Consecrated Hearts - On Priesthood

“The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role in the Celibate Priest’s Spousal and Paternal Love”
Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D.



I wrote this article more on my knees than at my desk. It began with jottings from mental prayer over the past year. When I finally sat down to assemble them into a coherent whole, I had a pile of Post-It notes and scribblings on the last pages of Magnificat issues – a collection of my own pensées. This article is entitled, “The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role in the Celibate Priest’s Spousal and Paternal Love.” [2] I will argue in the following pages that Our Lady plays an essential and indispensable role in the development of the priest’s masculinity, especially its spousal and paternal dimensions, and the manner that masculinity is lived out in celibate love.[3] In other words, I want to show how Our Lady helps the priest become a husband and father as a celibate and thus come to fulfillment as a man.

The Recent Challenges and the Perennial Condition

I offer this reflection in the here and now of the 21st century Catholic Church in America, institutionally still reeling, I suspect, from the revelations of clerical misconduct that have shamed us, exposed us to ridicule and derision, and have also called us to accountability. However, one easily overlooked dimension of the recent challenge we have faced is the departure from active ministry of those who are called “JPII priests” (John Paul II priests). After we thought the 60s, 70s and 80s were over, we have had a discouraging repeat of attrition of priests from active ministry. I have known several of them who have subsequently attempted marriage, or suffered alcohol and drug problems. These are not dissenting priests. These “JPII priests” are committed to the Church and the priesthood and espouse the orthodox faith and the Church’s disciplines, including clerical celibacy.

Why is this happening? One obvious answer is that intellectual orthodoxy, while necessary, is not sufficient for perseverance in the priesthood in these times. Another obvious answer is to place much blame on the culture and the state of family life. Many of these men who have come unmoored in their vocations have suffered from the effects of our culture of divorce, abuse, materialism and sexual license.  A third answer is the deplorable example for many men given by their own fathers, who teach through their own behavior that to be a man means sexual conquest. A man, in this view, does not need to take responsibility for his actions, and is responsible to no one. Young men come to prepare for the priesthood with much more relational brokenness than in previous generations. I believe these answers are true, but do not go deep enough.

Perhaps more subtly considered the “JPII priest” attrition is simply a recent example of the perennial struggle for the celibate priest in his affectivity and relationships, in his heart and most especially in his spousal and paternal love. To put it simply, how are all those natural desires—including erotic desires—to be a husband and father supposed to function in the priest’s free promise of celibacy? The answer that some ex-priests in the 1970s offered was that those desires have no place in celibacy and therefore the discipline of celibacy should change. The argument was that the discipline of celibacy prevented a man from fully developing as a man. When it was perceived that the Church would not change the discipline, they left. But this answer is too superficial for the deep mystery that is the celibate priesthood. Nevertheless the clash is felt deeply in the heart of a man called to celibacy in the priesthood. The gap appears not in the alignment of one’s intellect to the truth of priestly celibacy, but how this truth of priestly celibacy becomes enfleshed in the priest’s heart and in his relationships as a man.

Pope Benedict has given us an initial stab at the challenge in Deus caritas est in his treatment of the relationship between eros and agape and the transformation of disordered eros into an ordered eros that provides the vitality for agape love.[4] In the case of the celibate priest, it is the transformation of his disordered eros into a truly spousal and paternal love that is expressed in his celibate agape. Can this happen? I think we would all say, Yes. But how does this happen? There is nothing automatic about it, and there are many potential pitfalls. Careerism, illicit relationships, alcoholism, drug abuse, exotic vacations, collections of various kinds, pornography and the flight into television and the Internet are simply inadequate ways of grappling with a mystery that lies, I would argue, at the very heart of the priesthood, and which we will explore in a moment. Because of our fallen nature, there is need for a deep healing of eros in the heart of every man. I suggest that we are still coming to terms with this challenge in our human and spiritual formation programs, and are only beginning to come literally to the heart of the matter. I propose that Our Lady plays an indispensable role in the transformation of the priest’s masculinity, and the foundation for all that is said in this article lies in the important work of John Paul II in his Theology of the Body and Benedict XVI in Deus caritas est.

