Priestly ordination of Thomas Bolin

On Oct 31, 2009, my brother, Thomas Bolin, OSB, was ordained to the priesthood by His Excellency Renato Boccardo. I was privileged to be present for the ordination, as well as his first Mass on the following day, for which I was also the subdeacon. Below are a couple photos from the ordination, and one from the first Mass. Each photo links to a bigger image of the same.

The Spousal Meaning of the Body and Vocation

This post on the importance of the spousal meaning of the body for vocational discernment is a guest article written by Robert McNamara, a graduate of the International Theological Institute (formerly in Gaming, and now in Trumau, Austria). He will be entering the seminary in Ireland at the end of August. Please say a prayer for him.

Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday audiences of the early 80’s, now widely known as the theology of the body, spoke about the meaning of the human body. Meditating upon the reality of the creation of man, male and female, as written about in Genesis, he deduces that the body has a spousal meaning. He says that this spousal attribute of the human body is “the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (Theology of the Body 15:1). The spousal meaning of the body is therefore obviously significant for the question of vocation. But how significant? And in what way?

To discover the spousal meaning we look to the mystery of man’s creation. In creation man and woman are given life by the Creator and are in their turn capable of making a gift of their own lives. Created in the image and likeness of God man is called to exist “for” others (Cf. Mulieris Dignitatem 7:7). This, the Pope says, is a “fundamental characteristic of personal existence” (Theology of the Body 14:4). Writing as Bishop in his book Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla states, “The fullest, the most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in selfgiving, in making one's inalienable and non-transferable `I' someone else's property” (pp. 97). This potential for self-gift is rooted in man’s freedom, in his consciousness and self-determination, in what the Pope calls the “freedom of the gift,” but it is realized above all in the body. Thus the body has a spousal meaning the essence of which is to concretely realize man’s freedom for self-gift, to be “for” others in a radical way, one that is definitive and total. It is in its fullness a gift of the person but one which is made in and through the body and more specifically through sex, that is, masculinity and femininity, as a fundamental attribute of the body. And so, we discover the human body as a path of love.

Spousal self-giving as the name implies is obviously the basis of the vocation of marriage, but it is likewise the basis of the vocation of continence for the kingdom. The Pope explains:

“[T]he nature of the one as well as the other love [marriage and perfect continence] is “spousal,” that is, expressed through the complete gift of self. The one as well as the other love tends to express that spousal meaning of the body, which has been inscribed “from the beginning” in the personal structure of man and woman.” (Theology of the Body 78:4)

This statement is an important matter for consideration by those either discerning or living consecrated celibacy. Those who choose marriage choose to live their bodily existence “for” their spouse and children. Those who choose celibacy choose to live their bodily existence “for” the sake of the kingdom of God. Celibates do not actualize their gift of self to God abstracted from their body and sex. The hearing of the call and the expression of the individual’s consecration depends on and is given definitive form by the sex of the person. The call to continence, says the Pope, is “formed on the basis of the consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity, and further, as a fruit of such consciousness” (Theology of the Body 81:5).

[Aside: The spousal nature of continence should not be surprising when we recognize God’s relationship with humanity in its spousal dimension, “The history of God's relationship to humanity is a history of spousal love, prepared for in the Old Testament and celebrated in the fullness of time” (Verbi Sponsa 4:1). By means of baptism we are “definitively placed within the new and eternal covenant, in the spousal covenant of Christ with the Church” (Familiaris Consortio 13:6). Marriage or consecrated celibacy then gives definitive form within the body of Christ to an individual person’s mode of witness to Christ’s spousal love for the Church.]

Consciousness is a decisive factor. When we consider the ‘meaning’ of something we have in mind not only the reality itself but our consciousness of that reality. Consequently it is not only significant for the question of vocation that the human body objectively has a spousal meaning, but also a mature consciousness of that meaning within the individual subject is crucial. Such a consciousness of the body adequately grounds and motivates the celibate life. It furnishes discernment of vocation with all of the realism that the challenge of celibacy actually poses to man’s natural strivings, while at the same time creating a foundation upon which the earthly “for” can be transformed into a heavenly “for.” Perhaps we can say that awareness of being “for” others as a bodily being, either male or female, creates the space in which the personal call of Christ can find a satisfactory echo and ongoing resonance.

