The Chaste Loving of the Priest

Stephen Brown FAITH Magazine March-April 2010

Fr Stephen Brown, chaplain to Bradford University, draws upon Edward Holloway's thought to provide an inspiring reflection upon the appropriateness of celibacy to the ministerial priesthood. This is a developed extract of a talk given to Faith movement's Winter Conference at Stonyhurst College, last December.

Sixteen years ago at diaconate ordination, a youngish seminarian made his promise of celibacy. Did he know what he was doing? He could not have known all the ramifications, just as people getting married don't know exactly how it’s all going to pan out after the wedding. But he had sensed the call of Christ to priesthood, he knew celibacy was integral to that vocation, therefore it was his will to embrace it - wholeheartedly - because he wanted to imitate Jesus Christ. That (very) young man was, of course, this writer.

Looking back it seems that seminary formation concerning celibacy was inadequate. The practical advantages were laid out, and of course we were told that it was all done for God, but one was left with the impression that celibacy was something you just had to do, and a bit like embracing an iron bar - rather cold.

Far more inspiring during seminary years was listening to Edward Holloway who linked priestly celibacy directly to Jesus Christ and to priestly loving, making it emerge clearly that celibacy is not something a priest grits his teeth and does, but is more a continual state of being, in relationship to Christ, which has its own specific way of giving and receiving love.

Degrees of Loving

Well there are a range of types of love and degrees of love are there not? Some of them are closer to the perfection of love than others - the perfection of love is, of course, found in God. So we have love of chocolate, love of football, love of walking, love of deep fried squid, which is really a misuse of the word "love." On another level, we have love of persons - of family relationships: the love of husband and wife, the love of parents for their children, the love of children for grandparents, the love of brothers and sisters, which latter is indeed unique! We have the love which exists between friends too. Catholics have a unique love towards the Holy Father, the Pope, whoever he may be at the time. There is our love for God's Church, including its heavenly members: Our Lady andMother, and other saints. Overarching them all, there is, or should be in a human being, the love of God. These are all distinct types or degrees of love; though they all have their source and summit in God.

And where does the priest's love fit into all this? Is a priest's love also unique? - or is it the same as an uncle would have for a nephew or niece? Does it make him happy and fulfilled? Or does his state of celibacy mean that he must just hug the iron bar and wait for heaven?

Redemptive Loving

If a priest is another Christ, a living icon of Jesus Christ, which he is by virtue of his ordination, then it's not rocket science to work out that his way of loving must in some way be related to Jesus Christ's way of loving. The Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the priests of the world, starting with a passage from St. John: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." This is the definition of love in its redemptive meaning," wrote the Pope, "and we priests find ourselves particularly close to this redeeming love which the Son brought to the world - and which he brings continuously." So we learn that Jesus Christ gives an ordinary man His own identity, as Head of His Body the Church.This makes the man's soul a reflection of Himself so that He - Jesus - can continuously minister His redeeming love to the world. That, then, is the type of love which must "inhabit" the priest. The priest's love is tied in a unique way to Jesus Christ - or in other words, the way a priest loves is unique to that vocation, just as married love is unique to that vocation.

Mirroring of Christ

So if it is Christ's own redeeming love which must inhabit the soul of the priest, does it make a difference whether the priest is married or not? It matters. It is true that a priest represents Christ, but even more than that. Prince Charles can represent the Queen at certain events she can't attend, but his identity is not that of Elizabeth II - he can only ever be Charles. It's different with the priest, he mirrors Jesus Christ, in Our Lord's office as Head and Bridegroom of the Church, and that is a much deeper identification. Therefore, all that Jesus Christ is for us is reflected there in the soul of the priest. Edward Holloway wrote that if the priesthood is to be lived with greatness of soul, then it matters whether a priest is celibate or not. It allows acertain delicate intimacy of love by which the priest, to quote Holloway "can knock on the most private doors of the human heart." That is what Christ did, as our Lord and God. With the love of the Good Shepherd, He gently probed people's hearts and souls in order to draw them to Himself or free them from what held them captive. He asked people for faith, He told them clearly where they were wrong, He invited to a closer relationship with Himself.

