sense:  make them one with me, Christ. Bind them to me. Draw them into me. Indeed, when all is said and done, there is only one priest of the new covenant, Jesus Christ himself. Consequently, the priesthood of the disciples can only be a participation in the priesthood of Jesus. Our being priests is simply a new and radical way of being united to Christ. In its substance, it has been bestowed on us forever in the sacrament.

Yes, my brothers, through our priestly consecration and sanctification, we have been united to Christ in a most radical way—forever. Tu es sacerdos in aeternum, you are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedech. God willing, we will carry our priestly seal with us through the gates of Heaven, and there we will reign with him, as his priests, throughout eternity.

“But,” Benedict continues, “this new seal imprinted on our being can become for us a condemnation, if our lives do not develop by entering into the truth of the Sacrament.”  Here are words to ponder, and to make us fear and tremble:  Our priestly consecration, our priestly seal, will lead to condemnation if we do not enter into and live the truth, if we do not live lives as priests and victims in imitation of Jesus Christ, the Priest and Victim.

How are we, as priests of Jesus Christ, to imitate him, the High Priest and Victim? Pope Benedict, in the same Chrism Mass homily, offers us this sage advice:

Being united to Christ calls for renunciation…. As St. Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In the words “I do” spoken at our priestly ordination, we made this fundamental renunciation of our desire to be independent, “self-made.” But day by day this great “yes” has to be lived out in the many little “yeses” and small sacrifices…. (It) can be lived out without bitterness and self-pity only if Christ is truly the center of our lives. If we enter into true closeness to him. Then indeed we experience, amid sacrifices which can at first be painful, the growing joy of friendship with him, and all the small and sometimes great signs of his love, which he is constantly showing us.

Because we are conforming ourselves to Christ as priests and victims, and have been consecrated in, and for truth, we are required to “preach the word, in season and out of season” (2 Tm 4:2). We know full well that, as Jesus warns us, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15:20), and that “You will be hated by all because of my name’s sake” (Mt 10:22). In our preaching the fullness of the truth, we must be willing, as St. Alphonsus Liguori says, “to displease everyone rather than to displease God.” Likewise, we must beware “when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Lk 6:26).

One of the most beautiful and crucifying ways that we, as priests, imitate Jesus, the High Priest, and embrace a life of renunciation—of genuine victimhood—is through the state of celibacy. I don’t think that as priests we hear enough on the subject of celibacy, its profound meaning, its inestimable value, and its difficult challenges. It’s rather something that we almost take for granted. Celibacy is often misunderstood by people in general, who, for example, blame the priest sexual abuse scandal of recent decades in part on the rule of celibacy. It is misunderstood and undervalued, I think, by priests as well— witness the number of our brethren who have left the active priesthood because of their failure to live faithfully the celibate life. But the meaning and value of celibacy is something that we need to consider and ponder often, since we embrace this state of life in our priesthood.

In 1967, Pope Paul VI penned an encyclical on priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (SC). In that encyclical, he discusses the value of celibate life from three perspectives: Christological, eschatological, and ecclesiological. Regarding its Christological significance, Paul VI teaches: “Being entirely consecrated to the will of the Father, Jesus brought forth this new creation by means of his Paschal Mystery; thus, he introduced…a new form of life which is sublime and divine and which radically transforms the human condition” (SC §19).  He says that while marriage was renewed and raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament,

Christ, “Mediator of a more excellent covenant” (Heb 8:6), has also opened a new way in which the human creature adheres fully and directly to the Lord, and is concerned only with him and with his affairs…. Christ remained throughout his whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified his total dedication to the service of God and men (SC §20).

Yes, to imitate Christ, High Priest and Victim, we as priests have embraced the celibate state—freely and joyfully. Christ himself embraced a life of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, which enabled him to be entirely consecrated to the will of the Father and to live a life of total dedication to the service of God and of men.

Benedict XVI has addressed the value of celibacy a number of times during his pontificate. In a speech addressed to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2006, he quotes the words which, before Vatican II, all men spoke during their admittance to the clerical state: “Dominus pars hereditatis meae et calicis mei”—“The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup” (Ps 16 (15):5). Then, commenting on this line, he says:

God himself is my portion…the external and internal foundation of my existence. This theocentricity of the priestly existence is truly necessary in our entirely function-oriented world in which everything is based on calculable and ascertainable performance. The priest must truly know God from within and thus bring him to men and women:  this is the prime service that contemporary humanity needs. If this centrality of God in a priest’s life is lost, little by little the zeal of his actions is lost …

“Celibacy,” continues Benedict,

… according to a tradition that dates back to an epoch close to that of the Apostles,… can only be understood and lived if it is based on this basic structure.

