Real Celibacy Is an Invitation from Divine Beauty

The personal call of Christ to follow him in a life of chaste celibacy brings a seminarian into a suffering that involves his whole person. Seminary formation serves such a man by assisting him to integrate chastity within his body. Such integration is the work of grace and the acceptance of personal suffering. This grace and suffering works in sync with a man’s prayer life and his capacity for self-knowledge and self-revelation, all within the formative relationships which define seminary. Such formation prepares a man to be a priest who labors disinterestedly to serve the spiritual needs of his people. A priest’s own needs are to be satisfied in the deepest of contemplative prayer, in substantive friendships with other clergy and laity, and within a sustained love for his own parents and biological family.

If a man receives a true call to sacrifice marriage and fatherhood in light of the overwhelming beauty of God’s own love and enter priesthood, then this gift of God will deepen within the formative relationships that constitute a seminary’s mission. Reducing celibacy to a way of life that is practical and useful to parish ministry threatens the very masculinity of seminarians. Few, if any, men voluntarily sacrifice the beauty of woman for a lifetime so an institution might more easily serve others. If such were the case, there would be many more celibate soldiers, physicians, firemen, and police. To enter such a sacrifice one needs to rightly be seized by Divine beauty and then accidentally, because this beauty has defined one’s whole body, become more available to serve. The whole purpose of the seminary is to deepen the aspirant’s interior life so he can internalize his being seized by Divine beauty. The seminary exists to enfold a man into Christ the Good Shepherd’s love for him as intimate knowledge, forming the seminarian to share in Christ’s own pastoral charity. This knowledge is not separate from academic study, but is larger and deeper than discursive knowledge alone. A seminarian should live within a more generous definition of study born of a sustained engagement with the beauty of God in prayer. He ought to long for a prayer-soaked study.

As a seminarian’s prayer life grows, certainty about the call to celibacy becomes clear and internalized. In other words, as he prays, the living God communicates this call to the seminarian in a definitive way, thus securing within the man a deep peace about sharing in the spousal identity of Christ the priest. This very personal call is corroborated publicly by his formators through evidence of the seminarian’s behavior and disposition. These two foci of discernment — the prayer-soaked conscience of the seminarian and the expertise of the formation staff — must be in sync. If the call is true, the man will be happy and the virtue of chastity will develop apace. If the call is not both personal and ratified within the ecclesial context (i.e., as a vocation, not simply an idiosyncratic desire), inevitable “sadness” will occur with all the attending compensations in behavior. Integrity is sustained by a man appropriating an authentic call to priestly celibacy. Formators are to turn aside pressure from those who may not know the seminarian as well, but advocate for his advancement based upon the urgent need of the Church for priests. Seminaries must be places of free discernment: the staff ought not to be “cheerleaders” for any one particular man, encouraging him to “stick it out” or “keep trying.” Like a future father-in-law scrutinizing the potential of a suitor for his daughter, the heart of a formator is keen to protect the Church from someone whose self-involvement determines his primary interest. No father would let a man “use” his daughter to achieve a private and self-serving end, while this man tries to hide such under the cover of being “needed.” No woman or Church is ever that desperate.

Seminary is a time that allows Christ to come alongside a man, deepen his discipleship, configure him in a mystical way to Christ’s own priesthood, and support him in developing an “undivided heart.” It is not a time for a man to accept a divided heart as his normal interior state. True relationships for helping a man discern celibacy should be set up before seminary even begins by the diocesan vocation office. This simpler set of relationships, either informally established between a man and his vocation director, or more formally rooted within a house of discernment, should focus only on deepening prayer and clarifying priestly celibacy as a vocation. Seminaries do feel pressured to keep enrollment up, satisfy bishops who need future priests, and calm seminarians’ anxiety (and perhaps distraction) as they strive for academic and pastoral-formation success. If the celibacy issue could be answered prior to seminary (perhaps college seminary can help here, but I am thinking of a simpler accompaniment by the vocation office where there is no institutional expectation to have the man “advance” in any way), the weight of this momentous decision would be lifted and the man could participate more freely in his formation. Of course, discernment by the Church even after seminary begins is still in play, as a man’s individual acceptance of celibacy is not co-extensive with the Church’s discernment regarding his fitness in competencies, personality, and virtue.