The priest can and should do the same: challenge and ask questions of people which, if anyone else asked them, would probably be told to mind their own business. The priest can go up to a person and say, for example: 'Hello, I've noticed you coming to Mass here for a number of weeks, but you never come to Communion. Are you a Catholic? You are? Then is there some reason stopping you from receiving the Lord? And he may discover, as I've done, that the person is a divorced Catholic who had mistakenly believed for years that that alone prevented them from receiving Communion. After explaining that only if they had remarried would it prevent them, they went to Confession and were restored to full Communion with the Church. People can ask the priest for teaching and guidance regarding the mostintimate areas of their lives that nobody else will ever know about. They can tell him of their most private relationship with Christ in spiritual direction - matters never to be brought into the public forum, as there is nothing more intimate than an individual's relationship with God. The priest can ask a boy, out of the blue or on a first meeting, if he has considered a vocation to the priesthood. He can pester a reluctant youth that they ought to go on a retreat he is organising, or on a Faith Conference. I'm pretty sure many of the priests involved in the Faith movement can testify to a case of finally getting someone to agree to come on an event, dragging them into the minibus kicking and screaming and then at the end of the event to be told "Thanks Father, Ireally enjoyed that!" It'd be good to see visually the internal effect such a reaction has on the priest; outwardly he may look measured and mildly pleased. Inside, it's 41 gun salutes, balloons and party poppers. And an interior glance to, and from, the Lord.

To be able to do all this in a deeply fruitful way, it is necessary that the priest be alone as Christ Himself was, and not joined intimately to another in marriage.

Chastity Under Vow

Celibacy - or as Fr. Holloway preferred -a personal vow of chastity for the sake of the Kingdom of God - provides the means, or framework for specifically priestly loving. Most emphatically, it is not a denial of love. Priestly celibacy is never just celibacy - it is chastity embraced for the sake of the Kingdom. It is a positive choice, expressing a willingness to love in the way that Christ loved.

Celibacy is the only right and pure state of life for all the unmarried: put another way, the unmarried are morally obliged to be celibate. That doesn't just mean 'no sex' - it means there can be no deliberate sexual arousal, because that sort of act can only accompany sexual intercourse, and sexual intercourse is reserved to husband and wife in the bond of marriage. That is celibacy.

But 'chastity under vow' is when a person consciously and personally dedicates all the powers of body and soul to God, for the sake of His Kingdom. It is a positive consecration to God, not merely a sort of negative promise not to marry. It operates on an altogether different and higher level

Christ Himself made and makes this very invitation, to enter into a higher relationship of love towards Him and His people, when he spoke to his disciples regarding those "who have made themselves this way for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Let anyone accept this who can." (Mat 19:12). This is the basis on which the Church seeks out her priests.

Chastity under vow is indeed a sign that sex is not love, and that love, of its very nature, transcends sexuality and the erotic function and pleasure. Chastity under vow is that type of human love which reaches its perfection independently of sex. This indeed is the basis on which Christ recommends it: not just for its sign value but because in itself, it is the path to the highest human love.

The Fathers of the Church, the great writers and commentators on the Faith of the First Millennium, spoke of chastity under vow as "reverencing the flesh of Christ." There are two things to draw out of this idea. First, chastity as total consecration, in the image of Christ the Bridegroom who is wedded to mankind, and to the Church as His Bride. Chastity is the manifestation of the Priestly and Kingly love of Christ for all flesh, especially those who belong to Him. His Self-giving is complete, or as we say with regard to Christ Our Lord in Holy Communion, it is the "whole Christ" - Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

