At the end of September, I travelled to celebrate the wedding of couple that I’ve known for a long time. After checking into the hotel the evening before the wedding after a long day of traveling, I went down to the bar to watch the end of the Eagles game. (I was not wearing my collar). The bar was pretty crowded but I found a table with a good view of a TV screen and sat down by myself to watch the game. After a while, a man came over, asked if another seat at the table was open and sat down. Between plays we engaged in small-talk. He was at the hotel with a bunch of business colleagues and sales representatives for a medical equipment company conference. After “where are you from?” “where did you go to college?”, “what did you study?”, and “what are you in town for?” comes the inevitable question, “what do you do?” I told him that I was in town for a wedding, and that I was celebrating the wedding for my friends. Yes. I am a priest, a Roman Catholic priest.” I’m sure that was not the answer he was expecting to hear. “Wow. Really? That’s cool.” The man, probably a few years older than me, went on to tell me he was not a Catholic but was married to a Catholic and was raising his children Catholic. He began to ask me basic questions about the parish, and then, perhaps due to the few beers he had already consumed and realizing it is not every day that you find yourself in a bar with a priest, he scoots up closer to me, looks me in the eyes, lowers his voice, and asks, “Man, how do you do the celibate thing?” He was totally sincere and respectful in his question. Until two minutes before, we were just two ordinary middle-aged men hanging out, watching a football game, and having a drink. He was fascinated by this aspect of the priesthood, and asked the honest question that most people want to ask. In other words, why would a normal guy choose to live that way? How is it possible? He wasn’t mocking me in any way. He really wanted to know. I tell this story because most of us have the same question also when it comes to the martyrs. We hear the account of the martyrdom of the seven brothers who chose to suffer torture and to die instead of denying their faith in God and violating God’s law. In the early church up to the present day, where Christians are persecuted, people are willing to die for their faith. We look at our own life and ask, “how is such sacrifice possible?” And wonder if we would choose Christ – i.e., keep the faith – under the same circumstances. The fourth of the Maccabee brothers explains it this way, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him.” They are ready to die because of their certainty that the Lord will raise them up to live again forever. They consider the sufferings as nothing compared to the life of the resurrection. Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage. They wonder how this is possible. The answer is the same for both a life of virginity and martyrdom. It is not a sacrifice done in the blind hope of the resurrection – I’m going to make this sacrifice now and God will reward me for my faithfulness. No. Rather, it is the foretaste of the resurrection – the fullness of life – that frees one to make the sacrifice. The sacrifice is the witness to the resurrection – a greater life that has entered this life. Celibacy is experienced first and foremost as a fullness and not as a sacrifice. God calls and God introduces a seed into life, an experience of living that makes you so full, so grateful, that you say, “I want this”, and this makes you free to give all your life. It is because of a fullness, not first of all because of a sacrifice, that one has the urge to give God everything. I didn’t choose this because I wanted a “higher” calling – that it is holier to be a priest. It is because one has experienced a fullness and doesn’t want to lose it for anything in the world that one can live this way. Virginity, like martyrdom, is usually not sought out by the person, but the person receives a surprising grace – an amazing grace – to which they say, “this is too beautiful not to follow it.” So celibacy, properly understood and lived, is not a suppression or cutting off of something natural but it is the response of someone who has experienced a foretaste of what our nature is ultimately geared toward and becomes a witness of it here and now. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” In heaven, there is no marriage like we know it on earth. We don’t want to think of virginity and martyrdom as the renunciation of something, but the entry into a deeper and more final possession of things – how we will possess things in heaven. The celibate and the martyr are signs that the kingdom of God is here. The act of martyrdom and the life of virginity would not be possible if the risen Christ were not present. That is what is so fascinating – they are signs or evidence that something beyond this life has entered this life.
I am friends with several members of a community of lay people who have taken vows of consecration. They are professional, well educated, people living here in the United States and living ordinary lives yet they have taken vows that they will not own anything, they will never have sex, and they will obey somebody – the head of the community – that they might not even like. A Jewish man, Dr. Robert Pollack, was an evolutionary biologist that worked at Columbia University. He became friends with the priest who was the chaplain to the house of these consecrated women. The priest invited Dr. Pollack to join the women for lunch one day, and he was overcome by what he witnessed. He said, “Now I know that there is a reality that exceeds what biology can do. The life of these women is, from an evolutionary point of view, impossible. Nature itself would not choose to live that way.” He saw something not of this world that was in the world. The person who lives virginity or becomes a martyr is not delusional – they are not clinging to a myth, but are responding to a grace – the grace of the resurrection that has entered their lives. It is because it is an experience of fullness that gives a window into heaven that virginity can be lived with happiness – that there is joy in the sacrifice. Please pray for priests and religious and all those who have taken vows of consecration. Please pray also for those who are enduring persecution for the faith. We need their witness in the world so that we have evidence of the age to come.