The Four Major Dimensions of Priestly Masculinity and Feminine Complementarity

Being a man involves a set of four basic relationships, which comprise the four basic dimensions of his masculinity. Through these four basic relationships a man develops, matures and attains to male fulfillment. Each dimension is important for his development in becoming an integral man and thus being able to become a holy and effective priest. As Pope John Paul II taught, the priest’s human personality is at the very heart of a fruitful priesthood; it is the human bridge that connects others with Jesus Christ.[5] These four relational dimensions of manhood are son, brother, husband and father. The first two dimensions (son and brother) are necessary preparations for manhood and the last two (husband and father) bring about the fulfillment of manhood. In other words, a man must be a good son, then a good brother, then a good husband and then a good father to become a good man and attain his fulfillment as man. All four together are necessary to attain mature manhood, and never is any dimension left behind. To be a good father a man still needs to be a good son, if possible to his earthly father, and surely to his heavenly Father, with Whom he should live in a relationship of divine filiation. Each relationship, nevertheless, brings its own peculiarity and focus. We know as well that in this broken world, not every man has healthy relationships with parents and siblings. Nevertheless, we can talk about these dimensions even if they do not always function well in this life. Much could be said about each dimension; for the purposes of our discussion we will focus on the final two dimensions as lived out in the celibate priesthood.

According to the theological anthropology revealed in Holy Scripture (primarily Gen. 1-3, Mt. 19:3-12, Eph. 5:21-33) especially as interpreted and developed by John Paul II, man is in an essential, indispensable relationship with woman. They are equal in dignity, both made in the image and likeness of God, and complementary in mission. Being made in the divine image, both were made for self-giving love. God alone fulfills a man, yet the Lord has willed that this fulfillment happen through a man’s relationship with woman.[6] This is to say, man cannot attain mature manhood without the help of woman and vice versa. Adam’s solitude (Gen 2:20) taught him that he cannot attain fulfillment by himself; we could also say that he cannot do it in relationship only with other men. In the same way woman cannot attain her fulfillment alone or only with other women, but only through the complementary relationship with man.

A corollary to this truth of male-female complementarity is that we must reject false philosophical anthropologies often implicit in the psychological sciences (and that sometimes surface in our human formation programs), most especially Freud’s idea that every human person is bi-sexual, a hermaphrodite, containing both male and female within himself. This idea, which Freud never substantiates but considers part of his “metapsychology” (a mythic presupposition), is perpetuated today by the gay and transgender movements in this country. Biblical revelation and even DNA say otherwise. A man is man from his image of God all the way down to his very chromosomes; a woman is woman from her image of God all the way down to her very chromosomes. The truth is that human beings were made for relationship, made to come out of themselves and develop as a man or woman through a complementarity that lies outside of themselves. Man and woman were made for each other so that each would help the other to attain fulfillment in his or her nature. Thus the ideal in any psychological healing is not to try to recover some primal monadic, hermaphroditic existence, but to cast oneself forward, outside of oneself in love, and this can only happen in relationships – for man and woman with God and man and woman with each other.

Through this essential and complementary relationship with woman, a man in the natural order can grow in his four dimensions as son, brother, husband and father in order to attain full maturity. A son has a mother, a brother hopefully has sisters and brothers, a husband has a wife and together they become father and mother. In the order of nature, we can begin to see the importance of women in the development of the priest as a man: his mother and his sisters help to lead him into maturity as a good son and brother. A man’s relationship with his mother begins in utero where as son he begins to become attuned to his mother, her heartbeat, her bodily processes, her movements, her emotions; we could say even her soul. In infancy, it is hoped, at some point the mother’s smile awakens him to self-consciousness. Her smile gives him his awareness in the midst of her feminine love that he is a unique person. The beauty, goodness, and truth evinced in the mother’s smile awakens in the child an awareness of the beauty, goodness, and truth of the world, and by analogy, of God.[7] Psychiatry and neurobiology describe this as a process of “secure (healthy) attachment,” a subtle attunement between mother and child which is essential for normal brain and psychological development, as well as normal spiritual development, especially in those crucial first five years of life. This relationship continues in childhood where a boy continues to learn how to be a son and eventually a brother. In all of this development the mother’s (and sisters’) role is neither as an object to be used, nor as being overprotective or cultivating a “womanish” affect in her son – all of which would be a collapsing of the masculine-feminine complementarity.  The healthy son or brother does not identify with the mother or sister in such a way that he imitates her femininity (e.g., in imitating effeminate characteristics himself); rather, he relates to her as truly an “other” with whom he, in his masculinity, can relate through a process of complementary, self-giving love.

