One Man's Vocation

My 59 years as a celibate

On a spring day in 1944, two seminarians chatted about ordination to the diaconate with its commitment to celibacy, scheduled for the following morning in the seminary chapel. I remarked, “For heaven’s sake, John, if you can take the step, I certainly can.” John’s response was unnerving: “Well, Harry, I have news for you. I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m out of here.” I was the one who stayed, however much I questioned the rule of celibacy. I felt called to priestly ministry and trusted, perhaps naively, in the assurances of church authorities that celibacy enhanced one’s spiritual life and ministry.

Now at age eighty-three, after fifty-nine years of a happy and exciting priesthood, my early questioning of celibacy has been confirmed. Rather than an enhancement, celibacy has been more of a distraction. Unmarried, the priest ideally can give more of himself and his time to ministry, but it does not always work out that way. Compensations easily insinuate themselves-golf, tennis, bridge, social activities, hobbies-and make disproportionate demands on the time and energy said to derive from celibacy. Without a high-octane spiritual life, other less acceptable activities can come into play: drinking, race tracks, casinos. As a form of asceticism, celibacy’s heroic demands are more at home with a hermit in the desert or a monk in a monastery than with a priest ministering in today’s highly charged sexual atmosphere....

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About the Author

Msgr. Harry J. Byrne is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.