Happy St. Valentine’s Day, the one day a year in which all Americans, regardless of religion, build their lives around the Traditional Latin Mass calendar. For those of us using the Ordinary Form calendar, today is the Memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius, not St. Valentine, a little something I like to call “the celibates’ revenge.”
As a seminarian, I think my perspective is best captured in the nickname that Valentine’s Day has in many seminaries: Celibacy Awareness Day. For those of us committing ourselves to live a life of celibacy, today’s a great day to reflect on the beauties of celibacy, and the beauties of romantic, marital love.
I. A Beautiful and an Ugly View of Celibacy
Let’s start with celibacy: how should we understand it? The wrong way is to think of celibacy as a last resort. That view of celibacy gets expressed in a lot of ways. One of the most common ways is by imagining that celibates are people who either don’t want to get married, or are poor marriage material for some reason. My old vocation director, Fr. Mitchel Zimmerman, responded to this idea (page 8 here):
“I overhear occasionally the comment that a seminarian is too handsome or charming to be a priest. I don’t want to get defensive, but I wonder if people think before they speak. Do they want their priests to be ugly and boring? Do they want priests who are unfit for marriage or incapable of desiring it? Of course, many of the same qualities that would make men excellent husbands and fathers will also make them great priests and spiritual fathers. That is why we recognize the call to the priesthood as a supernatural call and gift. It is “super” not in a way that diminishes marriage, but insofar as the call is received “in addition” to the natural call to marriage that most mature men experience.”
I’ve been guilty of this view of celibacy in my own way. When I was first discerning the priesthood, I said to a priest, “But I really want to be a husband and father!” He replied, “Good. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be a good priest.” Until that moment, I’d been working with a flawed idea of celibacy, without even realizing it.
Another way that this ugly view of celibacy manifests itself is when it comes to dating. One of two things start to happen. Either you’re unlucky in love for a while, and you think, “Therefore, I must be called to the priesthood (or religious life),” or the opposite: you’re discerning, and then meet the guy or girl of your dreams, and take that as a cue that you’re called to marriage instead.
Now, to be sure, God can use either your dating opportunities (or lack thereof) in communicating His will to you. But if your discernment is based on just this rubric it starts to look like you’ll give up everything for God… unless a better (read: any other) option comes along.
But Christ doesn’t present celibacy as a last resort, to fall back upon if everything else goes wrong. Rather, He presents it as an ideal to be striven for (Matthew 19:11-12):
“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.”
So celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God is something that we’re invited to by Christ. And it isn’t for everybody, but just those who are able to do it. And these celibates, these “eunuchs” for the Kingdom, aren’t those who are incapable of marriage, but those who voluntarily sacrifice it for the glory of God.
II. A Beautiful and an Ugly View of Marriage
So let’s talk about marriage, and its relationship to celibacy. We’re no longer in the days of the Gnostics or Cathars who viewed marriage as an evil to be forbidden (the kinds of people that St. Paul warns about in 1 Timothy 4:3), but ugly views of marriage still abound. Popular culture pokes fun at marriage incessantly, holding it up for ridicule, treating it as an outdated model, and suggesting that monogamy is an impossible ideal, or that marriage needs to be redefined. Meanwhile, a recent Pew Survey suggests that one-fourth of millennials will never marry. So while marriage isn’t experiencing the sort of full-frontal assault that it suffered from the Cathars, it’s being undermined nevertheless.
Since people are losing faith in marriage, it’s all the more reason that a healthy view of marriage is so critical. As the Catechism explains, marriage has been part of God’s plan from the beginning of human history, but takes on a radical new dimension in the light of Christ. Holy Matrimony lays the foundation for the formation of a family, a new “domestic church” in which the husband and wife lead each other and their children closer to the Lord.
And it’s why I’m glad that there are holidays like St. Valentine’s Day that remind us of the beauty and importance of marriage. It’s worth recalling that Our Lord’s first miracle in the Gospel of John was at the wedding feast of Cana. The fact that He was a celibate didn’t stop Him from celebrating the beauty of marriage, nor did it stop Him from raising marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament (CCC 1601).
III. The Connection Between Marriage and Celibacy
There are a few important connections between marriage and celibacy. The first is that the beautiful view of celibacy depends upon a beautiful view of marriage. There’s a reason that Christ teaches this about celibacy in the midst of teaching about marriage (Mt. 19:1-10) and family (Mt. 19:13-15).
After all, this kind of celibacy is about giving up something good for God. But that’s not really a sacrifice if you don’t want to get married, or can’t get married for whatever reason, or if marriage is a horrible thing that nobody ought to do in the first place.
St. John Chrysostom says it best, in a passage quoted in CCC 1620:
“Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.”
So to understand the beauty of celibacy, it’s critical that we understand the beauty of marriage. But celibacy and marriage are tied together in other ways, too. Priests help to bring about new marriages by witnessing them; parents help to bring about new priests by their own witness to their children.
Fittingly, the life of the real St. Valentine shows the deep connection between the two. He was a celibate priest from the third century, who laid down his life to ensure that his people received Christian marriages (in defiance of the imperial law).
So as a seminarian, I don’t think that Valentine’s Day is a day to indulge in self-pity. Rather, it’s a day to remember the beauty and joys of romantic and marital love, which serve as the foundation of my own sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom of God.