A man’s mother is his primal relationship to the feminine out of which he grows in all his relationships with women. Of course his father and brothers, if he has them, have essential roles as well, especially in how his father treats his mother. In his father, a man finds the primary masculine response to feminine complementarity; the father hopefully confirms it: cherishing his wife, loving her, and giving himself over to her. A mother also prepares her son for his wife.

In marriage, a man’s wife changes him. He practices giving himself in love to her. He allows himself to be determined by her. He must attune himself to her, and she engages his heart and helps to develop his eros into agape love. As a man, he desires to protect her, to provide for her, to give her children, to do mighty deeds for her, to cherish her and shower his affection upon her. Of course this describes something ideal, and does not automatically happen in marriage. But the reader can see what I mean.

The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Role in the Celibate Priest’s attainment as Husband and Father

In the life of grace, we immediately grasp Our Lady’s role in helping a man be a good son. As the archetype of Mother Church she gives birth to him and nurtures him through grace. She plays an essential feminine role in leading him to relate to the Father, her Incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit. She teaches her sons about trust, surrender, and the acceptance of weakness and poverty without self-hatred. She cultivates in her sons the spirit of childhood. But what about the last two dimensions for the celibate priest? In the natural order, a man’s wife helps him develop into a husband and father. I suggest that in the order of grace, the Blessed Virgin Mary assumes this role in a very real, though nuanced way.

When it comes to developing the spousal and fatherly dimensions of his masculinity, we cannot help but see the Freudian in the audience raise his hand in objection that the idea that the Blessed Virgin Mary helps bring about the celibate priest’s fulfillment as husband and father is simply rife with Oedipal “stuff”.  I think our response to such an objection begins with the distinction between the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Church; she is a type of the Church, in fact, she is the archetype of the Church. Mary is not the spouse of the celibate priest as the Church is. Our Lady is the spouse of the Holy Spirit, not her Incarnate Son. There is nothing Oedipal going on here if we understand the relationships correctly, and understand them in symbolic and spiritual terms and not in a crude, literal way. Moreover, we cannot forget that the concrete form of the priest’ spousal love is a celibate love.

With this distinction, allow me to be a bit provocative. Our Lady herself, in a very concrete way, brings a celibate priest into his spiritual marriage with the Church and his spiritual paternity as he participates in Christ’s spousal relationship to the Church. She engages him deeply in his masculine heart, even in his eros, with her feminine love to bring about this transformation in her priest from a disordered eros to an ordered eros and celibate agape.

The Central Mystery: The Cross

This complementary engagement of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s feminine love with the priest’s masculine love happens within the central mystery of the priesthood: the Cross, and specifically in the scene of Our Lady and St. John at the foot of the Cross. Call to your imagination the scene: there is Our Lord nailed to the Cross, bloodied and broken in His passion. At the foot of the Cross, we find Our Lady and the only priest who stood with Our Lord eis telos (Jn. 13:1), St. John. The Blessed Virgin Mary is in utter agony; both she and His priest are being interiorly drawn into His crucifixion.

There is so much silence around this mystery. We are basically only told the geographical facts of the scene. Jesus is the one who sets it all in motion with His gaze: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said…” (Jn. 19:26). It begins with a gaze from our Lord seeing His Mother and His priest. None of the Lord’s words in the Gospels are superfluous, especially those he uttered while upon the Cross. Therefore, these words from the Cross are some of the most important words uttered to Our Lady and one of His first priests.

She hears, “Woman, behold your son” (Jn. 19:26). He calls her “Woman”, not “Mom”. Feel the distancing. These words must have been especially painful for her. As mother all she wants is to be close to Him and even to die with Him so that she can be close to Him. “Woman” isolates her from Him. He pushes her away, not in cruelty, but so that she can become the New Eve, the mother of all those who would live eternally. Her agony is the labor pains giving birth to the Church. Here the distinction between Our Lady and the Church, which should never be a separation, is perhaps a little more pronounced. Here she is giving birth to the Church, acting as Mother of the Church, through her interior agony.

