Priestly Celibacy
Christ's Gift to the World

Chapter 5: The Celibate Priest - His Prayer Has Power

Spiritual fruitfulness is the third essential reason given by the Pope for clerical celibacy in his July 17, 1993 address. He cites the passage of 1 Cor 4:15 in which Paul writes: "Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel." Paul takes pride in recalling that by preaching the gospel he became a father.

"I am the true vine," said Christ during a very intimate table exchange a the Last Supper; He was speaking to the Twelve, (or eleven?) who were about to be ordained priests: "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples" Jn 15:7-8). The spiritual power of priests is one of the great mysteries in the Church.

John Zonaras, a Byzantine canonist of the 12th century, observed that the extraordinary power of a priest's prayer is connected with his faithfulness in virtue:

(If priests are virtuous and) converse in full trust with God, THEY WILL OBTAIN RIGHT AWAY ALL THAT THEY ARE ASKING FOR (emphasis mine); quoted by Christian Cochini in, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, p. 7).

Eli, Priest, Supports Hannah's Prayer

The bible demonstrates the extraordinary power of prayer when the priest joins his official intercession to that of a lay petitioner. Hannah, until then barren, came to the temple in Jerusalem to pray for a son. She used many words. The priest Eli found her and gave a simple blessing: "Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him" (1 Sam 1:17). Her outpouring of prayer, combined with his simple petition, brought from God a generous response: "In the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son" (1 Sam 1:20). The bible is telling us, I believe, that the earnest prayer of every person, when seconded by a priest, gets a hearing in heaven.

The Faithful Rally Around Their Pastors

Strong believers instinctively seek to have a priest for Sunday Mass. In 1872, when German Catholic families began to settle on the prairies of Sumner Township in southwestern Iowa they kept one thing in mind: a priest for Mass. Some of the old-timers once related to me how the real estate agents, first Anton Kettler and then Emil Flusche, set aside the best piece of land in the Township to become the site of the future parish. They bought land for five dollars an acre (!), of which two dollars went to the owner which was the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railway Company; two dollars went to the agency; and one dollar was for a church fund.

Father John Kemper rode in to celebrate the first Mass in the area, on May 29, 1873. He travelled by horseback from Council Bluffs, about 50 miles distant, fording streams and pushing his way through the tall and rank prairie grass. Fr. J.A. Weber became the resident pastor in 1880, and rallied the 300 Catholic families to build the graceful St. Boniface Church with its tall spire, completed in November 1882. Two resonant bells, one sounding a somber low tone, one a brilliant treble, rang out the Angeles message morning, noon, and evening; but at the funeral processions, only the somber monotone of the lesser bell sounded.

During 1880-1885 an average of 87 infants were baptized each year. Families were mostly large, some having 10, 12, even 14 children. Westphalia parish life was the central fulcrum of the believing community, and all major events were duly registered with the pastor, who mediated them from his heart to the people. The School Sisters of St. Francis, beloved in the parish, educated the children and made parish life their first care. (For some of this I am indebted by the Centennial booklet History of Westphalia 1872-1972 edited by my brother Bernard Zimmerman.)

Have the faithful not always shown outstanding regard for their priests and pastors down through the centuries? Who was it that inspired Catholic families to build the graceful churches with soaring spires in so many villages throughout rural America? Was it not usually a priest in the area, whom the people trusted, who was their leader in worship, who gave deep spiritual meaning to their lives? How did the great church edifices on city blocks arise, if not because a priest rallied the people to build a house of God? How, in fact, did the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception evolve its great and spacious nave, its soaring belfry, its vaulted dome and impressive mosaic of Christ the Pantokrator, if not because priests had zeal in themselves who could inspire the people to do this for the Lord? And how did the great Cathedrals of Cologne and Aachen and Paris and Rome and Constantinople arise, if not ultimately because priests inspired the people to do this for the Lord?

The priest, without a family of his own, quite naturally receives the trust of a much larger parish family. As Christ promised to his first priests-to-be:

Truly I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come, eternal life (Lk 18:29-30).

(Or in the version of Mark): There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).

We reflect that it was not we who first made the parish priest to be a father figure in the community: it was Christ who foretold this to the first priests, who also modeled for them the life of celibacy, who showed them how to give their entire love to the Church.

Outstanding witness of the antiquity of belief in the power of the prayer of celibate priests has come down to us in a celebrated record of an episcopal conference in North Africa in the year 390, over 1600 years ago. The conference had previously discussed celibacy and now formulated a resolution. We assume that at least some of the bishops at this conference in Carthage had wives and children at home, since it was then a practice of the Church to ordain married men as well as unmarried. Those who were married at the time of ordination had presumably made the promise to henceforth abstain from sexual intercourse with their wives. They themselves trace the tradition of clerical celibacy back to the apostles, as they state in the document.

Why celibacy, they ask in this document. Their response is that people expect them to be celibate because this adds efficacy to priestly prayers; and because clerical celibacy is a tradition they have received from antiquity, one started by the apostles:

Epigonius, Bishop of the area of Bulla, said: Whereas the rule of continence and chastity has been discussed in a previous council, we ought to spell out clearly which three groups are obliged by the restrictions of chastity by reason of their consecration; namely, that a bishop, a presbyter, and a deacon should safeguard chastity.

Bishop Genethlius [chairman] said: As was stated above, it is fitting that the sacred bishops and the priests of God as well as the Levites - those who are in the service of the divine sacraments - should be completely continent, so that they can request of God with simplicity what they pray for; and let us ourselves observe what the apostles taught, which has been the practice from antiquity (Cochini, 5).

All the bishops said: We agree unanimously that a bishop, a priest, and a deacon - guardians of chastity - should abstain also from their wives; that chastity be observed completely and by all who serve at the altar (Corpus Christianorum 149, p. 13; translated from Latin by the author; see also Cochini p. 7).

We see how completely convinced the Bishops of Carthage were that perfect chastity makes the prayer of the priest efficacious. "Without chastity," comments Fr. Cochini on the passage, "the minister would lack an essential quality when presenting to God the petitions of his human brothers and would thus deprive himself of freedom of speech. With it he enters into very `simple' communication with the Lord, with a guarantee" namely, that the prayers will be granted (Cochini, p. 6).

My father used to say: "When a priest prays at Mass that prayer pierces the clouds and enters heaven." He had heard this at a sermon and never forgot. He had utter confidence that God listens when priests pray, especially at Mass. If rain failed in the summer, and the corn crop was threatened, he inevitably went to the priest to offer a stipend for a Mass for rain. When the pastor announced the date for the Mass, farmers of the parish almost expected it to rain. And often it did.

The Prayers of Priests Save The World

We don't know here on earth how much we really owe to the prayers of faithful priests. We may think it is the President who keeps us out of war, and that the innate goodness of people prevents spiritual decadence in the world. But Paul's words to Timothy suggest that priests have a great deal to do with obtaining peace and good government at all times:

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and godly and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Tim 2:1).

Do we have peace in our land for the most part? It is largely because faithful priests are praying with the people for peace. Do we have permissive abortion laws? And rampant contraception, divorce, pedophilia? Priests are not observing chastity as they should, not offering their prayers in all simplicity, and we all suffer from this. Is nuclear war avoided, and is the end of the world postponed? Priests, faithful to chastity and prayer, persuade God to experiment yet longer with our race; to postpone the day of the last judgment when this world will close shop with a final roll of thunder.

Next Page: Chapter 6: Christ Appropriately Chose Not To Marry
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