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The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Monsignor John Cihak, S.T.D. | Ignatius Insight | Part Two | Part One

It is through the love exchanged between Our Lady and St. John at the foot of the Cross that the priest's own fallen eros begins to be healed and transformed to image the celibate priestly love that Jesus is revealing on the Cross. We priests get into trouble when we try to run away from this mystery or refuse to enter into it. The only fruitful love is the love that flows from the Cross. For this reason the celibate priest's spousal and paternal love must be more, not less, and it has the potential to become superabundant because it is so sacrificial. No offense to my brother priests of the eastern churches who are married, but I think they would agree that there is an eschatological, and even ontological, primacy of celibacy in the priesthood. This is not to claim a moral primacy since promising celibacy is no guarantee that a celibate priest will live it well or fully. Only to the degree that he allows himself to be taken into the mystery of Calvary with the Blessed Virgin Mary can the celibate priest attain the lofty call that is celibate spousal love and spiritual paternity.

When I was newly ordained and I heard older priests complain about loneliness in the priesthood, I must confess I thought that it was due to a lack of good relationships or prayer life. And of course for some this was true. We are often lonely because we do not have good, deep friendships with others, especially with other priests, or quite simply we do not pray. However, after ten years as a priest I have come to a more realistic conclusion. There is an essential felt loneliness in the priesthood because there is an essential loneliness in the Cross, the Cross that stands at the very center of the priesthood. We priests feel the sting especially in celibacy, and understandably we struggle to come to terms with it. We know the terrifying loneliness that comes crashing in, the coldness of walking back into the rectory – certainly exhausted and tired of people – but lonely because there does not seem to be anyone to share it with or who understands our hearts. A pious thought would be to pray, but prayer in those moments may well seem dry and distasteful.

This is not giving way to self-love. It is simply being a man. There is something deep inside us that longs for a woman's understanding and comfort, and a longing to comfort and understand a unique woman and to generate life with her. Some try to numb this longing through careerism in the Church, food, drugs, alcohol, illicit relationships, pornography; probably the most common forms of numbing are through the television or Internet. Nor is this to suggest that "life is tough, so get over it." Rather, it is an invitation for the celibate priest to enter more deeply into precisely this mystery of caring for the Church at the foot of the Cross and becoming united to her. The priest must struggle in accepting being co-crucified with Jesus and entering the compassion of Our Lady. She for her part comes to the aid of the priest by engaging his masculinity as a husband and father to help bring about his union with the Church—not in sexual union but through crucifixion, by dying for her. The priest, in his loneliness, becomes attuned to the Church's loneliness in this world.

Our line of thinking brings us to consider the joy of the Cross. The transformation of the priest through consoling the Mother of God at the Cross not only brings him into his spousal and paternal love, but also transforms his whole notion of joy. From its revaluing by the Cross, Christian joy is less a passing emotional state and more of a spiritual condition. Joy is not found in the lack of suffering or on the other side of suffering but in self-giving love. Thus joy can flow clearly and directly from suffering. This is joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit and thus something indestructible, something the world cannot give.

Helping the Seminarian or Priest to embrace the Mystery

How do we help our seminarians and priests enter into this profound mystery of the development of their masculinity as celibate priests?

I think we need to continue freeing our human and spiritual formation programs from the narrowness of an overly psychological perspective. The psychological sciences are important and necessary. But human and spiritual formation is wider than psychology can measure. We must keep in mind that psychological approaches, when they depart from the physiology of the human body, cross over into philosophical and theological realms. As Dr. Paul Vitz observes, every psychological theory, whether it is recognized or not, is an applied philosophy of life. [9] Human formation should be founded on a sound philosophical and theological anthropology.

I have yet to find a more solid anthropology than that from St. Thomas, especially as interpreted by John Paul II. I would add further insights from scholars following a more Augustinian line of thinking, such as Pope Benedict XVI and Hans Urs von Balthasar. I think a human formation program for priests needs also to draw from the best of our spiritual theology, especially the ascetical theology of St. John Climacus, Don Lorenzo Scupoli, and St. Francis de Sales. [10] These treasures of the tradition resonate well with all the excellent research emerging in neurobiology, social biology and brain development. [11] Perhaps the four-fold dimensions of relational masculinity could provide an initial framework.

