This article first appeared online at L’Homme nouveau, February 3, 2020, and is translated and published here by kind permission of L’Homme Nouveau. Robert Cardinal Sarah, in a February 4th post on Facebook, stated: “This interview with Mgr Nicolas Brouwet, bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, corresponds perfectly to the intentions of our book From the Depths of Our Hearts. I would like to thank him for the precision and importance of his wonderful reflection.”
Mgr Nicolas Brouwet is the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes. After reading From the Depths of Our Hearts, he has agreed to answer a few questions and give us his reflections on the book written by Cardinal Sarah and the Pope Emeritus, and on priestly celibacy in general.
Cardinal Sarah and the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have published a book on priestly celibacy. Why is this subject so important today?
Two factors have reopened the question of celibacy for priests. The Amazon synod, for one, because the fathers of the synod approved a resolution favoring the priestly ordination of married deacons. On the other hand, there is the question of sexual abuse by clergy. Some claim that a married priesthood could have prevented this abuse. Lack of priests in our dioceses is also a common argument for the ordination of married men.
The solutions currently floated tend to reduce priestly celibacy to a “discipline” that was supposedly imposed on the Latin Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and that it is time to revise because it does not correspond to the spirit of the age. That’s why this book was necessary. I would also like to point out Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s interesting book Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy (EWTN, 2019).
How do you understand Benedict XVI’s choice to explain priestly celibacy in reference to the Old Testament?
Dating the decision in favor of celibacy for priests to the age of the Gregorian Reform or to the Second Lateran Council in 1239 is to place it in a limited perspective. The choice to select priests from among men who have received the charism of celibacy is not a late development or a purely juridical decision. It is rooted very deeply in the life of the Church, but also in the Old Testament where, already, there we see the figure of the priest consecrated for the worship of God. He was set apart to stand before the Lord and to serve him, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, and this consecration was expressed concretely in the Levites’ unique renunciation of the possession of a specific portion of the land of Israel and by the abstinence from conjugal relations during his period of liturgical service in Jerusalem.
“Priests must live only from God and for him.” The Catholic priesthood comes from Christ, but we also inherit the figure of the priest found in the Old Covenant.
Besides celibacy, does the Pope Emeritus propose a particular way of being a priest or of receiving the priesthood?
The life of a priest is an offering of self in imitation of Jesus, the Good Shepherd and High Priest of the New Covenant. The religious cult of the Temple is a figure that is fulfilled in the offering that Jesus makes of himself on the Cross for the salvation of the world, being at the same time altar, priest, and victim. The priestly ministry must be understood in the context of this offering.
This cultic aspect of our priesthood hasn’t lost any of its relevance today, because each time we celebrate Holy Mass, we offer all of humanity to the Father through Jesus Christ in the fire of the Holy Spirit. We also offer our own humble life to Our Lord, for whom, with the help of grace, we have given all. The rest of our mission, of our day, our preaching, our missionary projects, celebration of the other sacraments, only makes sense within this fundamental daily action that is the celebration of the Mass, where we give everything back into the Father’s hands.
Has priestly celibacy been called into question because its meaning has been partly forgotten?
When Jesus tells the apostles about the possibility of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, he immediately suggests that this calling will not be understood by everyone: “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Mt 19:12). Nevertheless, Catholics have real respect for celibacy. The faithful understand, through the eyes of faith, that a priest has followed in the celibate path of Jesus who came to offer salvation to all mankind. The priest’s heart is ready to offer itself for all, without exclusivity and without preference. That is what constitutes the richness of his celibacy: he can go to everyone, with a free heart, without attachment. This is precisely what the faithful appreciate: this great being available, which is not only a matter of his schedule, but of a whole heart given entirely to Christ. As Cardinal Sarah writes, “Through the eyes of faith, the poor and the simple are able to discern in the celibate priest the presence of Christ, the Bridegroom in His Church.”
Does priestly celibacy strengthen the married vocation?
Sometimes priests are reproached for not being part of the world because, not being married, they do not know the realities of life. But as of January 2018, 41.3% of French people over fifteen years old are unmarried. So priests are not the only ones living in this state of life. For us, celibacy opens the way for relationships with others. At the beginning of my ministry, a priest said to me that we have a “super-relational” life, and that is true. I have always been grateful for the rich encounters I have had on my various assignments. Our priesthood, lived in celibacy, opens a great many doors.
For both the celibate priest, and the believer who is living the married life, life finds its meaning in offering, in love given. Celibacy is not a privation of one’s capacity to love and be loved. Lived in this way, it would be truly dehumanizing. The heart of a priest is made for love. He does so in the manner and following the example of Christ the Bridegroom, of Christ who gave himself entirely to humanity in love. This gift of self for humanity, made in the Church, makes sense. It is the summit of the priest’s life.
In parishes there is emulation between priests and couples, because both states of life involve an offering of love made in imitation of Jesus. And if priests, in their gift of self in fidelity to their commitments, are an encouragement to the faithful living in the sacrament of marriage, the opposite is also true: the witness of married couples is extremely valuable for a priest.
Cardinal Sarah and the Pope Emeritus point out that, in the early centuries, married men who were ordained to the priesthood made a commitment to abstinence. Are discussions about priestly celibacy simply based on a narrow understanding of history?
I do not think that we can comprehend priestly celibacy by means of historical studies. Some people fear celibacy because they are not called to it. They think that only the married state can guarantee a stable human life. But I am not at all convinced that marriage is an easier path. I have heard enough confessions and accompanied enough married people to know. What is lacking to understand celibacy are the eyes of faith, as well as gratitude for the various states of life in the Church, which are a source of incredible human and spiritual richness.
As a bishop, how do you understand the role of priestly celibacy?
It is a great opportunity for the Church. The celibate priest bears witness to the presence of Christ who gives himself entirely to the Church, as a husband to his bride. By his ministry, by his availability, by every work he undertakes to preach the Gospel, by his humble fidelity, he expresses to the community of the faithful all the love and care he has for them, following Jesus’ example. He has no one by him, he has no other refuge, no one to protect him. He offers his whole life in this ministry.
Benedict XVI emphasizes repeatedly that celibacy, in order to take on its deepest meaning, must be lived out with a certain sobriety, with a renunciation of all the material comforts that are at our disposal. Moreover, the priest must be receptive to the mission entrusted to him by the bishop. There is great self-denial in not choosing his own mission but receiving it and always being ready to receive a new one, to leave, to move. Celibacy permits this freedom; it facilitates this availability to be sent.
As a bishop I witness this generosity in the priests of my diocese and in others that I know. How many priests carry out their priestly ministry with a serene and joyful disposition! And how fruitful their mission is in the Holy Spirit! I would like to thank them, encourage them, and tell them how much we, as bishops, but also as fathers, brothers and friends of our priests, are grateful for the example they give us. May the Lord bless them!
(Translated by Zachary Thomas.)
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