Embracing a life of celibacy is not the norm in an American culture saturated by sexual images aimed at selling goods and stirring desires.
Nevertheless, the Catholic priesthood continues to draw men to a life of total service to Christ and his church. The Catholic Anchor recently asked several Alaskan priests to share how they came to embrace a calling that entails a vow to lifelong celibacy.
CAUSE TO PAUSE
Father Tom Lilly, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage, was ordained to the priesthood 12 years ago. Like many would-be priests, the knowledge that celibacy was part of the package posed an initial challenge.
“I decided numerous times, while in college and in the years following, that I was not called to the priesthood, since I had a strong desire to marry and raise a family,” Father Lilly explained. “My thinking went along the lines of, ‘That’s what normal people do, right? They get married and raise a family.’ I considered myself to be the average, normal, run-of-the-mill person and so I, too, was certain that I would marry one day and raise children.”
Still, Father Lilly felt pulled towards the priesthood.
“I attended a vocations discernment retreat in Arizona where, in conversation with my spiritual director, I came to see fatherhood in a new light,” Father Lilly said.
In one particular conversation Father Lilly told the spiritual advisor that he had always thought of himself as a future dad and husband and that he was “just sad that apparently that is not the vocation to which God is calling me.’”
The spiritual director’s response has stuck with Father Lilly ever since.
“He said, ‘If I ever met a man in discernment who did not think he would be a loving, caring and devoted husband and father I would never encourage him to become a priest — the same qualities are needed for both vocations.’”
Father Lilly came to realize that he could “love others in a very powerful way through the unique gift of celibate life.”
“After 12 years of serving as a priest I can honestly say that celibacy is not just the ‘baggage’ that came with being a priest,” he shared. “It is the unique way our Lord invites me to love.”
Father Eric Wiseman, who serves at St. Francis Xavier Church in Valdez, came to the priesthood later in life, sensing the call after his wife passed away in 1998; he was ordained in 2005.
Father Wiseman notes that the celibacy issue did pose a “small challenge,” but the call to serve Christ and his church was stronger.
“If God had wanted me to get married again, I am sure he would have sent me in that direction.”
Father Vincent Blanco is pastor of St. Anthony Church in Anchorage. Formerly from the Philippines, he is now a priest of the Anchorage Archdiocese.
Ordained 25 years ago, he has long seen the requirement of priestly celibacy as a grace even though the world sees it as “scandalous.”
“Since the beginning of my priestly formation, celibacy for me has been a gift,” he affirmed.
And the reality of foregoing a wife and family was something he came to embrace immediately.
“The day of my ordination to the priesthood,” he said. “It makes all the difference.”
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
Priestly celibacy is not something to take lightly or enter into without deep reflection advised Dominican priest Father Anthony Patalano. Ordained 30 years ago, he now serves as pastor of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage.
“To me celibacy is something that I have always accepted,” he said, while emphasizing the importance for would-be priests to fully come to terms with the celibate life on their own.
“After preservation of life, human sexuality is the second strongest force we have within us,” Father Patalano said. “You’re talking about something that is very, very powerful.”
But when a priest gives his life totally for Christ and the church, that energy is not merely suppressed, he explained.
“You take all that energy and you use it for something else,” Father Patalano said. “There are lots of people besides priests or religious who live celibate lifestyles for various reasons, but they take that energy and they channel it into something else.”
To do this, prayer is essential, Father Anthony added.
“There is no way that you can live the lifestyle of a priest or a religious with vows of chastity and not have a life of prayer,” he said.
Father Lilly agreed that celibacy is not without its challenges.
“Women don’t suddenly become less attractive following ordination,” he said. “Once in a while I still wonder what my own children would have looked like or what they would have done in life.”
That said, however, he has “absolutely no regrets.”
“I love the celibate life,” Father Lilly said. “And would not trade it away.”
Father Wiseman can attest to the great strength that daily prayer provides in his being faithful to his priestly vocation.
“My prayer routine of praying the daily office, rosary, Mass and adoration is my armor,” he said.
BLESSINGS OF CELIBACY
Celibacy is not primarily about what a priest gives up, Father Wiseman clarified. It also comes with unique blessings.
“I have a large ‘family’ of sisters and brothers — larger than I ever imagined!” he said of his parish family. “Celibacy has given me the freedom to express myself in God’s love to all I meet. As Saint Paul wrote, I can concentrate on divine matters without concern for the needs of a wife and family of my own — my concentration is on the needs of my parish family.”
For his part, Father Blanco called celibacy a gift that “can be measured only by giving it away in love and availability.”
“Celibacy is counter-culture — it is living a lifestyle for the sake of God and God’s Kingdom here on earth,” he said. “Therefore, it is challenging but it gives new meaning, choosing to walk the road less traveled by.”
While not for all, the great value of the celibate life can be seen in Christ and his disciples, Father Patalano said.
“Jesus was a celibate; Mary was a celibate,” he said. “The church looks at those as a means of sanctification.”
Father Lilly noted that the celibate life is “truly a gift, but not one given to all.”
“While I had traditionally thought that one could never be truly happy without being united with a spouse in marriage and raising children born through that beautiful union, God has helped me to see a unique way of loving others,” he said. “Rather than be focused most intimately on one woman in the sacrament of marriage, the gift of celibacy frees me to share my love with a multitude of people. My ‘children’ are numerous, and I give thanks to God for this beautiful gift.”
‘DO NOT BE AFRAID’
In response to those who feel God might be calling them to the priesthood but who are hesitant about the vow of celibacy, Father Wiseman urged them to pray and seek the guidance of a spiritual director.
“Pray over your nervousness — give it to God,” he said. “Know that you cannot do anything without God’s help. If you are still upset after praying, get some spiritual guidance from a priest or religious sister. God will give you the strength to pursue the vocation that is right for you.”
Father Patalano agreed that would-be priests need to talk to those who are currently living out their call to the priesthood or religious life.
“I would tell him to come right out and say what he wants to say,” Father Patalano said. “Don’t be afraid. In a former time we wouldn’t have dared to speak to a priest or a sister about those kinds of things but today I don’t think we have those limitations. Say what you want to say.”
The important thing, he added, is for a man “to be completely honest with himself before entering the seminary.”
Becoming a priest is a process which takes many years of discernment before the bishop finally ordains a man to holy orders. This should be a comfort to those who want to explore a possible call, Father Blanco added.
“Do not be afraid to give it a try,” he said. “And if you are there, know it is really beautiful.”
The discernment process itself should be done with confidence, Father Lilly said.
“Be confident that if God is calling you to be a priest, he will grace you with the gifts necessary to live out that call with humility and great love,” he said. “Celibacy is one of those gifts. Be thankful.
“The world does not understand celibacy,” he added. “So many focus on what one gives up. While the sacrifice is indeed real, the feeling that comes when one knows they’re authentically living out the life to which God has called them is simply unbeatable. I have received much more than I have given up.”