God doesn’t call men to be sad. He calls them to His side so that they can espouse either a woman in Him or the mission of the Church in Him. Vocation gives a man great joy. It is a consolation and joy to be with Christ in the proper vocation that sustains him in fidelity when crosses appear. And the Cross will appear whenever love invites self-renunciation. One’s vocation is not a cross; crosses come within one’s vocation as love bids us to die to self.

Whether a man discerns celibacy before entering the seminary or during formation, it is vital to bring the seminarian into intimate knowledge of God by contemplating the mysteries of Christ. Living in intimate knowledge of God by contemplation simply means that one wants to be affected by the mysteries of Christ’s own life. Contemplation invites a man to behold the beauty of these mysteries through Scripture, and is eucharistically engaged, and its fruit is expressed publicly as ministry. This prayer, along with human formation, psychological counseling, the study of philosophy and theology, and good, mature friendships, assists the seminarian to internalize the truth about himself in the light of Truth itself, Christ. This formation readies him to sacrifice one form of spousal love (marriage) and take up another form so he can “lay down his life for the sheep.” All husbands, either priest or spouse, lay down their lives.

The priest, who welcomes the call to ministry, is in a position to make this a loving choice, as a result of which the Church and souls become his first interest, and with this concrete spirituality he becomes capable of loving the universal Church and that part of it entrusted to him with the deep love of a husband for his wife. The gift of self has no limits, marked as it is by the same apostolic and missionary zeal of Christ, the good shepherd. (JPII, Guardian of the Redeemer, 1989)

This is what it means to be engulfed by a spousal imagination: the woman or the Church becomes a man’s “first interest.” Because of this disposition, a seminarian’s self-donative commitment yields life, produces fruit, has an effect. The Church seeks celibates who have the other as their first interest. This can only happen, however, if a man has first received love and is capable of continuing to receive love; otherwise, he may “use” others in his quest to be “known,” to be loved. One doesn’t enter priestly formation to find love. One seeks formation as a response to already being loved by God. This love continues to be received so that compassion for those who have yet to do so can be born within him. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI articulated this clearly, “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37–38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)” (Deus Caritas Est, 2005). The truth expressed here by Benedict XVI is an articulation of the very origin of celibacy and an expression of how one can be sustained in such a vocation.

His First Interest

A seminarian or priest can only have the Church as his first interest if he is fundamentally fascinated with the Holy, with God. With this fascination a man can “constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ.” It is mysticism which moors ministry. Mysticism is a life penetrated by the mysteries of Christ through prayer and sacramental worship. Unless the celibate cleric is securely fascinated with God, ministry can become a search for communion rather than a fruit of it.

The genius of the seminary system is its mission to form integrated men. Integrated seminarians possess a holy affective maturation. They suffer this maturation within their own bodies as they develop psychological and affective health; a deep, rich prayer life; charitable service to those in need; and conversion through a love for doctrinal and theological truth. This integration happens in the messy, sometimes annoying, and always grace-filled environment of peers, formation mentors, spiritual directors, and teachers. These seminary relationships should also expand to include more women, lay people, permanent deacons, and families.

Sexual integration is completed in seminary by one suffering a deeper reception of Divine Love in prayer, yielding a new heart that wants to serve, not be served (Mt 20:28). Seminaries must build a very strong gate into priestly formation. The Church is not desperate for priests; she is desperate for holy, mature priests who think of the needs of others because their own affective needs are being met in sacramental and personal prayer, familial relations, and sound peer friendships. A man ought not to become a priest if he simply “wants to help people.” A man becomes a priest because he wants to yield his whole body to God, and in the service of pastoral charity, through a life of celibate love. “Helping” people flows from his receiving Divine Love at a level that satisfies a priest’s need for love. When it comes to a celibate priesthood, its supernatural origins can never be muted. Seminaries need to accept men who are established in love by family, capable of entering holy friendships, sustained in deep prayer, and desirous of spending their lives in pastoral charity.

