Celibacy can be a bit of a deal breaker. Ask any young Catholic man or woman, active in their faith, why they are not considering some form of consecrated life, and I can almost guarantee that celibacy is one of the reasons. “I really want to get married,” you might hear. From my own experience, this was the largest hurtle to jump.
But despite what many may think, including even those going through the discernment process, I don’t believe that the problem is abstinence from sex (at least not entirely). Believe it or not, there are still many young people in this world who have not discarded chastity for the loose sexuality embraced by popular culture. (It’s not what you hear on t.v. or see in the movies, but it’s still out there, trust me!) And yet, of those who have held on to or readopted this unpopular virtue, there is an even smaller minority of people wishing to do so in the form of consecrated life. Why is this?
The reason has everything to do with intimacy, or rather, the perceived lack of intimacy in religious life. When I look back to the time when I used “I really wanted to get married” as an excuse, I believe what I was really saying was, “I really want someone to share my life with.” For much of my life, I saw marriage as the only way to do this. When I looked at the priests and religious I knew (which was only a few), all I saw were people growing in age, living alone, and frankly, looking either miserable or lonely. From this narrow experience I concluded that it must take the type of holy person that is willing to sacrifice any chance of intimacy for the sake of a worthwhile ministry, and I knew that I was not that holy person.
The first step in my transformative move toward religious life was a painful, yet inevitable one: I matured. As I grew older and developed emotionally, I began to form relationships that were much more meaningful than being “just friends” while being wholly different from my romantic partners. I had begun to realize that intimacy was much more than just romance. For an adult, this is painstakingly obvious. But for me, the realization that I could be fulfilled and sustained emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and even physically (in a different way of course) from something other than an exclusive, romantic relationship, meant that I didn’t need to get married to have all of my needs met. It was not until this realization did the prospect of entering religious life even deserve my attention.
At some point, however, it did, and I was forced on an excruciating journey of heart and soul that tore me into pieces for many months. Can I do that sort of work? What about my girlfriend? Do I want children? Which community? Have I lived enough to know? Little by little I grew more comfortable with idea, developed a fondess for St. Francis and became to accept almost every aspect of Franciscan life. I could do that.
There remained one final question: were these specific guys, the members of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name Province, guys that I wanted to share my life with? It’s one thing to understand and to like the idea of fraternity in the way St. Francis instituted it, but another thing entirely to live it with actual people. I was convinced that religious life could fulfill me in the way I sought. But would it?
The long and short of it is a resounding yes. As I’ve come to know many of the men in this province over the past five years, I have felt a distinct growth in many of them from mere acquaintances, to familiar friends, to something potentially much more. While I’m growing to understand each member as a brother owed my unconditional love and respect, I have nonetheless grown close to a few in a very spectacular way. I find myself catching glimpses of an intimacy with my brothers that is to come, fulfilling and sustaining me for whatever lies in the road ahead.
It may be true that I will never be fulfilled in such a physical way that a wife could provide: I am never going to have sex. Frankly, I’ll survive without it. But when I begin to look at celibacy through the lens I’ve described above, the abstinence from sex no longer appears to me as a restriction to be followed or a sacrifice to be endured; rather, it is the freedom, and the call to love more broadly than would ever be possible while vowed to just one person. I know that I feel called to this life, and that it is a life to share.