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Father Nick Nelson: Should the Catholic Church allow married priests?

One Saturday in Hibbing, I was having a cup of coffee and getting ready for the vigil Mass when I heard a knock on the rectory door. When I opened the door, standing there was my former homiletics professor, Father Michael. He was at the church for a wedding of one of his students.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

I invited him in for a cup of coffee, and while we were talking, he reminded me of something he wanted to apologize for. This is something he remembered, but something I had forgotten. I must have repressed it deep in my memory because it was so traumatic for me!

This is what happened. During his preaching seminar, we seminarians were required to give a number of practice homilies. After one of my practice homilies, he said, “Nick, good thing you are going to be a priest and not married. I could just hear you saying to your wife (in a robotic, stiff voice) ‘Hey, ba-by, How-are you-today? I-real-ly-love-you.’” Apparently, I had been very monotone and expressionless during the homily.

I was so offended when he said that to me. It probably was the most offended I have ever been. You see, I had always thought that I would have been a great husband and father. I just realized that God wasn’t calling me to marriage, but to the priesthood.

So, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the celibate priesthood. First, celibacy is not absolutely essential to the priesthood. In fact, there have been and currently are married men who are priests. In many of the Eastern Rite Churches, married men are able to be ordained. However, where there are married priests, you must be married before ordination. You cannot get married following ordination.

But the Roman Catholic Church, while allowing exceptions, has always valued celibacy as an important part of the priesthood. It has been the general norm throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Why? Because the priest is meant to be alter Christus, another Christ in the world, and in persona Christi, acting in the person of Christ, especially administering the sacraments.

Jesus was celibate. In his human nature, he was totally given over and consecrated to God, and being celibate was the constant sign of that consecration. The priest is best an image of Christ in the world when he lives chaste celibacy as Christ did.

Celibacy and marriage mutually affirm each other — two sides of the same coin. They are both necessary. With some married and some celibate, the Body of Christ gives the full witness of Christ in the world. Marriage is a sacrament, a sign, an image, a symbol not only of Christ’s love for the church but of the ultimate marriage in heaven. The intimate communion, the comprehensive union, that husband and wife experience on the best of days, is a snapshot of the communion we hope to have with the Blessed Trinity in the life to come.

It’s important to note that the real marriage is in heaven. Marriage on earth is the image of the real thing in heaven. So we need that sign of what is to come. Therefore, marriage on earth is so good.

Celibacy, on the other hand, reminds us that marriage is only a sign or symbol of the real thing. It isn’t the end in itself. The celibate priest or sister reminds us that the real thing is still to come. The celibate says, “Marriage is great, but I’m going to hold out in anticipation for the real deal in heaven.”

It saddens me when people flippantly say “priests should get married,” because they don’t see the great gift of celibacy, the great witness that it is to the world. It means they are looking at reality in a very earthly, worldly way, and not in a supernatural, faithful way. Because celibacy only makes sense if there is a God and heaven to come.

Often, they think they are advocating on my behalf — that I’m at home every night alone, petting my cat (I don’t actually have a cat), wishing I could get married. Even in the seminary, while discerning the priesthood, I never desired to be a married priest. I had a desire for marriage, but I either wanted to be a celibate priest or to be married and do something else, such as own my own business. I already saw the wisdom in the church having her priests remained celibate.

There is something extremely fulfilling about being celibate. St. Paul says, “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32-33).

Our sexuality is very integral to our persons, and to say I am willing to sacrifice a wife and children for God and his people is a very significant thing. A celibate priest truly consecrates himself to God, and knowing you are given over to God in such a radical way is a blessing. Because when a man says yes to God in this radical way, when he is willing to make this sacrifice out of love for God, God rushes in with grace upon grace allowing the man not only to persevere, but to thrive in this vocation!

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]