In addition to this, there is another interesting insight: the role of chastity as the healing or "remedying in our own mortal flesh of the wound of concupiscence." In other words, in Fallen Man, wounded and damaged by sin, who experiences many disordered desires in his heart and in the domain of sex, chastity can take on a healing role. It is a way of loving in which nature works through grace to restore the love in human relationships to God's original intention. It was the original intention of God that every human pleasure - including sex -should be governed by the soul, which in turn was meant to be in peace and communion with God. That was thrown into disorder by humanity's Original Sin. Our love arises within the soul, not the body. It was always meant to be ruled by the peace ofGod's presence within us. Therefore it is love that must rule sex - sex should never rule love, in any relationship. It is in a life of chastity under vow that this law is made strikingly visible: in its faithful living, we "reverence the holy flesh of Christ," through which His perfect love was expressed, and work to heal the disorder in the soul and body of Man.

Giving Up Sex is Not Giving Up Love

There is a very widespread belief that there is no greater expression of love between human beings than having sexual intercourse. It is an extremely narrow vision of love. In its purely biological meaning, sex is for the generation of a family - to bring new human beings into existence, precious in the sight of God, and called by Him to share His life. It is also an enaction and expression of the self-giving love between husband and wife. However, we are all created as sexual beings and sex, or sexuality, also has a much wider sense in which the love held within the soul is expressed through our sexuality in warmth, affection and tenderness, without an erotic element, and done so in an appropriate way depending on the persons involved. So for example, it exists in marriage in theeveryday, usually little ways that a husband and wife show that they cherish each other and make sacrifices for the sake of the other. Having sex isn't the only way they express love! A hug or a cuddle between a parent and child expresses a real love with physical warmth. Friendship is a different type of love, which is expressed in its own appropriate way - this love can be very deep, but it doesn't involve any erotic arousal. The point is, love does not equal sex in its narrow biological meaning. Neither does sex in that sense "make love" - it is one form of expressing love in one particular kind of relationship, i.e. marriage. One has the feeling that there is an assumption abroad that every gesture of friendship or affection must inevitably lead to jumping into bed together, and we'reall on this same road without distinction. Films and TV no doubt contribute to this mistake: how often have you watched a scene where two people meet, say, in the street and after a few pleasantries and greetings, the next scene is of them thrashing about in bed? No - there are different types of love, and they all have their own proper way of being manifested through our sexuality, which gives joy to the ones who receive it, and fulfilment to the one giving it.

What does this mean for the priest and his unique way of loving? It means that he has voluntarily renounced sex in the narrower sense, the way of expressing love and creating family as is proper to marriage. But he is not therefore deprived of love or unable to love in an appropriately deep, warm, or affectionate way. This can be sensed physically, because of the unity between soul and body, and expressed too - always according to the truth of God, and with honest prudence in the light of His grace; we all have to be aware that we live with a fallen nature, that our bodies can be victims of disordered drives.

Marriage and Priesthood: Ministries of Joy

The Lord promised that those who have left everything to follow Him will be repaid a hundredfold in this life and inherit eternal life. He is quite capable of fulfilling what He has promised. While giving up a wife and family of his own, the priest does indeed receive a hundredfold in terms of love. I would say he shares in the love that people have for God, which is a love beyond all others, there is nothing else like it on the planet. For the type of relationship which it creates between priest and people is precisely a Christ, The Bridegroom relationship.

Marriage is between one man and one woman who have freely consented to bind themselves to each other in love, permanently. In choosing each other, the couple involved have excluded all others: their love is necessarily "possessive" in a good sense, because they are now fused into each other; this self giving, the one to the other, holding nothing back, seeking the good of the other and in so doing finding their own happiness, this is their path to holiness. Their love is the love of two equals.

The love of the priest for his people is different, because it is fused into the love which Christ, the Eternal High Priest, bears towards His people. It is wide ranging and carries a personal authority which comes from God. This kind of love sees what is good and true and of God in others and wants to build that up, take it further and deeper into the life of God and even challenge people to relinquish what is spiritually harmful to them. It is not a love between equals, as married love is; it necessarily has an element of leadership in it, precisely because it is a Christ relationship. The priest cannot be possessed in love by any one human person.

