As a Catholic Christian, I am truly blessed to have the most anointed friendships. My personal universe is enriched by people of the Jewish faith, as well as various Protestants Evangelicals. These relationships encourage me to grow as a Christian in the most amazing ways. I cherish the Jewish roots of Christianity and feel immense kinship with my Jewish friends, all the more so during Passover as I recognize that Christ was the ultimate Pesach Lamb who gave His life and His blood for me. I embrace the ways that my Protestant and Evangelical friends have shown me how to "personalize" my relationship with Christ and have given me a tremendous love of the Word. The sacraments of my Catholic faith, most especially Confession (I'm giving away my age by using that term!) and Communion never cease to bring me humbly to the feet of Christ. In countless ways God has given me opportunities to see His hand in the world around me.
Recently one of these cherished friends asked me about the celibacy of the priesthood. This is, by far, one of the most questioned practices of the Catholic faith. And with the recent scandals as well as the priest "shortage," it is even questioned within the rank and file of the Catholic Church. We no longer live during a time where we blindly follow the dictates of our faith. We are a questioning generation that wants answers, or at least to be pacified to some extent with information that sits well in our minds and hearts. Is this a good thing? Maybe to some degree it is, and to some degree it isn't. Either way, it is where we are. I know as a parent I do not welcome my children questioning me on my decisions. I often respond with the pat retort, "Because I said so." Hey, it worked for my mom and it should work for me. But I could hardly answer my friend with that response about such a hot button issue. I decided to dig a bit and here are some things I found out.
I guess it is best to start with the fact that Christ was Jewish. He lived and died a Jew and for that we need to have a sense of the Jewish life in which He was brought up. We know He would have celebrated all the holidays and that Mary, His Jewish mother, would have brought the beauty of everything from the Sabbath blessings to the Sukkot celebrations into His life. I have to believe that when God chose Mary, He did so with the full recognition of her love of her own Jewish faith. He would have desired that His Son be steeped in the traditions of the people of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
If we have the idea that Jewish custom dictated that Christ be married and yet, as Christians, we know He was not, we are left wondering, especially in the face of best-selling books that so idealize romantic love between Christ and Mary Magdalene that it seems "heavenly." But are these secularized notions of Christ's love for Mary Magdalene the stuff of which we have been warned: a wolf in sheep's clothing? Are we being misled by own our inability to fathom how Jesus could have been single in the face of Jewish traditions that called Him to be married? After all, to Jews, marrying and begetting children, is "mitzvah." It is a "good deed" to which all Jewish men are called. Genesis 2:24 calls every man to leave his father and his mother and cling unto his wife. Would Christ have been different? And if Jesus is not our example of celibacy, then why do we practice it? Is it simply because we choose to inflict loneliness upon our shepherds? What value does celibacy have in our Catholic faith?
One clue may lay in the example of the Essenes whose community, contemporaneous with Jesus' earthly life, adhered so strictly to the teachings of the Torah that they were highly admired and respected by all. So much of the Essene community has been revealed through the Dead Sea Scrolls and by biblical scholars that there is a wealth of information available about them. It turns out that the Essenes, in the innermost physical area of their community, practiced celibacy. Why? It appears that these men, more than familiar with the Torah, were anxious to put between themselves and their God no possible hindrances to their serving Adonai. They also relied heavily on priestly strictures that directed Jewish men to remain celibate in the holiest of locations. During the time of the Essenes, this would have been Jerusalem and especially the Temple itself. During the time of Exodus, and the acceptance of the Mosaic Law, this would have been Mount Sinai. The Mosaic Law prohibited anyone who was ceremonially unclean from being in close proximity to those places the Lord considers "holy." And the Law explicitly said that sexual relations made a man ceremonially unclean (see Exodus 19: 22, Leviticus 15:16-18).
So we can't make a blanket statement that Jewish tradition called for Jesus to marry as though there was no strain of Jewish thinking that would have enjoined celibacy on Him knowing that He Himself was the Holy Sacrifice being offered for one and all. Would He have jeopardized our salvation for a relationship with Mary Magdalene? Unthinkable.
And this is where I offer tremendous gratitude to my Protestant and Evangelical friends. I am able to look past the secularized notions that Christ's love for Mary Magdalene would have been physical. It isn't just a Church dogma to denounce such a notion. There is something about this that we can live. My friends have shown me that my relationship with Christ must be on the same personal level exemplified by Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is that beautiful Gospel example of what it means to have a personal, loving relationship with Christ. She loved Him, she accepted His forgiveness, and she supported His ministry. For her faith, Jesus revealed Himself to Mary Magdalene upon His resurrection. He knew He could count on her belief in Him and His ministry.
So why do priests remain celibate? To mirror Christ's example of adherence of celibacy of those who are in the closest proximity to the places that the Lord has called his own. For Christ, that was His very life itself. For us, it is the altar which allows us, day after day, week after week, to transcend time and space and participate in the Paschal mystery of Jesus giving Himself — Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — for our salvation.