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Saint John Vianney: A Celibate Man with Scores of Children | From The Grace of Ars | Fr.
Frederick L. Miller | Ignatius Insight
Saint Matthew records a discussion Jesus had with the Pharisees and
his disciples on the indissolubility of marriage and on the mystery of
virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. This scriptural text
is the foundation of the Church's understanding of the evangelical counsel of
Pharisees carne up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to
divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read
that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said,
'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his
wife, and the two shall become one'? So they are no longer two but one. What
therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder." They said to
him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and
to put her away?" He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses
allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I
say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries
another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits
In becoming man, the Son of God chose celibacy as his own way of life. He asked
the twelve apostles, even though they were married, to leave everything to
follow him. Paul, likewise, was celibate and extolled the celibate way of life
for those to whom it is given by the Holy Spirit.
The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it
is not expedient to marry." But he said to them, "Not all men can
receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs
who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs
by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of
the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive
it." (Mt 19:3-12)
Clearly, for Christ and Paul, and the other apostles, celibacy is a special
grace from God, a gift that is and will continue to be given to men called to
share in Christ's mission. The gift of celibacy is given for the sake of
building up the Kingdom of God on earth. The celibate makes present and visible
in the world the life that all of the redeemed will experience in heaven after
the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day.
Throughout the ages, the Church in both the East and West has conferred
episcopal ordination only on priests who have received the gift of celibacy. In
the West, the Church confers presbyteral ordination only on men who have
received the gift of celibacy. Pope Benedict XVI has noted that this
requirement is a sign of the transcendent origin of the apostolic ministry in
the Church from the beginning. The priesthood is not something the Church
provides for herself. It is a gift that comes from God.
Needless to say, the charism of celibacy is not restricted only to those men
who share in the apostolic ministry. God offers the gift to many men and women
who devote themselves exclusively to Christ and his concerns. John Vianney had
many collaborators in his priestly work: male and female religious as well as
single men and women who were free to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the
pastor's works of charity. Before we examine the gift of celibacy properly so
called, we need to consider what the Church presumes of celibate priests and
men preparing for the priesthood.
First of all, celibacy is the free renunciation of marriage and natural
parenthood for the service of Christ and the Church. Celibacy presumes the
chastity that is common to all the baptized members of the Church who
participate in the Holy Eucharist. Adultery, fornication, homosexual acts,
masturbation, viewing pornography, and engaging in any deliberate impure
thoughts and desires are all incompatible with the grace of baptism and are
therefore incompatible with the Christian life.
Second, celibacy presumes a high level of affective maturity. The celibate
priest and seminarian, for instance, need to understand the difference between
ministering to a woman he finds sexually attractive and ministering to a woman
because he finds her sexually attractive. The healthy celibate recognizes his
motivation in every situation. The celibate priest will serve women he finds
sexually appealing. However, when a priest focuses his time and energy on a
woman he finds attractive and excludes the unattractive from his ministry, he
is in danger of using the body of Christ for his own sexual
gratification—at least in his mind.
The celibate needs to recognize when a pastoral friendship with a woman or
pastoral collaboration in an apostolate is a conscious or unconscious cover-up
for what, in reality, is a dating relationship. He needs to acknowledge when he
is flirting with a woman and when a woman is flirting with him. The priest who
does not carefully guard his heart and who does not know how to establish
proper boundaries in a celibate lifestyle is doomed to "crash and
burn" early in his priesthood, leaving a trail of devastation behind.
Suffice it to say that the grace of celibacy presupposes and is built on the
foundation of genital chastity and affective maturity, but it includes much
more than these foundational prerequisites. To have a clear view of the grace of
celibacy, we need to look at it from a number of different perspectives. I will
suggest three. First, a man rightly chooses celibacy for the sake of a personal
and intimate relationship with Christ. Saint Paul acknowledged this motivation
in the First Letter to the Corinthians: "I want you to be free from
anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to
please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to
please his wife" (1 Cor 7:32-33). This means that the celibate should be
wholeheartedly devoted to prayer and indefatigable in his endeavors to build up
the Church, Christ's body, in every way possible.
Saint John Vianney's life of celibacy was built on the firm foundation of
fidelity to prayer and a relentless drive to build the Church of Christ,
especially through the ministry of the Word and sacraments. In his priestly
ministry, Vianney understood that the energy to practice celibacy has a
supernatural source: deep prayer and zeal for the salvation of souls.