It obviously is possible for a married man to be a Catholic priest too - the Church has allowed it in certain cases. But it does not seem that the unique type of loving which is priestly loving, can be lived to its perfection if the priest's heart is being pulled two ways: towards all that is expected of him by Christ and His people, and towards his wife and family, who have every right to expect a primary, radical commitment to them from husband and dad. St. Paul wrote very clearly on this potential problem in his first letter to the Corinthians. It's not hard to see what tensions might be generated: the married priest may well form very deep spiritual friendships with others, including women and young people; people who may be more advanced in the spiritual life than his wife orchildren. How is she or the priest's children going to react seeing all this, entirely innocent and pure though it be?

Yet the vocation of priesthood does not stand without the vocation of marriage. A man is taken from among the people of God, transformed into a living icon of Christ and given back to the people in this new relationship. He is then called to carry Jesus Christ into their lives, so that people may come into contact with the One in Whom they were designed to live. Through his preaching, teaching and especially the sacraments, husbands and wives receive from God the life they need to live out their vocation and go deeper into it. Parents do not simply beget children, but must also see to their formation in love and truth and knowledge of God. Through the priest, Christ takes and perfects what parents have begun. Without loving their parents any the less, children may open their soul to thepriest simply because of the Christ-relationship that exists between them. The same applies as children get older, and their own moral and spiritual lives unfold, and the first stirrings of vocation are perhaps sensed. In this relationship of trust, the priest may speak the words and the love of Christ, the Good Shepherd, and leave the person in question free to respond to Christ as they will. What is absolutely required is that the priest does indeed speak for Christ, and reflect the love of Christ. Living thus, the priest finds his own fulfilment and path to holiness.

This writer is a university chaplain, and so most of my daily life is taken up with ministering to twenty-somethings. I find this wonderful. As I'm twice their age, I could easily be their biological father, and I suspect for a few of them I am a kind of surrogate parent. Moreover, there is enough age difference between me and them so that I don't have to worry about being "cool" - the very adjective applied to me borders on the grotesque. And I have this unique relationship to them because I'm a priest. They expect me to put before them the Truth, they expect me to be available for them whenever they happen to need to speak to a priest, or have their sins forgiven. I take their needs and worries to the altar and offer them up with Christ's sacrifice. This is my ordinary bread-and-butterdaily ministry. They also expect me to display a divine patience with their weaknesses and a similarly Christ-like compassion for their sorrows. Fr. Holloway wrote that though this can be "hard on our pettiness of heart, it is a wonderfully exhilarating experience." One could add that it is the same in whatever scenario the priestly ministry is exercised. What it all boils down to, is the formation of people for God; the only really worthwhile task on this earth. These are the riches we store up for eternity, the tending of the great harvest of souls.

Minister of Christ

There are many very ordinary instances, not particularly dramatic, which I could relate of reflecting the truth of Christ and the love of Christ to various people, day in day out, which have given great joy. At the risk of blackening my image, I will note one of my pastoral disasters, and illustrate the point negatively! I recall being asked by a distraught lady whether she would ever again see her dog which had just died. I was reluctant to answer (couldn't think how!), and was in a flap because late for a school governors' meeting. But she kept on insisting and eventually I turned round and said bluntly "No -you won't, it's gone." She didn't take that too well.... Christ would not have responded thus, so I failed to mirror Him to that woman. Moses once got so impatient and frustratedwith the people of Israel that when God commanded him to order a rock to produce water to drink, Moses struck it twice with a branch, and the water flowed out as God wished. No big deal, you might think. But it was in God's eyes - He said to Moses "Because you did not display My holiness in the sight of the sons of Israel, you shall not enter the Promised Land." Moses had allowed his own very human impatience to override his obligation to reflect God to the people, and God is never petulant, huffy or impatient. The priest is "another Christ" in his soul - he must also hope to reflect this in his psychological and personal relationship with God's people, or there is a danger of becoming a religious bureaucrat or policeman.