St. John is at her side. It is no coincidence that a priest of the new covenant stands at the Cross with Jesus. St. John also is undergoing his own interior crucifixion, being conformed as priest to the Cross of the eternal High Priest. Perhaps we can sense St. John’s helplessness. There is no worse feeling for a man than to that of helplessness. What words could he utter seeing her in such agony? The sword piercing her Immaculate Heart is going through his priestly heart as well. This is not some heroic charge to victory. It is blackness, loneliness, a dark night; it is the whole messed up incongruity of the collision between love and sin. It feels like and is death.

“Then Jesus says to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’” (Jn. 19:27). At this moment, Jesus asks the Apostle in the depth of his own pain to attune himself to her. As priest, he must decide to put her first, attune himself to her heart. He must put her suffering ahead of his own. I imagine St. John turning toward Our Lady, and looking at her with such tenderness and reverence. Jesus sends His command deep into the heart of his priest, “Look at her…receive her…take care of her.” As a man, he must feel helpless and inadequate, but now he has been given a manly task. St. John is commanded to care for her, to comfort her, to hold her, to protect her because she is so alone and vulnerable at that moment. Such a command would resonate deeply in the heart of such a man: he must look beyond his pain and accommodate himself to her, and have all that is best about being a man rise up within him in a great act of celibate agape. The choice to be attentive to her pain brings him to the threshold of entering into his spousal love and paternity as a celibate, as the Church is coming to birth.

I like to meditate on that scene, pondering the eyes of Our Lady and St. John as they meet in their mutual agony. Neither of them seems to have Jesus anymore. At that moment she needs St. John; she also allows him to help her. She is so alone at that moment. She who is sinless allows her great poverty of spirit to need this man and priest beside her. Her feminine complementarity draws out the best in St. John’s masculine heart. The need for his support and protection must have connected to something deep within him as a man. How does he help her? St. John says that he then took her “into his own” (in Greek, eis ta idia). What does this mean? “His house,” as many translations read? “His things”? What about “everything that he is”? Perhaps it indicates that he takes her into his life as a priest.

She also is supporting him. He is depending on her in that moment for he too is so alone. I wonder if he felt abandoned by the other apostles. She leads the way in sacrificing herself, for her feminine heart is more receptive and more attuned to Jesus’. She is not only present but leads the way for him, helping the priest to have his own heart pierced as well. There is much here to ponder as she engages his masculine love. He gives himself over to her, to cherish her and console her. At this moment she needs him and needs him to be strong, even if she is the one really supporting him.

The Blessed Virgin Mary’s role is to call out of the priest this celibate agape to help him become a husband to the Church and a spiritual father—a strong father, even in his weakness. She does this at the Cross by drawing the priest out of his own pain to offer pure masculine love in the midst of her own pure feminine love. This scene becomes an icon of the relationship between the priest and the Church. The priest hands himself over to the Church in her suffering and need – to have his life shaped by hers. At the foot of the Cross the Church agonizes in labor to give birth to the members of the mystical body. I am struck by the next verse in this passage from the Gospel of St. John: “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said… ‘I thirst’” (Jn. 19:28). It was after this exchange of love at the foot of the Cross that “all was now finished”.

St. Charles Borromeo often gave conferences to his priests when he was Archbishop of Milan. In the opening lines of the conference he addressed to his diocesan synod on April 20, 1584, he draws the connection between the woman of the Apocalypse in Revelation and Rachel in Genesis to the Church:

She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.” (Rev 12:2)…. O what pain, O what wailing of Holy Church! She cries out with prayers in the presence of God, and in your presence through my mouth, pronounces divine words to you. It seems that I am hearing her saying to her betrothed, the Lord Jesus Christ, what Rachel had formerly said to her husband Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die” (Gen 30:1). I am truly desirous of the one to be born. Indeed I dread this sterility; so unless you [priests!] come to Christ and give to me many sons, I am precisely at this very moment about to die.[8]

The implication of St. Charles’ words is that Holy Mother Church cries out to her Divine Bridegroom, and to the one who participates in Christ’s spousal relationship – the priest, for children. It is at the Cross where the priest in the sting of his celibacy becomes a husband to the Church and a spiritual father. For the celibate priest, the Cross is his marriage bed, just as it was for Our Lord.

