Seminarians Say, `We Want Celibacy'

WASHINGTON — At least 269 seminarians from eight U.S. seminaries have sent a letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory saying they support the Church's celibacy requirement.

The seminarians are responding to letter-writing campaigns by groups of priests that have generated media attention on the issue of priestly celibacy.

The first letter, signed by 163 priests of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, was addressed to Bishop Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and asked the nation's bishops to consider optional celibacy.

Two seminarians at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. — Franz Klein of LaCrosse, Wis., and Gary Kasel of St. Paul — began a petition campaign of their own, saying, “Speak for yourself.”

“Seminarians feel very strongly about this, and people don't know we feel this way. Many people are losing hope in the future of the Church,” Klein said. “But we said, ‘Hold on a minute. We're the future of the Church.’”

“We are writing today to affirm our support for Holy Mother Church's teaching on the place of celibacy in the priesthood,” their letter stated. It cited the Holy Father's 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) on the total and exclusive manner in which Christ loved the Church as his spouse.

“We to whom the precious gift of divine grace to live as celibates has been given yearn with all our hearts to offer this celibacy up to the Lord with undivided hearts, at the service of his Church.” It concluded with the hope that they will soon be serving the faithful through the grace celibacy will give them.

“There is great support among seminarians for this teaching,” Klein said. “It has a lot to do with formations being consistent with Church teaching on Catholic doctrine and the sacraments, and our formation has been incredible and has only solidified my views.”

As Christ Loves

One of the three Milwaukee-area priests behind the letter that put the debate in motion said they don't doubt the value of celibacy.

“Our issue is the mandatory part,” argued Father Tom Suriano, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Whitewater, Wis. “We are running out of priests, which is the unintended consequence of the belief in protecting celibacy. How are we going to keep Eucharist going in a meaningful way in the future? Maintaining a viable, live Eucharistic community is more important than protecting celibacy.”

But priests in the Arlington, Va., Diocese who signed a letter to Bishop Gregory supporting the Church's requirement of celibacy felt otherwise.

“Common sense and historical experience indicate that reducing the demands of the priesthood will not increase vocations, because lessening sacrifice never inspires men to offer their lives to Christ,” they said. “In times of crisis, the wisdom and instinct of the Church have always been to respond with greater sacrifice, not less. What will inspire more vocations is celibacy lived well, not celibacy set aside.”

Leaders of Protestant churches also have worried about a shortage in their ranks of married clergy for the past several years. The nation's largest Jewish denomination also reports a shortage of rabbis.

Not Academic

Father William Baer, rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, noted that seminarians today understand that their celibacy, like Christ's, is a higher form of love, and embrace it.

“This is not an academic issue for seminarians, but a gift of the Church and the priesthood which has an enormous impact on their lives,” said Father Baer. “It gives you a relative freedom and availability. It enables you to be Christ to your parish in ways that no Protestant minister can. You understand through prayer and discernment the tremendous importance of holiness in the life of a priest, of being the icon of Christ.”

Father John DeCelles, one of the initiators of the Arlington, Va., letter, noted why.

“Men want to commit themselves to something. They want to make a sacrifice. Real men are attracted to that,” he said. “The priesthood in that way is like the Marines, the Special Forces. The right guys will throw themselves at that.”

Father Carter Griffin, who was ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., May 29, made just as strong a point in his article “A New Breed of Seminarians” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, October 2000).

“It is time for the seminarians themselves to weigh in,” he wrote. “My brothers and I have been surgeons, schoolteachers, health-care professionals … lawyers, architects and military officers. … We have seen the world from the inside and have made an unsentimental assessment of its condition. … To suggest that they are in retreat from the world is like suggesting that Patton's Third Army fled Sicily.”

New Petitions

While a lay-led effort in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese supporting optional celibacy hoped to deliver 12,000 signatures to Bishop Gregory on Pentecost (May 30) and a similar initiative by the group FutureChurch was collecting signatures in time for a Corpus Christi petition June 13, Father DeCelles insisted: “People aren't going to change this with petitions. This is the will of God.”

The seminarians of St. John Vianney and their brothers across the country who fixed signatures to their petition embracing celibacy believe that.

“We hear so often from visiting priests that the tide has turned and that seminary life is so much better now than it was just 10 years ago,” seminarian Franz Klein said. “Some people may be stuck back in the ’60s or ’70s, and they may have more friction. But the guys in seminary here, and other places I know, have discovered the Catholic faith, have usually had conversion experiences and have the idea that they carry the responsibility to help Christ restore things to their rightful place. When the pendulum swings out far, it swings back equally.”

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas writes from Elmhurst, Illinois.