As a new vocation director, I have found myself often working to explain aspects of the priesthood to those who are discerning. And certainly one area that requires great explanation is the aspect of priestly celibacy.
I feel like I could write all week about celibacy and not write enough to address the questions and confusion and opposition that I have encountered toward celibacy in my brief seven years as a priest. It is hard to even know where to begin.
One of the things that drives me nuts is the widespread notion that in order to embrace the celibate life, a young man or woman must negate the value and goodness of intimacy and the family. It is common, when suggesting that perhaps a young man might have a vocation to the priesthood, to hear the objection that he must not because he either "likes girls" or because "he would be such a great father." It is viewed as contradictory for a young man who likes girls or values and enjoys being around children to voluntarily promise to live a celibate way of life. What could possibility motivate someone to renounce such important areas of fulfillment and happiness in life when he finds himself drawn to them and values them?
I have asked myself this question. How is it that I was able to freely and happily make the promise of celibacy even while affirming that I was attracted to and valued the intimacy of marriage and goodness of family life? How could I value something and seemingly reject it at the same time? How could celibacy lived in such a state of seeming contradiction not be anything other than a torment? Why is it that I am not miserable?
A number of months ago a metaphor came to me that I have found much more helpful than some kind of theological or psychological discussion in explaining an answer:
Marriage is a masterpiece of God's creation. When God created human beings, he created them to be male and female in a stunning complementarity that allows them to share in his love and his creative work in the world. Each marriage is a unique work of art in which God weaves together the personalities, gifts, and experiences of two people in a way that allows them to grow and enrich one another and our world and become more truly who he made them to be.
It is really quite amazing to think that God entrusts such an incredible gift to so many people. In giving a husband and wife to each other, he places into their hands a precious work of art that is to be crafted and cared for and protected over the course of their lives. He invites them to play a critical role in his creative work, becoming fellow artisans and co-creators with him in building the kingdom of God as they strive to fulfill their marriage vows.
The celibate priest does not despise this artistic endeavor or in any way reject it. No, in this metaphor the priest is like the curator at an art museum. He is a great lover of the art of marriage, in fact, he is a connoisseur. He spends his whole life bringing works of art into the home that has been prepared for them to keep them safe and to allow them to bring joy and happiness to all. He spends his days dusting them and placing them where their beauty will be most clearly seen. When works are brought to him in need of repair, he spends long hours in the careful work of restoration. He guards them from thieves who would steal them in the night. He ensures that they are properly stored so as not to fade or tarnish.
But when he goes home at night, he does not take them with him. They do not belong to him. As curator, he serves a cause greater than himself or his own possessions. And he is content with that. In fact he is happy to dedicate his life to being the curator in a place of such incredible beauty, doing work that gives joy to so many.
Who loves art more, the artist or the curator? Who serves art more, the artist or the curator? Neither. They are complimentary. And so are the vocations of celibacy and married life. They compliment one another. A priest can love and serve marriage without possessing it as his own. In fact I would argue that he must be ready to love and serve marriage if he is going to be a happy and healthy priest. Celibacy is not a rejection of marriage any more than curating is a rejection of art.
Traditionally, the pastor of a parish has been called by the title of ‘Curate.’ I hope that more people can see that he is not merely the curate of buildings or of golden vessels or liturgical books. No, most importantly he is the curate of the families he serves – he is the curator of the beautiful marriages, the masterpieces of God’s love placed within his care. And in this work he finds great joy and life and love.