Editor’s note: This article is taken from a book of conferences given to priests and seminarians in the 1940s and ’50s. As a layman, I find it fascinating to listen in on a wise, older priest instructing other priests on the whys and hows of priestly celibacy. Canon Ripley’s words have never been more relevant than they are today.
One of the commonest questions of non-Catholics is, “Why don’t priests marry?” It is wrong to give merely utilitarian reasons as an answer—for example, that a priest has to visit infectious disease hospitals, and if he were married he might bring home the germs to his wife and children. Paul gives us the correct and main reason: “He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord how he may please God,” and, “The virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32).
We freely took the solemn vow of chastity because we wanted to be other Christs, men of God. Possibly it was at that time, when we were so young, just one of the incidental sacrifices on the way to the priesthood. It may be good now to deliberately renew and ratify our vow in order to gain the maximum merit from it.
We are other Christs. He was a virgin when he could legitimately have married. He chose deliberately to be born of a virgin. He permitted his enemies to accuse him of many things but never once was a word allowed against his personal chastity. Read the eight beatitudes and you find that one is rewarded with the direct vision of God: “Blessed are the clean of heart, they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Our Lord himself recommended celibacy: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the kingdom of heaven; he that can take it let him take it” (Matt. 19:12).
The inspired word of God is full of the praises of chastity. It is encouraging for us priests to think about that from time to time. Recall the words of Wisdom. “How beautiful is the chaste generation with glory, for the memory thereof is immortal. . . . It triumpheth, crowned for ever, winning the reward of undefiled conflicts” (Wis. 4:1). Or the Psalms: “The Lord knoweth the days of the undefiled and their inheritance shall be for ever” (Ps. 36:18). Or again, Proverbs: “Evil thoughts are an abomination to the Lord and pure words most beautiful shall be confirmed by him. . . . He that loveth cleanness of heart shall have the King for his friend” (Prov. 15:26). Ecclesiasticus tells us, “No price is worthy of a continent soul” (Eccl. 26:20). And in the Book of Judith we have these lovely words: “Thou hast done manfully and thy heart hath been strengthened because thou hast loved chastity; therefore also the hand of the Lord hath strengthened thee and thou shalt be blessed for ever” (Jud. 15:11).
Paul is, of course, most insistent: “I beseech you, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God” (Rom. 12:1). Chastity is that means of sacrifice for us priests. Daily we handle Christ, the infinite Victim. At our ordination we were told, Imitamini quod tractatis. We imitate the victim on the altar by the acceptance in the spirit of sacrifice of the obligation of celibacy.
“Carry the mortification of Christ about with us in our bodies,” says Paul again. The faithful observance of the obligation of celibacy is one of the ways we do that. To Timothy, the great apostle wrote: “Be an example to the faithful in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in chastity” (1 Tim. 4:12); and “keep thyself chaste” (1 Tim. 5:22).
To John, the beloved, the chaste were those who “follow the lamb whithersoever he goeth” (Rev. 14:4). Our Lord himself promises us the reward in those unforgettable words, “There is none that hath left house or brethren or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for my name’s sake who shall not receive a hundredfold in this time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Matt. 19:29). The affection of our people who know what we have given up is the reward here upon earth. Of course we must keep the sixth and ninth commandments or damn our souls. If we fail and fall into sin, we have the added guilt of sacrilege.
It is by our chastity particularly that we show our opposition to the modern world. That great man Pope Pius XI in one of his encyclicals remarked in the early 1930s that the world was worse than at any time since the deluge. What would he say if he were still alive today? The commonest sin, I suppose, is unchastity in one form or another. It may be birth prevention, divorce and remarriage, fornication before marriage, solitary sin, experimenting with the opposite sex, and so on. But it is there. The sense of shame has gone. It is no longer regarded as evil in the sight of God. We are familiar with the exhibitionism that has become almost an accepted thing in modern life.
We priests are sent with our chastity into this unchaste world. It jeers at us, thinks the burden is impossible and says so. We reply, “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). We must believe that we can overcome every temptation. As Paul says, “God is faithful and will not suffer you to be tempted beyond that which you are able but will with temptation make issue that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). His grace is always there. It is worth any sacrifice to stand before Christ and the world as other Christs.
Unfortunately, there have been tragedies. I remember meeting the heartbroken mother of a priest who had attempted marriage. I shall never forget the way in which she reproached herself for having, as she said, urged him imprudently to become a priest. Some priests, sad to say, have led others into sin. One has even heard of them offering the sacrifice of the Mass on the morning of an attempted marriage. There are many stages between that complete infidelity and perfect virtue. The only safeguard is to keep our ideals on the highest possible level as other Christs, men of God and victims of our priesthood. We should put our chastity in the chalice at Mass, recalling the example of our friend: “He loved me and delivered himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
What an absolute contradiction the unchaste priest is! What he does, sin does; where he goes, sin goes; what he says, sin says. With sinful hands he touches Christ. With sinful hands he anoints, absolves, and blesses. One of the main reasons why our people revere us so, far more than the laity of other religions revere their ministers, is because of our chastity. They know and understand what it means and the sacrifice it has entailed. Would they be shocked if they could see us as God sees us or if they knew how low we have made our ideals?