From this wider perspective, the important work of the psychological sciences comes into play. As formators seek to help men become better sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, sometimes the need for therapeutic intervention arises to heal broken relationships with father and mother and to develop secure attachments, so that one becomes capable of agape love. Such intervention should be done by therapists who fully appreciate and understand sound philosophical and theological anthropology, and grasp the priest's unique ecclesial mission and vocation.

It is also important to integrate into our human formation programs, and insist upon, a masculine affectivity in both formators and seminarians. I think anyone who grew up in a semi-normal family has some idea about what a masculine affect looks like. No matter what one's home life was like, much good material can be gleaned from the holy men of Scripture including David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. John, St. Paul, and the holy men who are saints, especially the priest saints. I think there is still much from the lives of St. Francis de Sales and St. John Vianney that can show seminarians and priests what priestly masculinity looks like and how it is lived out concretely in diocesan life.

It is not politically correct, even within some ecclesial circles, to follow the mind of the Church with regard to same-sex attraction as clarified by the Congregation for Education in 2005. [12] The difficulty surfaces precisely when we begin to talk about the priest's spousal and paternal love. Everyone seems fine with the concept of the priest as a son or a brother. But begin to speak of the priest as a husband and father, and in some circles resistance begins to emerge. Nevertheless, in Pastores dabo vobis masculine affectivity is repeatedly coupled with "pastoral charity". The love that the seminarian or priest shows Our Lady at the foot of the Cross is exactly that – charity, the highest form of love, but it must be a masculine incarnation of it. Pastoral charity is where a man's disordered eros becomes ordered into celibate agape, in his care for the Church in the concreteness of a single soul.





Seminarians and priests should be helped to pray from the heart. One initial suggestion is to encourage praying the Rosary using Ignatius' application of the senses that help engage the heart of the one praying. Sr. Mary Timothea Elliot, RSM offers insight into how to pray like Mary: to hold the word of God tenaciously, to ponder it with other words, to apply it to the life situation, and to mature in the word. [13] A helpful way to pray from the heart is taught by the Institute for Priestly Formation through the memorable phrase, "Pray like a Pirate!" [14] A pirate says, "ARRR!", which stands for a helpful acronym: Acknowledge, Relate, Receive, Respond. Acknowledge means to be real and honest in prayer. Relate means to be in relationship and to grapple with whatever is there, to engage the Lord, to be present to Him. Receive means to allow Him the freedom to do what He wishes. Respond means that having received from Him, one is able to respond to Him in love. Praying in this manner helps to cultivate honesty in prayer, and help one practice giving oneself in sincerity.

Part of praying from the heart is praying with the Blessed Virgin Mary, not as an idea but as a woman. As men and priests we need to develop an affective relationship with her, and let her help us become attuned to her heart. As I read St. Louis De Montfort, I think this is what he was really seeking to accomplish. His spirituality is not simply emotive sentimentalism, but learning to model one's heart on hers. His spirituality is a spirituality of attunement. This important spiritual work in learning how to love with the heart and to truly give oneself in prayer will help build the habit of giving oneself in the offering of Holy Mass, to enter into the fire of Calvary with arms wide open.

As human and spiritual formators, we must strive to enter deeply into this mystery ourselves, and then lovingly cast forth these wonderful priests and priests-to-be into this mystery, to help them grapple and wrestle with it, to allow the fire of Calvary to penetrate the depths of their hearts and finally to incarnate this mystery. Then a priest can enter into the spousal and paternal reality with all the eros of his masculine heart taken up into celibate agape.

The Mystery Transposed: Holy Mass at Ephesus

I cannot leave this scene at the foot of the Cross, which reveals Our Lady's role in the celibate priest's spousal and paternal love, without describing another scene. This scene came to me on one of those days when it was not thrilling to be a priest and I was praying, reluctantly. It began with the scene at the Cross, but the scene was transposed at some point to a later event. It was Ephesus and St. John was preparing to offer the Mass. Mary was there with him. Bear with me if some anachronisms crept into the meditation. She was helping him vest, first with the amice, alb, cincture, etc. Her fingers working to make sure everything was fitting correctly. I can imagine their eyes meeting. Nothing need be said, especially when she lifts up the stole to put it on him. They both know from where the generative power symbolized in the stole comes. I can see the delight in her eyes to see him as a priest, a man who is truly and totally her son. The joy and love in her eyes makes him strong, and confident to go and offer this sacrifice whereby his spousal and paternal love is once again confirmed and made fruitful. I think these can be fruitful scenes for any priest to ponder every time he goes to offer the Mass: the feminine presence of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross and before Mass at Ephesus.

