This week the Catholic Church, together with other Christian communities, celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For those from the Anglican tradition, the origins of this week are significant, because it was the effort of Anglican ecumenists that founded what was originally known as the Church Unity Octave, and which had the express intention of the reunion of Anglicans with the Apostolic See. The involvement, in 1933, of the French priest Fr Paul Couturier saw this develop into the Week of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians, again, with unity with Rome at the very heart.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald and can be found online here.
Anybody following coverage of the events of the last month or so could be forgiven for having a rather pessimistic view of the current state of the Church. With a tone of infallibility that would be denied the successor of Peter, certain elements have given the impression that the Church is failing, rotten to the very core. Not only, we are told, is the Church rife with administrative and financial problems, but the very message we purport to promote is at best ineffectual, and at worst damaging, even dangerous.
The medicine prescribed for this terminal decline is, apparently, reform: by which is meant, bringing the Church into line with the liberal secular consensus found in contemporary politics and society. Failure to do so, it seems, will mean that the Church ceases to be a vehicle of moral authority and a source of good in the world.
I am not naïve about the situation we find ourselves in, but this is not the answer. What such calls for reform fail to recognise is that what the Church presents is not simply one path among many – a moral option for those who like that kind of thing – but, rather, the revelation of the truth of the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the sins of those proclaiming that truth, and the institutional failures which they perform, do not affect the Church’s objective moral authority, merely her credibility. That, I would suggest, is something that we can and must change.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, spoke these words to the College of Cardinals following his election as the 265th Successor of Saint Peter, Bishop of Rome, and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church:
Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day. Do not give in to pessimism and discouragement. We have the firm certainty that the Holy Spirit gives the Church with His mighty breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelization, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Christian truth is attractive and persuasive because it responds to the deep needs of human existence, convincingly announcing that Chirst is the only Saviour of the whole person and of all persons. This announcement is as valid today as it was at the beginning of Christianity when there was a great missionary expansion of the Gospel.
Bishop Mark Davies gave this homily at St Mary’s College, Oscott, today – the solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ:
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.