Chastity is never a mere negative virtue or just a system of defenses. It should increase with the passage of the years of our priestly life. It is Christ-likeness. It means being alive to the opportunities of increasing our virtue and of conquering ourselves. We should look forward to that prospect. We should be proud of our purity for Christ’s sake, because it makes us like him and his blessed mother, priests after his own pure heart. We should be optimistic about it too, because God wants us to succeed. Christ is with us in our struggles. Mary helps us by her prayers; so do the saints. Special graces are ours for the asking because our chastity is imposed upon us as an obligation by the Church.
Unchastity is like a flame and flames require fuel. Therefore we must withhold the fuel of unchastity by constantly guarding our minds and particularly our eyes. Let us beware of such sentiments as, “Oh, it does me no harm”; “I must know the world”; “I am a priest; I can do what others can’t”; “Be human.” The devil wants especially the fall of priests and so he is continually saying to us, “Go to the cinema, read those suggestive novels; you must relax; you owe it to your good people to visit them; go where you will be comfortable, where you are always welcome; go to the people who are so good to the church; that young girl needs your help and spiritual direction.” Idleness is one of the main sources of difficulties against chastity; the wise priest will be on his guard against it. He will keep himself busy. He will not lie on in bed after he is awake.
There is an old principle that can never be observed literally. Numquam solus cum sola. It is a principle like teetotalism concerning drink. It is impossible to keep it literally; we have to meet women in our work, including women who are young, beautiful, and attractive. It is foolish to think that we are immune to their appeal. We should be on our guard and at least have the practical rule: “No touch.” “He that thinketh himself to stand let him take heed lest he fall”; “he that loveth the danger shall perish therein” (Eccl. 3:27). The devil rarely tempts immediately. His philosophy is that of many another: “Give this fellow enough rope, and he will eventually hang himself.”
In these days special danger is attached to television whether from the programs themselves, which are often unsuitable for priests, or from the company in which we may have to watch it in the dark. There may be danger too in the instructing of converts, in giving spiritual direction. We follow our Lord’s advice: “Watch ye and pray that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt. 26:41).
If there are signs that a friendship is too natural or over-sentimental, it must be broken off. Such signs might be, for example, taking undue liberties, receiving gifts, day-dreaming, liking to spend time in her company, being distracted in prayer. It may be fatal to delay under such circumstances. Sometimes extreme measures are needed; it may be advisable or even necessary to ask the bishop for a move to another parish.
Directly concerned with unchastity is another form of intemperance—excessive drinking. It is highly foolish and may be criminally expensive. When parish funds are concerned it may even be against justice. It is dangerous and may lead to grave scandal. Many of the falls from the priesthood, especially in recent times, have been due to overindulgence in alcoholic liquor. Apart from anything else we priests should live frugally. Our people do not put their coins in the plate to be frittered away on spirits at present-day prices. It is far better to err on the side of strictness than laxity in this matter.
A priest must be particularly frank with his confessor. Regular frequent confession is imposed upon us by the code of canon law. It should not be a matter of routine. Time and care must be taken over our act of contrition, in considering the motives for sorrow and our firm purpose of amendment. We will choose a wise and prudent confessor, not just going to our friend round the corner. It may be our duty to be absolutely firm when hearing the confessions of our fellow priests, even to the extent of denying or postponing absolution under certain circumstances. Bad confessions are, of course, the height of foolishness. Everything must be straightened up later on; it is so much harder when the extra guilt of the sacrilege has to be told. Lack of candor always leads to worry afterward.
The best way to keep pure is devotion to priestly work. “Idleness has taught much evil” (Eccl. 33:29). When we are not engaged in useful work, what are we doing? Do we think of offering up such temptations against purity as we have as crosses for the salvation of souls or to help those of our people who come to us for guidance in that particular matter?
Penance is the indispensable safeguard of chastity. Says Paul, “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection lest having preached to others I myself should become a castaway” (1 Cor. 9:27). “If any man will come after me,” says our Lord, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). And elsewhere, “Unless you do penance you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3); “Whosoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). There is not a saint in the calendar who has not practiced some kind of bodily mortification. Of course, it must be prudent. Normally, it should be done with the advice of a director. But it must be there.
At Lourdes we see many people making the stony way of the cross in their bare feet, or reciting the rosary with their arms outstretched at the grotto. This latter is well within the compass of every priest in the privacy of his room. It may be a wise penance to go to bed early and a better one to get up promptly and early. The very disciplining of our affections and care in choosing the houses we visit may be another form of useful mortification.
Says Francis de Sales, ever so wisely, “We imagine we love people for God’s sake when we really love them for the sake of the pleasure we experience in their company.” The love of a priest is for God. He loves other things only in God. If he is as zealous in his work as the Church and Christ expect him to be, then he will most certainly carry his cross. The end of every day will find him a tired man. If he is not tired, he can take it as certain that that day has not been spent as well as it should have been.
The complete enmity between Mary and Satan should be a consolation to us in our fight against impurity. Consecration to her immaculate heart will help us enormously if we try to live in the spirit of it. Our prayer to her should be fervent and frequent. On all her major feasts we should renew the complete donation of ourselves to her. The devil will flee from us if he sees that we are hers, trying to live in her spirit and determined to emulate her complete opposition to the slightest stain of sin.