The solely pragmatic reasons, (such as)…greater availability (to others), is not enough: such a greater availability of time could easily become also a form of egoism that saves a person from the sacrifices and efforts demanded by the reciprocal acceptance and forbearance in matrimony; thus, it could lead to a spiritual impoverishment or to hardening of the heart.

The true foundation of celibacy can be contained in the phrase:  Dominus pars—You (Lord) are my land. It can only be theocentric. It cannot mean being deprived of love, but must mean letting oneself be consumed by passion for God and subsequently, thanks to a more intimate way of being with him, to serve men and women, too.

With these beautiful words from Christ’s Vicar on earth, we see the necessity for that single-heartedness to which all followers of Jesus are called, but especially we, his priests.  If we are wholeheartedly “consumed by passion for God” and desire him alone above all things, then we will be more effective in our calling to serve his flock and to spend ourselves for all those entrusted to our care. Thus, we embrace celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, just as the patron of all priests, St. John Vianney, did, as well as all those saintly priests throughout the centuries.

In his encyclical, Paul VI next discusses the eschatological meaning of celibacy. The Church on earth is the seed and beginning of the Kingdom of God, and celibacy and consecrated virginity for the sake of the Kingdom, says the Holy Father, are special signs of these end times, because the Lord announced that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (SC §34, quoting Mt 22:30).

In a vigil with priests, the eve of the closing of the Year of Priests, St. Peter’s Square, June 10, 2010, Benedict XVI responded to a question about the value of ecclesiastical celibacy:

It is true that for the agnostic world, the world in which God does not enter, celibacy is a great scandal, because it shows exactly that God is considered and experienced as reality. With the eschatological dimension of celibacy, the future world of God enters into the reality of our time … Celibacy … is a great sign of faith, of the presence of God in the world.

Let us look again at Benedict’s address to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2006:

Celibacy must be a witness to faith: faith in God …

Basing one’s life on him, renouncing marriage and the family, means that I accept and experience God as a reality and that I can therefore bring him to men and women. Our world … needs a witness to God that lies in the decision to welcome God as a land where one finds one’s own existence.

To these words, we can add those that Benedict wrote in an open letter to the bishops of the world dated March 10, 2009:

In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize…in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

Oh, how our secularized, paganized, godless world today needs, more than ever, heroic witnesses of faith in God, living signs of belief in the Kingdom! My brothers, our celibacy is that witness!

Let us now return to Paul VI’s encyclical.  In discussing the ecclesiological meaning of celibacy, he says:  “The consecrated celibacy of the sacred ministers actually manifests the virginal love of Christ for the Church, and the virginal and supernatural fecundity of this marriage” (SC §26).  He goes on to stress that,

… by 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, because like him and in him he loves and dedicates himself to all the children of God (SC §30).

Commenting on these words in an article commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, O.F.M., then Prefect, Congregation for the Clergy, says:

Like Christ, and in Christ, the priest mystically weds the Church and loves the Church with an exclusive love. Thus, dedicating himself totally to the affairs of Christ and of his Mystical Body, the priest enjoys ample spiritual freedom to put himself at the loving and total service of all people without distinction. 3

Cardinal Hummes begins his article by noting that:

… the origins of priestly celibacy date back to apostolic times.  Fr. Ignace de la Potterie writes: “Scholars generally agree that the obligation of celibacy, or at least of continence, became canon law from the fourth century onwards…. However, it is important to observe that the legislators of the fourth and fifth centuries affirmed that this canonical enactment was based on an apostolic tradition.” 4

My brothers, to embrace the celibate life, with all its difficulties and sacrifices, is to accept Christ’s invitation to imitate him and embrace a life of total dedication to God and to the service of the Church. It is to mystically wed the Church, as our Lord has done, and to become, like Jesus, the Bridegroom to the Bride.

