Today there is much discussion on celibacy and its relevance to the priesthood. It seems many, especially in the Western world, feel that the demands of celibacy are too great.
In view of this attitude, it may be of benefit to myself and others, if I were to discuss my own understanding of some of the terms and, in general, the issue of celibacy.
It goes without saying that this is a reflection done in the context of faith in Jesus Christ and His revelation through the medium of the Church.
One might first ask: "What does celibacy mean?"
It is much, much more than not having a wife. Celibacy is a way of loving, but it trans- cends the "normal" course of things. It is important here to try to explain what I mean by "normal course of things".
In this regard, a distinction needs to be made between our humanity and our sexuality.
Sexuality is a purely secular and physical reality; it is that dimension of our being which we share with the animal kingdom. This dimension of our being is intrinsically good, being made by God.
Humanity is the totality of our being - which includes our sexuality. Humanity is exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ.
I believe it would be impossible to live celibacy if we were bound strictly to our "sexuality". Since we are human, however, and share in the nature that Christ elevated to such dignity, I believe we are able to live celibate lives freely - maybe not easily, but nonetheless lovingly.
I perceive the celibate commitment as an integral gift I have given to the Lord. I give the only reality which is mine to give - I give myself. This self-donation is expressed in the words of Jesus, "This is my Body which is given up for you".
The same words may equally express the marital love which exists between spouses, or they may express the loving pastoral involvement which exists between the priest and his people: this is my body, my time, my energy, my efforts, my presence, my hopes and dreams for the future. And this person I am is offered to you the people of God, in service.
The Sacrament of Marriage and the Sacrament of Priesthood demand a total response. Marriage demands the spouses live for each other; priesthood demands that the priest live for all the people, the Church of God.
The universal goal of personal and spiritual formation is self- transcendance: "If a person wishes to be my disciple, he must deny his very self, take up his cross and follow me." He must transcend himself and rise above his own wants, needs and desires.
The ultimate goal of the Christian may be described as self- donation - the giving of oneself to God or to neighbour in imitation of Jesus who says He has given Himself over completely to His Father and so His Father's will.
There may be times of pain and confusion for the celibate, but there also may be great joy given by the Lord to the one who struggles to serve and to love.
We all make choices. Celibacy is a gift we give to God. It is a real sacrifice. If it is not, it loses much of its meaning. Celibacy, I believe, is a gift received and given with open hands. This is the gift we give to God.
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit and God's grace, we strive to give up our own will in order to live as Jesus lived, completely subject to the will of His Father: "I come, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me".
Our attempt to live the celibate life perfectly, as Jesus did, will have its failures. Nevertheless, it is still a strong and clear sign to God's people that we have decided to imitate the Lord's gift of himself that we have desired to give ourselves up completely to God and to the people He loves.
In the words of Pope John Paul II: "Celibacy is essentially a greater love for Christ and for one's neighbour."
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is the parish priest of All Saints Church, Kempsey, NSW, in the Lismore Diocese.