One of the most striking things about the priesthood, especially to non-Catholics, is the priestly witness of celibacy. Celibacy is sometimes misunderstood as a spiritual practice in the Church. Since the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Jesus have given up marriage and family to more fully imitate Jesus and his state in life. In Judaism, celibacy was not a common practice. Jesus is the one who brought full meaning to both marriage and celibacy as signs of the kingdom of God. The primary reason that priests are celibate is in imitation of Jesus, who is espoused to the Church. Some mistakenly think that priests are not married because they are too busy to have a family. While it is true that it does make sense for priests to give their time to their parishioners, this is only a good which is allowed for by the primary reason of dedicating our whole selves to Christ and his Church. Since priests are “married” to the Church, priests give their lives in service to her.
It is true that there are married priests in the Church, especially in the Eastern (non-Latin) Churches. We even have a married priest in our own diocese here in Springfield. However, even in the Eastern Churches, their monks and their bishops are celibate, and they clearly esteem this practice also. Having some married priests in the Church does not take away the symbolic and spiritual value of celibacy among many of the clergy and men and women religious.
It is beautiful that in our culture, we call priests by the title “Father.” As priests, we give up physical marriage and children for the sake of bearing spiritual fruit. It is not always common to think of Jesus as a spiritual father because we often hear in the Gospels that he is the Son of the Father. However, in his ministry, Jesus exercised a spiritual fatherhood with his disciples by showing them the love of his own Father. One of the funny and interesting things about being a young priest is being called “father” by parishioners who are (much) older than me. In many ways, these parishioners are my spiritual fathers and mothers, as they are helping me to grow in holiness by their guidance and encouragement. However, when I minister as a priest, especially during the Mass and Reconciliation, I am acting as a spiritual father to those who are present.
As I grow older as a priest, I hope to always grow into my identity as a spiritual father. The best way to do this is to continue to grow in my identity as a son of God. Jesus could be a father to his disciples because he received his identity from his heavenly Father. By our baptism, we are also sons and daughters of God, like Jesus. The Church is immensely blessed by the witness and ministry of older priests in our parishes. There is a certain joy which comes with being a new, young priest. However, there is also a certain joy which comes with being an old, experienced, and wise priest. There are many older priests who exercise a very clear spiritual fatherhood (or spiritual grandfatherhood) with their parishioners. This is made much more clear by their witness of celibacy and their sacrifice of kids and grandkids for the sake of their spiritual children.
Celibacy is a gift from God. Jesus said that not everyone can accept this practice (Matthew 19:12), nor does he ask us all to do so. He obviously wants us to be fruitful and multiply! However, for those who are called to imitate Jesus by remaining celibate, it is a joy!