Our divine Lord, Jesus Christ, told us that He would call with a special grace some persons to give up the joys and satisfactions of good, legitimate, and holy married life in this world "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:7), that is, for the sake of some greater and grander joys and of a deeper spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment, anticipating heaven and its eternity (Matthew 22:30). In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, it has been a centuries-long practice, and continues to be, to accept as true and legitimate a vocation to the priesthood only from among those men who also have such a call from Christ.
In his February 22, 2007, Apostolic Exhortation, The Sacrament of Charity (Sacramentum Caritatis), our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, touches on this matter, as he sets out the teaching of the International Synod of Bishops on the Holy Eucharist: "The Synod Fathers wished to emphasize that the ministerial priesthood, through ordination, calls for complete configuration to Christ. While respecting the different practice and tradition of the Eastern Churches, there is a need to reaffirm the profound meaning of priestly celibacy, which is rightly considered a priceless treasure, and is also confirmed by the Eastern practice of choosing Bishops only from the ranks of the celibate. These Churches also greatly esteem the decision of many of their priests to embrace celibacy."
The Pope goes on to write, "This choice on the part of the priest expresses in a special way the dedication which conforms him to Christ and his exclusive offering of himself for the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 7:32-34). The fact that Christ Himself, the eternal Priest, lived His mission even to the sacrifice of the cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ's own way of life. The choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning. It is a profound identification with the Heart of Christ, the Bridegroom, Who gives His life for His Bride (Ephesians 5:23-32). In continuity with the great ecclesial tradition, with the Second Vatican Council, and with my predecessors in the papacy, I reaffirm the beauty and importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church, and the kingdom of God, and I, therefore, confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy, and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society itself."
The Holy Father cites in his Apostolic Exhortation what the Second Vatican Council teaches about priestly celibacy in its Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis). "With respect to the priestly life, the Church has always held in especially high regard perfect and perpetual continence on behalf of the kingdom of heaven. Such continence was recommended by Christ the Lord and has been gladly embraced and praiseworthily observed down through the years and in our day by many Christians. It simultaneously signifies and stimulates pastoral charity and is a special fountain of spiritual fruitfulness on earth."
The Council says, "It is not, indeed, demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is evident from the practice of the primitive Church (1 Timothy 3:2-5; Titus 1:6) and from the tradition of the Eastern Churches…. (Nevertheless) celibacy accords with the priesthood on many scores. For the whole priestly mission is dedicated to that new humanity which Christ, the Conqueror of death, raises up in the world through His Spirit. This humanity takes its origin "not from blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man, but from God" (John 1:13). Through virginity or celibacy observed for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, priests are consecrated to Christ is a new and distinguished way. They more easily hold fast to Him with undivided hearts. They more freely devote themselves to Him and through Him to the service of God and man. They more readily minister to His kingdom and to the work of heavenly regeneration, and thus become more apt to exercise paternity in Christ, and they do so to a greater extent." Then the Council treats of the nuptial aspect of the gift of priestly celibacy explaining how unmarried priests can "profess before men their desire to give themselves with undivided hearts to the task… of betrothing the faithful to God by presenting the Church as a pure Virgin to Christ. They thereby evoke that mysterious marriage which was established by God and will be fully manifested in the future and by which the Catholic Church has Christ as her only Spouse. Moreover, they become a vivid sign of that future world, which is already present in faith and charity, in which the children of the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage (Luke 20:35-36)."
The Second Vatican Council then states, "For these reasons which are based on the mystery of the Church and her mission, celibacy was at first only recommended to priests. Then, in the Latin Church, it was imposed by law on all who were to be promoted to Sacred Orders. This legislation, to the extent that it concerns those who are destined for the priesthood, this holy Council again approves and confirms. It trusts in the Holy Spirit that the gift of celibacy, which so befits the priesthood in the New Testament, will be generously bestowed by the Father, as long as those who share in Christ's priesthood through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and indeed as long as the whole Church, humbly and earnestly pray for this."
Back in 1993, Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, speaking about priestly celibacy noted that Jesus did not demand the radical renunciation of family life from all his disciples, but He did expect some of them, including the Apostles, to "leave everything" (Matthew 4:19-22; Mark 1: 17-20; Luke 5:10-11) in order to follow Him in a special way. The former Pope said, "In the life of celibacy the Church sees a sign of the priest's special consecration to Christ as one who has left everything to follow Him. For this reason the 1971 International Synod of Bishops confirmed: The law of priestly celibacy existing in the Latin Church is to be kept in its entirety." Let us pray always for our priests that they may be forever pure, chaste, and truly what Jesus wants them to be.