In fact, as Archbishop (now Cardinal) J. Francis Stafford pointed out in a 1993 address given on the Eucharistic foundation of celibacy, priestly celibacy is intimately linked to the Eucharistic sacrifice which we offer in persona Christi.  The Patristic rationale for celibacy “relied for the most part upon the fulfillment in Christ of the liturgical purity demanded of the Levitical priesthood, with certain other arguments drawn from such sources as Christ’s virgin birth, and the virginity of Christ and the Virgin Mary,” But, these arguments:

… do not seem to speak to the full reason for priestly celibacy. Following the ancient tradition, (Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation) Pastores Dabo Vobis affirms this to be rooted in the priestly sacramental character by which the bishop or priest can and does offer on a continuous basis the sacrifice of the Mass in persona Christi.  Specifically, the priest is celibate because he offers the one sacrifice in the person of the second Adam, whose unique sacrifice on the cross instituted his irrevocable covenantal union with the second Eve (i.e., the Church, represented on Calvary in the person of the Virgin Mary) in the one flesh of the new covenant.

Stafford stresses:

The liturgical inhibition upon the marriage of a non-laicized and un-dispensed priest is intelligible only as liturgically induced, for such marriage is directly opposed to the exercise of the priestly Eucharistic office. Consequently the inhibition upon a priest’s marrying … is not merely disciplinary … Rather, this inhibition is inherent in the exercise of the sacrament of priestly orders, ordination to which inhibits the man ordained to and engaged in the practice of that office from entering into the covenantal bond of matrimony.  His attempt to marry must be a profanation of the priesthood …

It is then reasonable to postulate a liturgical, sacramental/symbolic incongruity between the exercise of priestly orders and entering into the marriage bond. This sacramental incongruity arises out of the exercise of the priestly office and not simply of the priestly character, for this character remains after laicization and does not prevent a further dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, with freedom to marry. 5

“Why,” asks Stafford, “should the exercise of the inherently holy symbolism of sacramental marriage be thus incompatible with the offering of the one sacrifice?” He explains that there exists a “tension” between the two, “from which we may infer an antagonism between the nuptiality of the symbolism of marriage and of the exercise of orders in offering the one sacrifice.” He even likens a priest who would marry to an adulterer—an analogy, he says, that was used by St. Jerome and other Patristic writers who condemned incontinent priests. 6

He goes on to say that both the husband in marriage, and the priest who offers Mass in the person of Christ, the Bridegroom, act “for the exclusive benefit of the body.”  In marriage, the husband is made “one flesh, one body” with his wife. This oneness of the marital bond along with the exclusive self-donation of the husband to his bride—which is, in a sense “an immolation”—is derived from the New Covenant instituted by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This sacrifice was a self-donation without reservation for His Bride, the Church, and which is continued, re-presented in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Stafford explains:

The sacrifice instituting the marriage covenant is offered in the husband’s proper person, while the priest offers the one sacrifice in the person of him who alone can offer it, the Christ. Given the normative exclusivity of the one sacrifice which instituted the new covenant, by which sacramental marriage is marked by derivation as from its cause, the priest, exercising continually the authority of Christ in offering daily the one sacrifice in the person of Christ, should not also offer that personal sacrifice of self which institutes and sustains the marriage covenant. He should not because his own nuptial persona enters holy and continually into the sacramental symbolism which is the priestly offering of the eucharistic sacrifice:  It is not for nothing that he has been named an alter Christus. It is because of the priest’s own personal nuptial integration into the sacrifice he offers that only a man is capable of acting in the person of the Head and can be a priest. His personal authority is exhausted in his exercise of the authority of the Head; no authority remains in him to be the head of any other “holy society” than the church. Thus for as long as he holds his priestly office and exercises Christ’s headship, he cannot marry without that betrayal of his own nuptiality which is analogously adulterous; his exclusive dedication to the bride of Christ bars any secondary self-donation. 7

This linking of priestly celibacy to the nuptial theme of Christ as Bridegroom, and the Church as Bride, is echoed in Benedict XVI’s encyclical on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis (§24), in which he states:

Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride. In continuity with the great ecclesial tradition … I reaffirm the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God, and I therefore confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society itself.

To embrace the celibate life is to practice, in a most sublime manner, that single-heartedness to which Christ calls all the baptized and, thereby, to become supernaturally fruitful through loving service to God and the members of the Church.  John Paul II says precisely this.  On June 17, 1993, in a general audience address on the topic of priestly celibacy, he quotes Vatican II’s document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum Ordinis (§16), which teaches that the commitment to celibacy “is at once a sign of pastoral charity and an incentive to it, as well as being in a special way a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.”  Continuing, he says that while perfect continence “is not demanded of the priesthood by its nature,” nevertheless:

… it belongs to the logic of consecration. Jesus is the concrete ideal of this form of consecrated life, an example for everyone, but especially for priests. He lived as a celibate, and for this reason he was able to devote all his energy to preaching the kingdom of God and to serving people, with a heart open to all humanity. 8

Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is part of our victimhood, our self-immolation as priests of Jesus Christ; but it also constitutes our prize, our joy, and our future glory. Recall that when Peter said to Jesus, “Behold, we have left all and followed thee,” Jesus answered, “Amen I say to you, there is no one who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or lands, for my sake and for the gospel’s sake, who shall not receive now in the present time a hundredfold as much houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands—along with persecutions, and in the age to come life everlasting” (Mk 10:28-31).