The question then begs: how can we grow in a mature awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in such a way that we can hear the call of Christ with readiness and answer it with force? It appears from the Pope’s writings that the answer is through the gift and virtue of purity. Using the helpful image of a watchman the Pope explains how one grows in purity of heart. Man, he says, must become master of his own “innermost impulses” by watching over the “hidden spring” of his heart learning to draw only those impulses which are “fitting for purity of the heart.” In this way he can build “with conscience and consistency the personal sense of the spousal meaning of the body, which opens the interior space of the freedom of the gift” (Theology of the Body 48:3). Perfecting this effort we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit especially piety which disposes the inspired person to grow conscious of the meaning of the human body, his own and others.

With a vivid consciousness of the meaning of his body in purity of heart, man experiences himself as originating in love and destined for love (Cf. Theology of the Body 15:5 ff). He experiences himself as rooted in love, and finds in this happy experience a greater ability to respond with love. Purity of heart has enabled him to encounter and know himself in his bodily existence as a “subject of holiness” (Theology of the Body 19:5). It is this experience of man as a subject of truth and love, with the organically connected interior space of the freedom of the gift formed on the basis of the spousal meaning of the body which enables man to hear the call to continually surrender himself in all the truth of his existence and in an unreserved manner to Christ, and for the sake of His kingdom.

Legionaries of Christ

I was thinking some time ago about doing a post on the Legionaries of Christ, whom I never put in the list of suggested Catholic religious communities, due to serious concerns regarding them. Occasioned by the Apostolic Visitation just beginning now, this interview with Fr. Thomas Berg, who left the congregation in April 2009, is a fitting occasion to say a few things.

The disordered life of the founder, Fr. Maciel, is not simply something that can be left aside. Some legionaries seem to have hoped that this could be done, that their rule of life, approved by the Church, was not essentially tied to Fr. Maciel, and therefore could be basically just retained. However, the Church's approval of the rule, an approbation of it as a suitable means for living a life of Christian charity, is first, not infallible, and second, the approbation of a rule does not strictly imply that there are not substantive defects in it. And in fact, there seem to be a number of legionary practices criticized over the years (and rightly so, in my opinion) that are not entirely incidental to Fr. Maciel's problems.

One of the most obvious of these is the "vow of charity," a vow not to criticize superiors and to report those who do so. According to the Legionary web page (available at the Internet Archive–page has been taken down from the live web site), the vow covers something that would be obligatory anyway, namely the avoidance of slander. However, the website does not give the actual text of the vow–apparently it is a secret, despite the denial that the vows are secrete. The text of the vow is, apparently "I, (Name), promise and vow never to criticize any act of governance of the superior, nor his person, and to inform the superior if I am aware that anyone has broken this promise." I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this vow is simply invalid, and never truly bound anyone. A vow is "a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion" (Code of Canon Law n. 1191). "Not to criticize" is not simply speaking a better good. If one were to say "imprudently criticize" or "wrongly criticize" than it would be, and such a vow valid. It seems the real purpose of the vow may have been more to protect the reputation of the congregation and of Fr. Maciel than to foster charity among its members. (It could be that Fr. Maciel thought to himself that its purpose was charity–it is a characteristic in many cases that persons who commit such abuse are actually guilty of self-deception as to their true motives in pursuing relationships, maintaining good reputation, etc.)

