The Power of Celibacy in the Priesthood

By James Keating 

Deacon James Keating, PhD has nearly thirty years of experience in the area of clerical formation in the Catholic Church. He is currently Professor of Spiritual Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St Louis, MO. He is the author or editor of twenty-eight books on spirituality, morality, and clerical formation, including Configured to Christ: On Spiritual Direction and Clergy Formation


James Keating, celibacy, priesthood, married priests, seminary
Photo Credit: Alberico Bartoccini

The personal call of Christ to follow Him in a life of chaste celibacy brings a seminarian into a suffering that involves his whole person. Seminary formation serves such a man by assisting him to integrate chastity within his body. Such integration is the work of grace and the acceptance of personal suffering. This grace and suffering work in sync with a man’s prayer life and his capacity for self-knowledge and self-revelation, all within the formative relationships that define seminary. Such formation prepares a man to be a priest who labors disinterestedly to serve the spiritual needs of his people. A priest’s own needs are to be satisfied in the deepest of contemplative prayer, in substantive friendships with other clergy and laity, and within a sustained love for his own parents and biological family.  

If a man receives a true call to sacrifice marriage and fatherhood in light of the overwhelming beauty of God’s own love and enter priesthood, then this gift of God will deepen within the formative relationships that constitute a seminary’s mission. Reducing celibacy to a way of life that is practical and useful to parish ministry threatens the very masculinity of seminarians. Few, if any, men voluntarily sacrifice the beauty of woman for a lifetime so an institution might more easily serve others. If such were the case, there would be many more celibate soldiers, physicians, firemen, and police. To enter such a sacrifice one needs to rightly be seized by divine beauty and then accidentally, because this beauty has defined one’s whole body, become more available to serve. The whole purpose of the seminary is to deepen the aspirant’s interior life so he can internalize his being seized by divine beauty. The seminary exists to enfold a man into Christ the Good Shepherd’s love for him as intimate knowledge, forming the seminarian to share in Christ’s own pastoral charity. This knowledge is not separate from academic study, but is larger and deeper than discursive knowledge alone. A seminarian should live within a more generous definition of study born of a sustained engagement with the beauty of God in prayer. He ought to long for a prayer-soaked study.  

The Church seeks celibates who have the other as their first interest. This can only happen, however, if a man has first received love and is capable of continuing to receive love; otherwise, he may “use” others in his quest to be “known,” to be loved. One doesn’t enter priestly formation to find love. One seeks formation as a response to already being loved by God. This love continues to be received so that compassion for those who have yet to do so can be born within him.  

A seminarian or priest can only have the Church as his first interest if he is fundamentally fascinated with the Holy, with God. With this fascination a man can “constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ.” It is mysticism which moors ministry. Mysticism is a life penetrated by the mysteries of Christ through prayer and sacramental worship. Unless the celibate cleric is securely fascinated with God, ministry can become a search for communion rather than a fruit of it.  

The genius of the seminary system is its mission to form integrated men. Integrated seminarians possess a holy affective maturation. They suffer this maturation within their own bodies as they develop psychological and affective health; a deep, rich prayer life; charitable service to those in need; and conversion through a love for doctrinal and theological truth. This integration happens in the messy, sometimes annoying, and always grace-filled environment of peers, formation mentors, spiritual directors, and teachers. These seminary relationships should also expand to include more women, lay people, permanent deacons, and families.  

Sexual integration is completed in seminary by one suffering a deeper reception of divine love in prayer, yielding a new heart that wants to serve, not be served (see Matt 20:28). Seminaries must build a very strong gate into priestly formation. The Church is not desperate for priests; she is desperate for holy, mature priests who think of the needs of others because their own affective needs are being met in sacramental and personal prayer, familial relations, and sound peer friendships. A man ought not to become a priest if he simply “wants to help people.” A man becomes a priest because he wants to yield his whole body to God and in the service of pastoral charity through a life of celibate love. “Helping” people flows from his receiving divine love at a level that satisfies a priest’s need for love. When it comes to a celibate priesthood, its supernatural origins can never be muted. Seminaries need to accept men who are established in love by family, capable of entering holy friendships, sustained in deep prayer, and desirous of spending their lives in pastoral charity.  

Bishops ought not to retain inadequate candidates out of fear. Instead, they ought to concentrate on filling seminaries with candidates who are vulnerable to being formed into men like this seminarian, who shared his testimony with me before his ordination: 

Seminary formation offered me a grace-filled time of contemplation and meditation on the gift of the priesthood and God’s call to celibacy as a way of spousal living. My most profound awareness of this was shortly after my pastoral internship, while in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, when I identified my deepest need, not coming from my ego or from the comfort that any other person could provide, but from communion in Jesus Christ. In that moment I felt my whole identity found its purpose, joy, and fulfillment in the self-gift of priesthood.  

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The best clerical formation today prepares men to be divinely loved in their humanity. In Configured to Christ: On Spiritual Direction and Clergy Formation, Deacon James Keating shares what makes a priest or deacon peaceful, personally happy, and—to the extent he keeps receiving the love of God in prayer as a man of interiority and sacrament—a minister of God’s love to his people.