It is through the love exchanged between Our Lady and St. John at the foot of the Cross that the priest’s own fallen eros begins to be healed and transformed to image the celibate priestly love that Jesus is revealing on the Cross. We priests get into trouble when we try to run away from this mystery or refuse to enter into it. The only fruitful love is the love that flows from the Cross. For this reason the celibate priest’s spousal and paternal love must be more, not less, and it has the potential to become superabundant because it is so sacrificial. No offense to my brother priests of the eastern churches who are married, but I think they would agree that there is an eschatological, and even ontological, primacy of celibacy in the priesthood. This is not to claim a moral primacy since promising celibacy is no guarantee that a celibate priest will live it well or fully. Only to the degree that he allows himself to be taken into the mystery of Calvary with the Blessed Virgin Mary can the celibate priest attain the lofty call that is celibate spousal love and spiritual paternity.

When I was newly ordained and I heard older priests complain about loneliness in the priesthood, I must confess I thought that it was due to a lack of good relationships or prayer life. And of course for some this was true. We are often lonely because we do not have good, deep friendships with others, especially with other priests, or quite simply we do not pray. However, after ten years as a priest I have come to a more realistic conclusion. There is an essential felt loneliness in the priesthood because there is an essential loneliness in the Cross, the Cross that stands at the very center of the priesthood. We priests feel the sting especially in celibacy, and understandably we struggle to come to terms with it. We know the terrifying loneliness that comes crashing in, the coldness of walking back into the rectory – certainly exhausted and tired of people – but lonely because there does not seem to be anyone to share it with or who understands our hearts. A pious thought would be to pray, but prayer in those moments may well seem dry and distasteful.

This is not giving way to self-love. It is simply being a man. There is something deep inside us that longs for a woman’s understanding and comfort, and a longing to comfort and understand a unique woman and to generate life with her. Some try to numb this longing through careerism in the Church, food, drugs, alcohol, illicit relationships, pornography; probably the most common forms of numbing are through the television or Internet. Nor is this to suggest that “life is tough so get over it.”  Rather, it is an invitation for the celibate priest to enter more deeply into precisely this mystery of caring for the Church at the foot of the Cross and becoming united to her. The priest must struggle in accepting being co-crucified with Jesus and entering the compassion of Our Lady. She for her part comes to the aid of the priest by engaging his masculinity as a husband and father to help bring about his union with the Church, not in sexual union but through crucifixion, by dying for her. The priest, in his loneliness, becomes attuned to the Church’s loneliness in this world.

Our line of thinking brings us to consider the joy of the Cross. The transformation of the priest through consoling the Mother of God at the Cross not only brings him into his spousal and paternal love, but also transforms his whole notion of joy. From its revaluing by the Cross, Christian joy is less a passing emotional state and more of a spiritual condition. Joy is not found in the lack of suffering or on the other side of suffering but in self-giving love. Thus joy can flow clearly and directly from suffering. This is joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit and thus something indestructible, something the world cannot give.

Helping the Seminarian or Priest to embrace the Mystery

How do we help our seminarians and priests enter into this profound mystery of the development of their masculinity as celibate priests? I think we need to continue freeing our human and spiritual formation programs from the narrowness of an overly psychological perspective. The psychological sciences are important and necessary. But human and spiritual formation is wider than psychology can measure. We must keep in mind that psychological approaches when they depart from the physiology of the human body cross over into philosophical and theological realms. As Dr. Paul Vitz observes, every psychological theory whether it is recognized or not is an applied philosophy of life.[9] Human formation should be founded on a sound philosophical and theological anthropology. I have yet to find a more solid anthropology than that from St. Thomas, especially as interpreted by John Paul II. I would add further insights from scholars following a more Augustinian line of thinking, such as Pope Benedict XVI and Hans Urs von Balthasar. I think a human formation program for priests needs also to draw from the best of our spiritual theology, especially the ascetical theology of St. John Climacus, Don Lorenzo Scupoli and St. Francis de Sales.[10] These treasures of the tradition resonate well with all the excellent research emerging in neurobiology, social biology and brain development.[11] Perhaps the four-fold dimensions of relational masculinity could provide an initial framework.