Bishops ought not to retain inadequate candidates out of fear. Instead they ought to concentrate on filling seminaries with candidates who are vulnerable to being formed into men like this seminarian:

Seminary formation offered me a grace-filled time of contemplation and meditation on the gift of the priesthood and God’s call to celibacy as a way of spousal living. My most profound awareness of this was shortly after my pastoral internship, while in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, when I identified my deepest need, not coming from my ego or from the comfort that any other person could provide, but from communion in Jesus Christ. In that moment I felt my whole identity found its purpose, joy, and fulfillment in the self-gift of priesthood.

Deacon James Keating About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, PhD, is the Director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha, NE.


  1. Avatar Ørnulf Wang-Sandaas says:

    When we look at the problems the church Catholic has experienced with regard to sexual abuse, is it not time to rethink celibacy? Remember also WHEN celibacy was introduced, and WHY. We are created with certain needs and urges, and repressing them will hardly make you a better priest, but chances are it will make you (not you personally, but ‘you’ as in most people) somewhat sexually frustrated. We must always ask ourselves; “what serves the Gospel?” and although you may find notable exceptions I think that married clergy will serve us better in the future. There is also a question of recruitment; When I studied in Belgium (early 90ies) I think a majority of the priests were more than 65. How is the recruitment going presently around the world?

    • Avatar Fr. David Meconi, S.J. says:

      If a man finds his “needs and urges” are for minors, obviously marriage is not going to cure him. The Church’s detractors always point to celibacy and hierarchy as the main factors in the filth of abusing minors. Any sexual eros unconsecrated will lead to a hell of many stripes. The purpose and entire point of celibacy is to walk as closely with and as Christ as a man can. As Deacon Keating writes so beautifully, celibacy is Jesus’ gift to all of us. It needs to be restored in the Spirit, not razed by sin. This will be the only way true recruitment can take, in Christ, Fr. Meconi

  2. This is one of the best articles on celibacy I’ve read! Kudos, Deacon Keating!

  3. Avatar Fr. Ramil Fajardo says:

    Wow…excellent essay on celibacy, one of the best I’ve read!
    “A seminarian or priest can only have the Church as his first interest if he is fundamentally fascinated with the Holy, with God. With this fascination a man can “constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ.” It is mysticism which moors ministry. Mysticism is a life penetrated by the mysteries of Christ through prayer and sacramental worship. Unless the celibate cleric is securely fascinated with God, ministry can become a search for communion rather than a fruit of it.”

    • Avatar Susan Thompson-Short says:

      Thank you for this grace-filled description of priestly vocation ! It has inspired me to forward it to many of my friends.
      Susan OCDS

  4. Avatar Elaine Biggerstaff says:

    Personally, I believe the church leadership intended at a future time to abandon priestly celibacy as an outdated, “rigid”, “fundamentalist” position that is detrimental to modern man which became the central and obsessive thought in the Second Vatican Council.

    They began the process by accepting married Anglian converts to the priesthoood and through
    their invented Novus Ordo liturgy which clearly diminished the role and necessity of a priest who offers sacrifice to a mere presider over the assembled community of believers with an emphasis on the royal priesthood of the laity. Why else eliminate all of the specific prayers and acts of the priest found in the prior liturgy? Why else allow laymen to distribute Communion and stand in the sanctuary where only the priest was allowed to stand? Why else allow so many and various abuses upon the altar of God? Why make the liturgy a mockery of the one, true faith?

    I believe you can expect a future “Synod” that will be specifically called to eliminate mandatory priestly celibacy and make it voluntary and at the same time, allow married priests.