“…if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
American novelist Flannery O’Connor responded with this curt statement after a fellow dinner guest suggested that the Eucharist was a nice symbol. The devout Catholic O’Connor had clearly based much of her journey in the faith assenting to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and so she responded with great courage at a suggestion that the Eucharist was not the very presence of Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity under the appearance of bread and wine.
She recounted the comment to her friend in a letter and went onto write regarding the comment ‘that was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that [the Eucharist] is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.’ (Excerpts from O’Connor’s letter cited in John Desmond’s 2002 article for Logos “Flannery O’Connor and the Symbol”)
Certainly, anyone can look to this anecdote for encouragement in making the Eucharist the center of his or her life, but I think about that statement when it comes to other truths of the faith that we hold as well, including the call to celibacy for most priests in the Roman Church.
As I’ve stated in this space before, the reason for celibacy is often assumed to be ‘so the priest has more time to minister and doesn’t have to care for his family.’ My response to that is O’Connor-esk: “if that’s the reason for celibacy, to hell with it.’
Priestly celibacy is a real Spiritual Fatherhood that a man must be called to. One of the reasons that seminary is so long is so a man can discern chaste celibacy alongside priesthood. Jesus says in Matthew 19 that some will be called to be unmarried “…for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive this.” (Matthew 19:12b; NRSV2CE)
If my celibacy is a way to give me more time, it’s not working. I have less time now than I ever had, but that is because I am seeking to exercise a real fatherhood and a real spousal relationship that is lived out in my soul and in my day-to-day work and life.
Jesus actually taught this in the Gospel. That’s why I always cite these words when people try to give me an ‘out.’ They say things like: “I wish y’all could get married, because you’d probably have more help.”
I realize that these comments are made in support of me and my brother priests, but sometimes I respond in a way similar to O’Connor’s defense of the Real Presence. If the priesthood and the call to celibacy that I discerned in seminary is really all about efficiency and was not a true call to be a spiritual father, to hell with it.
I believe that priesthood can most fruitfully be lived out with a deep recognition that you were called into relationship with the church and into a true fatherhood for her people. Thankfully this was explained to me many times in many ways by many different formators in the seminary, and that work continues with our men currently in formation.
Thank you for your support of priests, and please encourage them to take ownership of the identity that Christ has called them to – they are spouses of the church, and they are true fathers of the People of God. Pray that our men in seminary discern well the call to celibacy, and that they courageously accept that call if, and only if, the Lord offers it.
– Father Nick Adam
For more info on vocations email: firstname.lastname@example.org.