Fr. Berg mentions four problems: (1) the inability of the legionaries as a body to engage in honest and objective self-critique, an inability "to see and honestly recognize the flaws and errors that so many people outside the Legion are able to see"; this problem is connected with (2) a mistaken understanding and living of religious obedience, an excessive dependence on the superior, and the prohibition of criticizing one's superior. Fr. Berg critiques this as follows:

The Legionary seminarian is erroneously led to foster a hyper-focusing on internal "dependence" on the superior for virtually every one of his intentional acts (either explicitly or in virtue of some norm or permission received, or presumed or habitual permissions). This is not in harmony with the tradition of religious life in the Church, nor is it theologically or psychologically sound. It entails rather an unhealthy suppression of personal freedom (which is a far cry from the reasoned, discerned and freely exercised oblation of mind and will that the Holy Spirit genuinely inspires in the institution of religious obedience) and occasions unholy and unhealthy restrictions on personal conscience.Furthermore, Legionary norms regarding "reporting to," "informing," "communication with," and "dependence on" superiors constitute a system of control and conformity which now must be considered highly suspect given what we know about Fr. Maciel. They furthermore engender a simplistic, and humanly and theologically impoverished notion of God's will (its discernment and manifestation) that breeds personal immaturity.

…Legionary seminarians are essentially trained to suspend reason in their obedience and to seek a total internal conformity with all the norms, and to withstand any internal impulse to examine or critique the norms or the indications of superiors.

(3) the continuance of seeking vocations as usual; Fr. Berg's suggests the Legion should call a halt to vocational work during the apostolic visitation, or even longer, until it clears up its critical problems; this is not a easy question, but he may well be right. (4) the deprivation of seminarians of honest information concerning the Legion: "a complete presentation of the basic facts of Fr. Maciel's double life; the understanding that the religious life, with its norms and internal discipline, they have come to live is deeply problematic and in need of thorough scrutiny and review; a thorough presentation of the reasonable criticisms that have been leveled against the Legion and Regnum Christi; and an honest admission on the part of the major superiors of the Legion's errors."

Regarding the last two points I would add my own thought that for a long time the vocational practice of the Legion seemed ordered more to "recruiting" and keeping vocations than to fostering true human development. In this respect it is not surprising if it continues a drive to recruit and keep "vocations."

The biggest question Fr. Berg raises is whether there is a genuine charism in the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, or whether the work of God in the Legion has been only drawing good out of a merely human and fundamentally flawed project. This is indeed a question. As pointed out above, it would be wrong to suppose that there must be a true inspired charism, just because the Church approved the institute. While the guidance of the Spirit guarantees that the Church on the whole and in the long run acts wisely in its approbation of forms of life, individual decisions are not infallible.

Related: see the Legionaries' communiqué of March 25, 2010.

Benedictines in Norcia to Celebrate in Both Forms

[Note: I'll be away this week, and so won't be blogging–I tried to use the scheduled posts feature, but it seems to be still not working.]

The Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy (where my brother is a monk), have just received from the Ecclesia Dei commission of the Holy See the apostolate of celebrating the Mass in "in utroque usu," that is, in both ordinary and extraordinary forms. The announcement was made on the the 2nd anniversary of the Motu Proprio of Pope Benedict XVI Summorum Pontificum, July 7th. By mid-July they hope to be able to offer daily on their website a recording of the sung Conventual Mass in the extraordinary form.

Here is the letter from Ecclesia Dei:

April 21, 2009

Very Reverend Father Prior:

His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, from the very beginning of his pontificate, has made known his desire to foster the unity of the Church. As in the past so also today, the careful celebration of the Sacred Mysteries is a most efficacious instrument for achieving this goal.

For this reason, faithful to the intentions of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, this Pontifical Commission, responding to your request, entrusts to the Monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia the special apostolate of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist “in utroque usu”, that is, both in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, in collaboration with the Holy See and in communion with the diocesan bishop.

I am confident that your young Benedictine community will always support the pastoral activity of the Supreme Pontiff with faithful prayer,

With my best Easter wishes,

Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, President
Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”

It would be a good thing if more communities in a position to do so followed this example.

In order to avoid possible misunderstandings, an interview with the Prior of the monastery, Fr. Cassian Folsom, in which he anticipates certain questions that might be raised, was also distributed with the announcement.

