A Priest Answers: Yes, a Celibate Life Can Be Filled with Love

By Fr. Carter Griffin

Fr. Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. Since 2011 he has been engaged in the formation of seminarians at Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, DC. Fr. Griffin is a graduate of Princeton University and a former line officer in the United States Navy. He is the author of Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest.

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Photo Credit: St. Paul Center Priest Conference

The American Jesuit Fr. William Byron tells a story about ministering to a young woman who lost her husband in a fatal car crash. He celebrated the funeral Mass and helped the young widow get into law school and start a new life. Later, when Fr. Byron’s name came up in conversation, the woman’s five-year old daughter asked, “Whose ‘Father’ is he?” The mother answered without thinking, “Anybody who needs one.” That young woman understood more about celibate priesthood, perhaps, than many of us priests!

These are without question difficult days for the priesthood and for priestly celibacy. In the wake of staggering and scandalous betrayals by priests and bishops alike, many Catholics—and I think almost all non-Catholics—assume that celibacy shares the blame. And yet, that assumption squares neither with the objective data, nor with the testimony of countless priests and religious through the ages, nor with my own personal experience as a celibate priest.

Legions of faithful celibate priests live joyful, fulfilled lives of generous service to others. Nobody would think that the answer to marital infidelity—regrettably far more common than priestly infidelity—is to eliminate marriage. There is too much at stake. Marriage is too valuable a gift to discard. The answer to marital infidelity is renewing our understanding of marriage and helping married couples live their beautiful vocation more authentically.

That is what I have endeavored to do for priestly celibacy in this new book published by Emmaus Road Publishing entitled Why Celibacy: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest. In it, I hope to propose for a new generation of priests—and Catholics—why the Latin Church, despite so many failures of celibate priests through the centuries, has clung tenaciously to this precious gift of Jesus to His Church. Fundamentally, I believe it is because celibacy is a unique and powerful way of living spiritual fatherhood. Our responsibility today is not to turn our backs on this gift, but to revitalize it, help priests and seminarians (and all Catholics) appreciate its extraordinary beauty and significance, and prepare young men in formation to live celibacy with maturity and joy.

Recently I wrote to my own father, “You wrote this book on celibate fatherhood as much as I did.” It was his example of generous love, of self-giving service to his family, of humility and strength and protection, that I have strived to live as a celibate father. Not everyone is so fortunate, however, in their father. Many, including many seminarians, do not know what that kind of fatherhood looks like. There is a particular need today to make good fatherhood more explicit, to show what it looks like in the lives of both biological and spiritual fathers.

In fact, while my intended audience is primarily priests, seminarians, and those who form them for celibacy, I hope that many biological fathers will also read the book because it speaks to them as well. Not all of us are called to biological or natural fatherhood, but all Christian men are called to supernatural fatherhood, as all Christian women are called to supernatural motherhood. We are all intended to give life in the order of grace. Natural mothers and fathers, no less than priests, are to help their children grow in their spiritual lives, through their example, prayers, sacrifices, teaching, and by preparing them for the sacraments. Celibacy is therefore a reminder to married people, and even to single people, that the highest form of generation, and the one to which we are all called, is bringing the children of our souls to the sources of supernatural life—ultimately, bringing them with us to heaven. Priests do this in a particularly powerful way. We are to be, as that young widow said, fathers to “anybody who needs one.”

I love being a priest. I love being a celibate priest. My life is filled with so much love—from the people I serve, from my brother priests, and above all from the Lord. We priests have been blessed with a vocation that enables us to be special instruments of Jesus who wishes to give so much life, so much peace, and so much joy to His people. Many would undoubtedly be incredulous. “How could a celibate life, a life without a wife and family, be so filled with love?” I wrote this book to answer that question.

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Priestly celibacy, some say, is an outdated relic from another age. Others see it as a lonely way of life.

But as Fr. Carter Griffin argues in Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, the ancient practice of celibacy, when lived well, helps a priest exercise his spiritual fatherhood joyfully and fruitfully.