From this wider perspective, the important work of the psychological sciences comes into play. As formators seek to help men become better sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, sometimes the need for therapeutic intervention arises to heal broken relationships with father and mother and to develop secure attachments, so that one becomes capable of agape love. Such intervention should be done by therapists who fully appreciate and understand sound philosophical and theological anthropology, and grasp the priest’s unique ecclesial mission and vocation.

It is also important to integrate into our human formation programs, and insist upon, a masculine affectivity in both formators and seminarians. I think anyone who grew up in a semi-normal family has some idea about what a masculine affect looks like. No matter what one’s home life was like, much good material can be gleaned from the holy men of Scripture including David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. John, St. Paul, and the holy men who are saints, especially the priest saints. I think there is still much from the lives of St. Francis de Sales and St. John Vianney that can show seminarians and priests what priestly masculinity looks like and how it is lived out concretely in diocesan life. It is not politically correct, even within some ecclesial circles, to follow the mind of the Church with regard to same-sex attraction as clarified by the Congregation for Education in 2005.[12] The difficulty surfaces precisely when we begin to talk about the priest’s spousal and paternal love. Everyone seems fine with the concept of the priest as a son or a brother. But begin to speak of the priest as a husband and father, and in some circles resistance begins to emerge. Nevertheless, in Pastores dabo vobis masculine affectivity is repeatedly coupled with “pastoral charity”. The love that the seminarian or priest shows Our Lady at the foot of the Cross is exactly that – charity, the highest form of love, but it must be a masculine incarnation of it. Pastoral charity is where a man’s disordered eros becomes ordered into celibate agape, in his care for the Church in the concreteness of a single soul.

Seminarians and priests should be helped to pray from the heart. One initial suggestion is to encourage praying the Rosary using Ignatius’ application of the senses that help engage the heart of the one praying. Sr. Mary Timothea Elliot, RSM offers insight into how to pray like Mary: to hold the word of God tenaciously, to ponder it with other words, to apply it to the life situation, and to mature in the word.[13] A helpful way to pray from the heart is taught by the Institute for Priestly Formation through the memorable phrase, “Pray like a Pirate!”[14] A pirate says, “ARRR!”, which stands for a helpful acronym: Acknowledge, Relate, Receive, Respond. Acknowledge means to be real and honest in prayer. Relate means to be in relationship and to grapple with whatever is there, to engage the Lord, to be present to Him. Receive means to allow Him the freedom to do what He wishes. Respond means that having received from Him, one is able to respond to Him in love. Praying in this manner helps to cultivate honesty in prayer, and help one practice giving oneself in sincerity.

Part of praying from the heart is praying with the Blessed Virgin Mary, not as an idea but as a woman. As men and priests we need to develop an affective relationship with her, and let her help us become attuned to her heart. As I read St. Louis De Montfort, I think this is what he was really seeking to accomplish. His spirituality is not simply emotive sentimentalism, but learning to model one’s heart on hers. His spirituality is a spirituality of attunement. This important spiritual work in learning how to love with the heart and to truly give oneself in prayer will help build the habit of giving oneself in the offering of Holy Mass, to enter into the fire of Calvary with arms wide open.

As human and spiritual formators, we must strive to enter deeply into this mystery ourselves, and then lovingly cast forth these wonderful priests and priests-to-be into this mystery, to help them grapple and wrestle with it, to allow the fire of Calvary to penetrate the depths of their hearts and finally to incarnate this mystery. Then a priest can enter into the spousal and paternal reality with all the eros of his masculine heart taken up into celibate agape.

The Mystery Transposed: Holy Mass at Ephesus

I cannot leave this scene at the foot of the Cross that reveals Our Lady’s role in the celibate priest’s spousal and paternal love without describing another scene. This scene came to me on one of those days when it was not thrilling to be a priest and I was praying, reluctantly. It began with the scene at the Cross, but the scene was transposed at some point to a later event. It was Ephesus and St. John was preparing to offer the Mass. Mary was there with him. Bear with me if some anachronisms crept into the meditation. She was helping him vest, first with the amice, alb, cincture, etc. Her fingers working to make sure everything was fitting correctly. I can imagine their eyes meeting. Nothing need be said, especially when she lifts up the stole to put it on him. They both know from where the generative power symbolized in the stole comes. I can see the delight in her eyes to see him as a priest, a man who is truly and totally her son. The joy and love in her eyes makes him strong, and confident to go and offer this sacrifice whereby his spousal and paternal love is once again confirmed and made fruitful. I think these can be fruitful scenes for any priest to ponder every time he goes to offer the Mass: the feminine presence of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross and before Mass at Ephesus.