A Catholic priest is not a guru. He is not to be approached and asked "So what's your take on God, life and the universe?" or "What do you believe about euthanasia?" The priest is approached because he is, as Scripture says the "Messenger of the Lord of Hosts" and men "seek instruction from his lips" on the mysteries that Christ has revealed - he has no authority whatsoever, other than to speak the Truth of Jesus Christ, or more simply - to communicate Jesus Christ to His people.

Bringing salvation into people's souls - salvation in its fullest sense - or, if you like, carrying Jesus Christ into people's souls involves exercising this unique love, a wonderful love. To be aware of Christ loving people through your ministry, which you do for love of Christ and His people, is profoundly humbling and fulfilling. This is most fully and objectively true in the sacraments. At such times, it's as if I the priest-servant, step aside to let Christ the Lord act (not wholly accurate, because nothing would happen if I wasn't there). I think too that when He has acted, Christ looks at me in gratitude (who am I for God to be grateful to me??) for allowing Him to use me to minster to his people.


Was Jesus Christ lonely and bitter and frustrated because He was not married? No! He was alone in the sight of the people, and yet He was never truly alone for, as He said: "The Father is always with me." Just so, the priest is "alone" but not lonely because through the character of soul he receives at ordination, Christ is always with him.

Yes indeed, priestly love carries its own specific fulfilment in joy, and warmth of relationships. Christ's love was life-giving because when human hearts opened up to Him for whom they were made, the result was inevitably an increase in the life of the soul, a freeing from sin, the lightening of a burden, and the joy that comes from knowing you are close to God, or that you are loved by God.

Because priestly love most closely mirrors the love of Christ Himself for His people, it has its own specific sorrows too, just as does married love, the love of parent for child, and the apostolate of one called to be single. It couldn't be otherwise in a fallen world. Just as it gives a priest immense joy to see a soul deepening in its love for God, becoming more noble and beautiful, so to watch a soul gradually fall away from God, becoming indifferent to His love or degenerating into vice causes a very deep pain. Again, most apostolic priests and religious will have experienced this - something of the sorrow that Christ felt when He wept over Jerusalem because it would reject Him, or when He encountered real hardness of heart towards the things of God, or watching the rich young manwhom He had invited to follow Him walk away.

I can remember Fr. Holloway telling of when he was a young priest and knew a good lad, very keen on his faith, who was possibly a candidate for the priesthood. Fr. Holloway, after investing much prayer and time in him, said he saw him one day engaged in a lustful action with a girl in a park, and after that the lad lost all interest in God. As he said this, a wave of pain went across the priest's face, and I thought "See how much he loved him, if even after decades, the memory of this still hurts him." Every priest will have sorrows like this, but it is part of his complete identification with Jesus Christ and thus part of his priestly fulfilment. And just as Christ's sorrow was never wasted, but always fruitful, so in a mysterious way is the priest's. It is part of his sacrifice, offeredin love to God. It is a carrying of Christ's Cross which every disciple of Christ must be willing to do. This is how God heals the wounds of the world and draws good from evil.


When we see the true greatness and the depth of the call to celibacy, or chastity under vow, then the bleatings to allow the poor lonely, loveless priests to marry seem so defeatist, blind and niggardly. Celibacy does mean that a priest can be more easily moved around, and no doubt it does cost the Church a lot less money, but it is not entered into for these purely pragmatic reasons. Christ calls no one to loneliness or lovelessness. He calls to greatness of soul and to sacrifice, He invites a man to fully imitate Him and to walk a path with Him which leads to the perfection of love. On this path, Christ the Great High Priest provides the sweetest intimacy with Himself, and the possibility of deep and holy loves with His people. If celibacy were understood in this wayby mothers and fathers, and proposed thus by bishops, priests and teachers, I don't think we would have a vocations crisis.

When the world ridicules celibacy and shouts and clamours for its abolition, it does so in a state of spiritual sickness and ignorance. That alone should lead us to conclude that we should do the very opposite - re-affirm the importance, meaning and necessity of celibacy in the Catholic priesthood.

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