Conclusion

My intention is not to offer a deductive investigation and proof that answer the contemporary challenge and perennial condition of the celibate priest's spousal and paternal love. What I do offer is an emerging interior conviction that the answer to the perennial condition of the celibate priest's masculinity lies in the depth of this mystery—the apostle's pure embrace of the Mother of God at Calvary.

This is no saccharine or sugar-coated Marian piety. This is a Marian piety that is so real it will give you splinters, will make you shed tears and will even drive a lance right through the heart of a priest. This is a real Marian piety for real men.

I suggest that this mystery lies at the center of every priest's life whether he can recognize it as such or not. Priests leave, misuse their sexual powers, or turn to other things because they cannot seem to surrender to and embrace this mystery. It is the mystery of his masculinity and the Cross. The Blessed Virgin Mary is there to draw it out of him and help him bring it to a new level of realization as husband and father.

The only way the priest will make it through the Cross is by allowing her to help him and for him to unite himself mystically to her in her suffering. Through her feminine love the celibate priest becomes a husband to the Church and spiritual father to all. And from the depths of his masculinity the priest can say, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).

This essay was originally published in Sacrum Ministerium 15:1 (2009): 149-164, and is republished here by kind permission of the author.

ENDNOTES:

[1] This article originated as a presentation at the Marian Symposium for the Bicentennial Celebration of Mount Saint Mary Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland (USA), 9 October 2008. I am grateful to Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, MD, Deacon Theodore Lange, and Fr. Jerome Young, OSB, for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

[2] I began an exploration of this topic of the spousal and paternal dimensions of priestly identity in an earlier article, cf. Cihak, John. "The Priest as Man, Husband and Father," Sacrum Ministerium 12:2 (2006): 75-85.

[3] Attention is focused on the area of human and spiritual formation since they figure most prominently in Pastores dabo vobis (John Paul II, Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, 25 March 1992, nn. 43-50), and where the greatest need in seminary formation still exists.

[4] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus caritas est, 25 December 2005, especially nn. 3-18.

[5] Perhaps the most well known passage from Pastores dabo vobis, n. 43.

[6] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 371-372.

[7] These are insights especially developed by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his theological anthropology, for example in his Wenn ihr nicht werdet wie dieses Kind (repr. 2, Einsiedeln-Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 1998); Unless you become like this Child, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991); and his essay "Bewegung zu Gott," Spiritus Creator: Skizzen zur Theologie, vol. III (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1967); "Movement Toward God," Explorations in Theology, vol. III: Creator Spirit, trans. Brian McNeil, CRV (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 15-55.

[8] Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis, Pars II, 20 April 1584, 347. [Trans. Gerard O'Connor]

[9] Cf. Vitz, Paul, "Psychology in Recovery," First Things 151 (2005), pp. 17-21.

[10] Cf. Climacus, St. John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent in The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist, 1982); de Sales, St. Francis. Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1989); Scupoli, Lorenzo. The Spiritual Combat, trans. William Lester (Rockford: TAN, 1990).

[11] Cf. Ainsworth, Mary, Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation (Mahwah: Erlbaum, 1978); Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (New York: Basic Books, 1990); Greenspan, Stanley, Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2000); The Growth of the Mind: And the Endangered Origins of Intelligence (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1998); Siegel, Daniel, The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience (New York: Guilford, 1999); Stern, Daniel, The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

[12] Cf. Congregation for Education. Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to Seminary and Holy Orders, 2005.

[13] Elliott, Mary Timothea. "Mary – Pure Response to the Word of God," presentation at the Marian Symposium for the Bicentennial Celebration of Mount Saint Mary Seminary, 8 October 2008.

[14] In my view, the Institute for Priestly Formation, under the direction of Fr. Richard Gabuzda and Fr. John Horn, SJ, is currently doing some of the best work in the United States on the spiritual and human development of seminarians and diocesan priests.




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Monsignor John Cihak, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, works in the Vatican. He helped to start Quo Vadis Days camps promoting discernment and the priesthood at the high school level that now operate in several US dioceses. He has been a pastor and served in seminary formation.

He is the author of Balthasar and Anxiety (T&TClark, 2009).



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