A couple of years ago I was asked by a campus pastor at a local Catholic University if I would be willing to sit on a panel about vocation and represent the unmarried people who don’t feel called to celibacy. I said yes and was excited by the opportunity.
Now this is sort of funny but I was the only protestant in the room and perhaps the least educated. Ha! I was for sure the least educated person on the panel which included: the president of the university and his wife (married vocation – and they had been married for decades), a nun, a Jesuit Priest and a priest whose job it was to help students who felt they might be called to celibate ministry (becoming a priest or nun) discern that.
We went around and shared about our vocation/place in life. A lot of questions from the audience were centered around how you can figure out what you are supposed to do. Everyone on the panel was great – I was in very solid company and would gladly share a stage with any of them, any time.
But the person who stood out the most (and not just because we kept agreeing with each other) was the priest. This guy was unbelievably smart. He also had ways of explaining the call to full time celibate ministry that I had never really heard articulated before.
What he and I both immediately hit on is that the first decision you have to make is to follow Jesus. There is no close second.
The way he said it was great. He said essentially, “The first vow we all have to make is to Jesus – to be committed to Him. Then we can make a second vow – either to God to be in celibate ministry or to God and to another person.”
As I listened to this guy speak and essentially lead our time, I found myself over and over thinking a couple of things.
1. The students that go to see this guy are super fortunate. I don’t believe he would lead them to do anything out of an agenda. The man wanted to help people find their calling – whatever that was. I truly believe he would be one of the wisest people they could ever consult.
2. If you’re a protestant or lay person who feels called to celibacy, you are screwed. Because there is absolutely no help available. I mean zero. None. Nada. Nothing. Not even a whiff. You get the idea.
Look I know that not every priest is like this, far from it. Not even every priest in his sort of position is like him. I get that. But at least there’s a chance. At least there is some sort of process. There’s some sort of guidance.
The problem starts with the fact that nowhere growing up in the protestant church will you hear that there is even an option of celibacy. You might now and then hear someone mention it as they skip over it in the passages in Matthew 19 and 1st Corinthians 7 on the way to talk about marriage. Or worse they might misinterpret Paul and say that the singleness he’s talking about is seasonal.
So we start with almost no base knowledge at best and wrong information at worst. But if by some miracle you actually feel sort of called to it or have a conversation with a wise believer who teaches you something about it, there is no one to help you discern it.
Now if you are dating someone, we’ve got counsel out the wazoo. I mean we can counsel you how to date (or how to “court”).*** There is premarital counseling and about million books to choose from. Heck now-adays you can even go to pre-engagement counseling. If you’re married there is of course marital counseling – heck it’s pretty much a badge of honor in the church to have been to that counselor. Marriage is hard after all.
However if you are questioning your call to celibacy – good luck. There’s no pre-celibacy counseling. Unless of course you are struggling with same sex attraction – then we are all about it.
If somehow, on your own, you figure it out and begin to live that way, there’s no counseling or support for that either. Name the last time you heard someone honor a person who made that choice. Yeah I can’t think of a time either. So figure it out on your own, then do it alone. The thing is, the call to celibacy is not a call to being alone. But that is the way we’ve set it up.
Not only does this keep people from entering this vocation, it also could keep someone from marriage. If you don’t have a clear vision of the call to celibacy and what it is, how can you decide if you are called to it or not? If there are no models of it or no honoring of it – why would anyone even consider it?
Both marriage and celibacy demonstrate different things about the kingdom. Part of the reason we are losing on the marriage front is that we have completely punted on the celibacy front.**** Hear me clearly Protestant leader friends – You can not have a true theology of marriage without a right, well thought out, robust theology of celibacy.
Most of us aren’t called to this. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the vocation or those who are (or might be) called to it.
The bottom line is we need to stop reacting to our culture, take a breath, and start at the beginning.
***We offer very little to either sex about how to get a date, what is attractive or effective for finding a spouse. You are more likely to hear about waiting for the one and what not to do while waiting, than about how to go get a spouse.
****For an interesting read on the cost of this check out my internet friend John’s recent post. It’s an interesting take.