It all comes down to love, totally dedicated and single-hearted love, for God, for Jesus, and for our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Cardinal Francis George says, “The essence of priesthood is self-sacrificing love anchored in Christ’s own love for his people.” 9 A priest who lives out his vocation faithfully, in continent, sacrificial love becomes a living human conduit of the grace of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, and thereby a source of supernatural fruitfulness for others. Our Lord depends on holy priests precisely for this purpose. As Fr. Hardon says, “The Church needs holy priests for spiritual reproductivity, to make others holy.” 10

Fr. Hardon also says, “The priesthood is God’s greatest gift to man, and its faithful fulfillment is man’s greatest gift to God.” 11 Amen! My brothers, let us treasure the great gift of our priesthood, and the corresponding gift of celibacy which enables us to live that totally dedicated, self-sacrificing love to which we are called; and to be victims, immolated, joined with Christ, the High Priest and Sacrificial Lamb!

 

  1. Talk #1 delivered by Fr. John Hardon, S.J., available on CD in a set of recorded talks on the priesthood delivered by Fr. Hardon entitled, “The Holy Priesthood,” from the Institute on Religious Life, P.O. Box 7500, Libertyville, IL 60048, 847-573-8975, www.religiouslife.com.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “40th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus:  The Radical Importance of the Graced Gift of Celibacy,” L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly English Language ed. (ORE), March 14, 2007, 9.
  4. Ibid., 8, citing De la Potterie’s Il fondamento biblico del celibato sacerdotale, in Solo per amore.  Riflessioni sul celibato sacerdotale (Cinisello Balsamo, 1993), 14-15.  Cardinal Hummes also cites Alfons Maria Stickler’s work for the same arguments, found in Ch. Cochini, Origines apostoliques du Célibat sacerdotale, Preface, p. 6.  Cf. Fr. Brian Van Hove’s letter to the editor in the March, 2008 HPR, p. 7, where he, also citing the late Austrian Cardinal Stickler, notes:  “Until the Quinisext Council of 692 A.D. {“In Trullo”}, all married clergy in East and West practiced perfect apostolic continence. They completed their families before ordination and lived a ‘as brother and sister in the Lord.’ . . . The Western Church rejected that canon from Quinisext and continued the original apostolic practice.  Eventually, the Western Church stopped ordaining married men altogether and ordained only celibate men.”  N.B.:  Stickler’s work has been published in English under the title, The Case for Clerical Celibacy:  Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations(San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1995).
  5. “Eucharistic Foundation of Sacerdotal Celibacy,” address at a conference on the priesthood in Rome, May 26-28, 1993, in Origins (Sept. 2, 1993, vol. 23, § 12), 213.
  6. Ibid., 214.
  7. Ibid., 216.
  8. ORE, July 21, 1993.
  9. “Priest and missionary:  St. Damien of Molokai,” The Cardinal’s Column, Oct. 25, 2009, avail. at http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2009/1025/cardinal.aspx.
  10. Talk #8, in the collection of talks, “The Holy Priesthood.”
  11. Talk #7, in the collection of talks, “The Holy Priesthood.”
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avatar About Fr. Dwight Campbell

Fr. Dwight P. Campbell earned a J.D. in 1982 from Loyola University School of Law, Chicago, Illinois, and after practicing law for four years entered the seminary and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria Illinois, in 1991. In 2009, he earned an S.T.D. in Mariology from the International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio. A few years ago, he and Fr. Ben Reese, S.T.D. (Cand.), founded a society for diocesan priests, The Apostles of Jesus Christ, Priest and Victim. At present, they are an in-solidum team serving at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Therese of Lisieux Parishes in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Comments

  1. Dear Father Campbell,
    Beautiful article. You also may be interested with the Spirituality of the Cross which is the emphasis of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit and the Works of the Cross according to Ven. Concepcion Cabrera and Ven. Father Felix Rougier, M.Sp.S. One of their five works of the Cross is the Fraternity of Christ Priest and Victim. Their mission is also for today but was the fruit of the Mexican Revolution.

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