My intention is not to offer a deductive investigation and proof that answer the contemporary challenge and perennial condition of the celibate priest’s spousal and paternal love. What I do offer is an emerging interior conviction that the answer to the perennial condition of the celibate priest’s masculinity lies in the depth of this mystery—the apostle’s pure embrace of the Mother of God at Calvary. This is no saccharine or sugar-coated Marian piety. This is a Marian piety that is so real it will give you splinters, will make you shed tears and will even drive a lance right through the heart of a priest. This is a real Marian piety for real men.

I suggest that this mystery lies at the center of every priest’s life whether he can recognize it as such or not. Priests leave, misuse their sexual powers or turn to other things because they cannot seem to surrender to and embrace this mystery. It is the mystery of his masculinity and the Cross. The Blessed Virgin Mary is there to draw it out of him and help him bring it to a new level of realization as husband and father. The only way the priest will make it through the Cross is by allowing her to help him and for him to unite himself mystically to her in her suffering. Through her feminine love the celibate priest becomes a husband to the Church and spiritual father to all. And from the depths of his masculinity the priest can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).


Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D. is pastor of Sacred Heart-St. Louis parish in Gervais, Oregon (USA) and professor of fundamental theology at Mount Angel Seminary. He is the author of Balthasar and Anxiety (London: T&TClark, 2008) and several articles in fundamental theology and priestly formation.


[1] This article originated as a presentation at the Marian Symposium for the Bicentennial Celebration of Mount Saint Mary Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland (USA), 9 October 2008. I am grateful to Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, MD, Deacon Theodore Lange and Fr. Jerome Young, OSB for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

[2] I began an exploration of this topic of the spousal and paternal dimensions of priestly identity in an earlier article, cf. Cihak, John. “The Priest as Man, Husband and Father,” Sacrum Ministerium 12:2 (2006): 75-85.

[3] Attention is focused on the area of human and spiritual formation since they figure most prominently in Pastores dabo vobis (John Paul II, Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, 25 March 1992, nn. 43-50), and where the greatest need in seminary formation still exists.

[4] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus caritas est, 25 December 2005, especially nn. 3-18.

[5] Perhaps the most well known passage from Pastores dabo vobis, n. 43.

[6] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 371-372.

[7] These are insights especially developed by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his theological anthropology, for example in his Wenn ihr nicht werdet wie dieses Kind (repr. 2, Einsiedeln-Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 1998); Unless you become like this Child, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991); and his essay “Bewegung zu Gott,” Spiritus Creator: Skizzen zur Theologie, vol. III (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1967); “Movement Toward God,” Explorations in Theology, vol. III: Creator Spirit, trans. Brian McNeil, CRV (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 15-55.

[8] Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis, Pars II, 20 April 1584, 347. [Trans. Gerard O’Connor]

[9] Cf. Vitz, Paul, Psychology in Recovery,” First Things 151 (2005), pp. 17-21.

[10] Cf. Climacus, St. John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent in The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist, 1982); de Sales, St. Francis. Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1989); Scupoli, Lorenzo. The Spiritual Combat, trans. William Lester (Rockford: TAN, 1990).

[11] Cf. Ainsworth, Mary, Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation (Mahwah: Erlbaum, 1978); Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (New York: Basic Books, 1990); Greenspan, Stanley, Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2000); The Growth of the Mind: And the Endangered Origins of Intelligence (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1998); Siegel, Daniel, The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience (New York: Guilford, 1999); Stern, Daniel, The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

[12] Cf. Congregation for Education. Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to Seminary and Holy Orders, 2005.

[13] Elliott, Mary Timothea. “Mary – Pure Response to the Word of God,” presentation at the Marian Symposium for the Bicentennial Celebration of Mount Saint Mary Seminary, 8 October 2008.

[14] In my view, the Institute for Priestly Formation, under the direction of Fr. Richard Gabuzda and Fr. John Horn, SJ, is currently doing some of the best work in the United States on the spiritual and human development of seminarians and diocesan priests.

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