Does this decision respect the Second Vatican Council Council?

It would be useful to read carefully the Council document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. SC 22 says that: “Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.” Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum simply reiterates that principle, and legislates for the use of the old rite alongside the new. Pope Benedict also emphasizes that the way to interpret the Council documents is by the hermeneutic of continuity. That principle is also expressed in the document on the liturgy where it says: “…care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC 23). What we’re really talking about here is legitimate pluralism, which the Council advocates as well: “Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community” (SC 37). So the celebration of the Mass in utroque usu by all means respects the Second Vatican Council. We are embracing both usages, and reaching out to other groups in search of unity. That’s a very conciliar approach.

But doesn’t this mean “turning back the clock”?

On the contrary, I see a monastery “utriusque usus” as very forward looking, especially in terms of authentic ecumenism. By that I mean two things. First, the ethos of the extraordinary form is very similar to the ethos of the many oriental rites, and therefore celebrating the Eucharist according to both the Novus Ordo and the Ordo Antiquior allows us to serve as a bridge between East and West. Second, I think we need a good dose of “internal ecumenism” in the Church, so as to be able to dialogue with Catholics attached to the older liturgical forms without ideological prejudice.

How can you, as a liturgist, justify such a decision?

It is precisely as a liturgist that I have had the opportunity to study and experience the rich variety of liturgical traditions that exist within the Church. It is “politically correct” for Latin rite Catholics to be enthusiastic about the Byzantine rite. Why isn’t it “politically correct” to be enthusiastic about the extraordinary form as well? The history of the liturgy shows clearly a multiplicity of usages within the one Roman rite. It is thanks to many years of studying the liturgy that I came to see the importance of this unity in diversity. In fact, I argued this point in the presence of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger at a liturgical conference held at Fontgombault in France in 1997. As a liturgist, I would also like to say that there is no perfect rite; there are positive and negative aspects in every liturgical tradition. The only perfect liturgy is the heavenly one. In addition, both the extraordinary and the ordinary form can be celebrated well or celebrated poorly. For a comparison to be fair, we have to place the best of both side by side.

How can the two usages influence each other?

The ordinary form stresses such elements as the participation of the faithful, the use of the vernacular, the ongoing development of the liturgy by the addition of new saints to the calendar, etc.: these are all very important. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that the ordinary form stresses rational understanding, speaking in prose, as it were. The extraordinary form provides rich food for the intellect also, but relies heavily on gesture, symbolism, intuition, silence, ritual action without words, speaking in poetry, you might say. Man knows both rationally and intuitively. He needs both prose and poetry. If the two usages, like two different cultures, can patiently live with each other over time, they can become friends.

What pastoral benefits will come from this new apostolate?

The monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia is in a unique position. The pastoral life of the town is served very well by the diocesan clergy. The Basilica, on the other hand, is not a parish, but a shrine, whose pastoral attention is focused on pilgrims who came from all over the world. We are an international community serving an international public. The pilgrims come for a specifically Benedictine liturgy, which is characterized by what I would call a monastic or contemplative style. This is our unique contribution. The extraordinary form is very conducive to this contemplative, even mystical style, which is why the young people are so drawn to it. We celebrate the Mass in the ordinary form in the same style, which is why people come from far and wide to participate in our Sunday Mass.

Wouldn’t it be better to be just like everyone else?

To use an expression taken from the world of commerce, growth and development depend on finding a distinctive “niche”. This special apostolate of celebrating the Eucharist in utroque usu, makes the Norcia monastery distinctive, unique. I’m sure it will contribute to the growth of the community, in a time when young people aren’t interested in a vocation that means living “just like everyone else”.

In their newsletter, the monks also announced that on June 17 they finally acquired a piece of land outside the city (they have desired to move for some time, for the sake of space, as well as a setting more suited to monastic life).