Interestingly, Pope Benedict, in his Letter Proclaiming a Year for Priests
(June 16, 2009), notes that the Eucharist is the foundation of the priest's
chastity: "Saint John Vianney's chastity, too, was that chastity demanded
of a priest for his ministry. It could be said that it was a chastity suited to
one who must daily touch the Eucharist, who contemplates it blissfully and with
that same bliss offers it to his flock. It was said of him that 'he radiated
chastity'; the faithful would see this when he turned and gazed at the
tabernacle with loving eyes."
Second, celibacy is a means of sharing in Christ's life-giving passion and
death for the salvation of his Church. Celibacy, lived well, is never easy. We
can be certain that it was not easy for the Cure of Ars. It will not be easy
for any priest precisely because celibacy is a participation in the passion of
Christ for the salvation of souls.
Saint Paul spoke of the mystery of the suffering of the minister of Christ that
is a channel of supernatural life for the beneficiaries of the ministry.
Surely, Paul spoke in a global way of the hardships involved in preaching the
gospel. However, it is not farfetched to imagine that he included celibacy as a
part of the whole picture. Paul died to self every day through his celibacy so
that the people to whom he preached could have abundant life in Christ:
For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who
has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent
power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not
crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we
live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of
Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but
life in you.
Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, "I believe,
and so I spoke," we too believe, and so we speak, knowing that he who
raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into
his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and
more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer man is wasting away, our inner man is
being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for
us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the
things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are
seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:6-18)
I recently heard a group of young married men speaking about how they deal with
sexual temptations in their lives. Although I did not question them, I am
certain they were referring to temptations such as impure thoughts,
inappropriate glances, perhaps looking at pornography, or flirting with their
co-workers. They explained that whenever they are tempted in any way, they
seek, through grace, to reject the temptation, and they offer the mortification
involved in overcoming their desires as an act of love for their wives and as a
prayer for the chastity of their sons and daughters. What a wonderful
application of Saint Paul's spiritual principle: I die to myself, so that
others may have life in Christ!
Priests and future priests would be well advised to embrace this practice.
Whenever a celibate is tempted to violate his promise of celibacy in any way,
he should consciously reject the temptation, offering the victory over self to
God for those parishioners who are struggling with chastity. This is what Saint
Paul means, I believe, when he says, "Death is at work in us, but life in
Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical on priestly celibacy, wrote that married
couples merit chastity for their priests through their practice of marital
chastity. Conversely, priests merit marital chastity for their people through
their fidelity to celibacy. The priest's celibacy is for the sanctification of
Third, celibacy is a powerful source of spiritual fatherhood. Many spiritual
realities contributed to Saint John Vianney's remarkable ability to generate
children in the order of grace: his fidelity to prayer; his penances, which
seem so extreme to us today; his generosity and availability to the people;
and his faith in the sacraments. However, near the top of the list in
importance is his fidelity to celibacy for the love of Christ and the Church.
From the practical point of view, if John Vianney had had a wife and children,
he never would have been able to devote so much time to the confessional. Over
and above this simple fact, we might say that it was his celibacy that drew men
and women to him like a magnet, perhaps especially men and women strugg1ing
with sexual sins.
In a mysterious way, celibacy contributes to the priest's capacity to be the
instrument in the healing of the wounds of human nature and in the generation
of divine life in souls. By freely renouncing natural fatherhood, the priest
takes up the mission of generating supernatural life in souls through the
preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Many are
convinced that the Catholic people confess their sins so freely to their
priests precisely because of the grace of celibacy. If this is true, then one
may only imagine how pure was the heart of John Vianney, who drew so many
people through his fatherly heart to the heart of Christ. His spiritual
fatherhood not only restored supernatural life to souls in the sacrament of
penance but also, through that restoration of divine life, ensured the
penitents' physical resurrection from the dead on the day of Christ's return in
glory. In this sense, the priest's spiritual fatherhood will have an amazing
physical effect on the Last Day.
On the day of his funeral, unbelievers surely thought of John Vianney as a
lonely old man without progeny, yet more than a thousand of his children
attended his funeral and wept for the man who had given them the gift of
eternal life in baptism or who had restored it, when lost through mortal sin,
in the sacrament of penance. How many men and women will rise from the grave on
the Last Day and enter the Kingdom of heaven in the flesh because of the
ministry of Saint John Vianney? When they meet him, they will call him Father.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:
Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis"
of the Curé of Ars | Pope Benedict XVI
St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
Vianney: The Drama | An Interview with Leonardo Defilippis
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba
Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal
of the Priest
Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological
and Phenomenological Considerations | Fr. John Cihak
Fr. Frederick L. Miller, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., is the Chairman of the Department of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He has
extensive parish experience and has spent nearly twenty years as a seminary professor and spiritual director. Fr. Miller is an author and a well-known retreat master.
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