Over the past few years I have had quite a few conversations with Catholic parents who do not want their children to consider the priesthood or religious life. The primary reason usually has to do with mandatory lifelong celibacy. Their feelings about this topic are in line with secular American culture. Celibacy is seen as fruitless and unnatural.
A celibate lifestyle can take many forms. It could be consecrated life with vows. It may or may not involve commitment to work within a church setting. Some people simply make promises either on their own (and to God) or to their faith community. This promise can serve to show that singleness is not a deficiency and is not temporary.
I want my daughters to know different options for their future. Celibacy is an option, and a good option, for a practicing Christian. Most importantly, I want my kids to see it first-hand in friends and acquaintances. No amount of reading about something can substitute for a lived example.
When I explain this position, I frequently get this response: “Sure, some people are called to a life of celibacy, but do you really think that your child is one of the few who may be called in this way?”
I don’t know. Luckily it is not up to me to figure it out.
However true discernment can only take place in the context of some practical knowledge of the options that are out there. Some people are called to be celibate. Some people say that they began to consider celibacy as early as thirteen and fourteen years old. Marriage was not for them. Instead, other ways of fruitfulness seemed more appealing. If this happens to be true of one of my daughters, I want to support her. Too many people feel intense pressure to marry and produce grandchildren. I want my girls to know that their worth is not based on achieving these particular milestones.
The flip side is that marriage is something that also must be discerned. A person is only free in making the decision to marry if they know that not marrying is an option. In some cultures and religions, marriage is compulsory. The choice is not whether to marry but who to marry. In practice, these cultures often have a time frame of when marriage is supposed to take place. Even in the US, a thirty-year-old unmarried woman can experience enormous pressure to marry. Parents will step in and “help” their offspring find a spouse, or the goal of having children may override good sense in selecting a husband. Even if someone is inclined towards the married state of life, this urgency can be a tremendous burden.
We have been blessed with a handful of friends and acquaintances who have either made promises or taken vows. Through them we can glimpse the blessings of their vocations. Recently we made the acquaintance of a Canossian sister. She dazzled us with her stories over lunch one day after mass. She spent nearly two decades in Africa doing missionary work and running a school. She spent another decade split between South America and Southeast Asia. At the age of 60, she is fit as can be and ready for the next adventure. Truly, her life has been both joyful and fruitful. Every time we talk about her- and we talk about her often- my twelve-year-old says, “she is so cool!”
I have other celibate friends whose lives have been more difficult. I see them suffer for a variety of reasons. The hardships of a vocation should not be hidden. However it is important to cast them in a useful light. Often I find that the best parts of marriage are compared to the worst parts of celibacy. Many of my married friends struggle as well. The reality is that many good fruits are born of struggle. The relative benefits and hardships of different ways of life is something that should be considered deeply. What is tolerable and what is ideal for one person will be different for the next.