Priestly vocation, holiness and service

Can the desire "to become perfect," to grow in holiness, be one's motivation for being ordained a priest? On first consideration, this might seem totally inappropriate, as the priesthood is not given in the first place for a man's personal perfection, but in order for him to serve Christ, as his representative. Thus, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, while he describes the right motivation for religious life as "to bind oneself more closely to God, or to correct the transgressions of one's past life, or to fly from the dangers of the world," describes the right motivation that is a sign of a vocation to the priesthood differently, saying that one should desire "to serve God, to spread his glory and to save souls."

This difference between religious life and priesthood, namely that religious life is directly ordered to a personal and real conformity with Christ, to perfection in love of Christ, and thereby to the service of the community and building up the Church in love, while the priesthood is directly ordered to a sacramental and representative conformity to Christ, to the service of the community in Christ's name, is a real difference, and does imply that one's motivation for the priesthood in a certain sense cannot be primarily for one's personal perfection in the Christian life.

However, this sharp division (personal perfection in Christian life, service of the Church, etc.) is not the concrete way in which a vocation is usually experienced. The Apostles did not know in all specificity what they were being called to when Christ said, "Come, follow me." They were attracted by his person or inspired by his mission, and they followed him both to be with him and to accompany him on his mission. In most cases, a person perceiving a vocation cannot define his motivation to embrace that way of life in terms of a very precise single goal. He chooses the way of life as a whole, with all that is included in it.

Now, is a special call to perfection included in the priesthood? It is. John Paul II, in Pastores Dabo Vobis, says that priests "are called not only because they have been baptized, but also and specifically because they are priests, that is, under a new title and in new and different ways deriving from the sacrament of holy orders" (n. 19). And Vatican II says, "Since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ himself, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 12). The awareness of this special calling and grace, often concretized by experience of holy priests, can be included in the discernment and decision to offer oneself for the priesthood, to seek ordination. Whatever the special aspects of priestly life that initially attract one to it, what is essential is that it be embraced in its totality. E.g., one person might, prior to any thought of the priesthood, be drawn to celibacy, to devote his life to the things of God, and through this desire come to desire the priesthood in particular. Another person might not at first be particularly drawn to celibacy, and first find his vocation to it in his desire to serve others in the ministerial priesthood, which in the Roman Rite is connected with celibacy. (In this latter case it is nonetheless important that he come to appreciate the proper value of celibacy and to embrace it freely, and not only as a extra obligation he has to submit to in order to be a priest. But that's matter for another post.) Similarly, the "path to perfection" of the priesthood might be for one person an important aspect of his initial aspect desire for it, while for another person it is not, and only in his desire for and commitment to living a good priestly life that he sees in that way of life his path to perfection.

Related: Priesthood and Perfection and The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange

Vocation Sunday

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday (so called by reason of the Gospel read at Mass today). Pope Paul VI designated Good Shepherd Sunday as a World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and it still remains this. It is a fitting day for vocations on account of the Gospel for the Mass: The Shepherd knows the sheep, and calls them by name, and they hear his voice and follow him.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for this day, encourages "faith in the divine initiative", which should lead to confident prayer for vocations, as well as inspire the human response of trusting self-abandonment to the shepherd who calls. He sets forth Jesus as the supreme model of complete and trusting adherence to the Father's will, the model to whom every consecrated person must look. Also exemplary is the Blessed Virgin Mary's generous "Amen" to God's plan told her through the angel.

Full message at the Vatican website

Is Marriage for the Weak

The Vocation of Marriage

Is marriage only for the weak? Are only those called to marriage who don't have a strong enough will to give themselves totally to Christ and his Church in virginity or celibacy? It could certainly seem so from St. Paul: "If his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin…. he who refrains from marriage will do better" (1 Cor 7:37-38).

Following a classic procedure, I will first give arguments in favor of this position, then my response to the question.

The saints on marriage and celibacy

In the first place, it seems that the authority of the saints indicates that marriage is only for those who are too weak to persevere in continence for the kingdom of heaven, while virginity or celibacy is for all those who have the strength of will to take it.

Marriage is attributed to weakness

Those of us who have wives we advise, with all our power, that they dare not judge of those holy fathers after their own weakness (St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, n. 34)

Has the apostle, think you, both shown sufficiently to the strong what is highest, and permitted to the weaker what is next best? Not to touch a woman he shows is highest when he says, "I would that all men were even as I myself." But next to this highest is conjugal chastity, that man may not be the prey of fornication. (St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, ch. 35)

If under the Gospel it is permitted to have children, it is one thing to make a concession to weakness, another to hold out rewards to virtue. (St. Jerome, Against Jovianius I, n. 37).

The one sins not if she marries; if the other does not marry, it is for eternity. In the former is seen the remedy for weakness, in the latter the glory of chastity. The former is not reproved, the latter is praised. (St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins I, ch. 6)

"To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry" (1 Cor 7:8-9). You can see Paul's common sense here. He says that continence is better, but does not force a person who cannot attain it, fearing that defeat may result. "For it is better to marry than to be burn" (v. 9); here he shows how great a tyranny the passions exercise over us. What he means is something like this: if you suffer with violent, burning passion, then relieve your pain and sweat through marriage, before you utterly collapse. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on 1 Cor.)
These are the two purposes for which marriage was instituted: to make us chaste, and to make us parents… The purpose of chastity takes precedence… If you desire children, you can get much better children now, a nobler childbirth and better help in your old age, if you give birth by spiritual labor. So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid fornication, and the remedy is offered for this purpose (St. John Chrysostom, Sermon on Marriage).

In order to avoid an unbalanced impression of St. John's Chrysostom view of marriage, I also quote another text of his describing a holy marriage:

Some wise man in the list of blessings sets many things, and also sets this in the list of blessing: "And a wife," he says, "in harmony with her husband." And again elsewhere he puts this among the blessings, "the wife being in agreement with her husband." And from the beginning God appears to have made providence for this union, and has spoken of the two as one… There is no relationship between men as great as that of a wife to her husband, if they are coupled as they ought to be… Indeed the household is a little Church. Thus by becoming good husbands and wives, it is possible to surpass all others. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians, PG 62, 135 & 143)Furnish your house neatly and soberly… Remove from your lives shameful, immodest, and Satanic music, and don't associate with people who enjoy such profligate entertainment… Pray together at home and go to Church… Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks. (Ibid.)

Alphonsus de Liguori is also quite as strong on this point as St. Jerome, Origen, or Tertullian.

The married state I cannot recommend to you, because St. Paul does not counsel it to any one, except there be a necessity for it, arising out of habitual incontinence, which necessity, I hold for certain, does not exist in your case. (St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Reply to a youth considering which state he should choose)
… But if you resolve not to become a religious, I cannot advise you to enter the married state, for St. Paul does not counsel that state to any one, except in case of necessity, which I hope does not exist for you. (St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Advice to a woman in doubt as to what state she should choose)

Virginity or celibacy is for those of strong will

Many texts of the Fathers and saints also seem to show that virginity or celibacy is for those who have the strength of will to take it, which seems to imply, conversely, that marriage is for those who are weak-willed.

Virginity is something supernaturally great, wonderful, and glorious… Chastity with men is a very rare thing, and difficult of attainment, and in proportion to its supreme excellence and magnificence is thre greatness of its dangers.
For this reason, it requires strong and generous natures, such as, vaulting over the stream of pleasure, direct the chariot of the soul upwards from the earth, not turning aside from their aim, until having, by swiftness of thought, lightly bounded above the world, and taken their stand truly upon the vault of heaven, they purely contemplate immortality itself as it springs forth from the undefiled bosom of the Almighty. (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6, discourse 1, p. 310)

The Master of the Christian race offers the reward, invites candidates to the course, holds in His hand the prize of virginity, points to the fountain of purity, and cries aloud "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink." "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Against Jovinianus, St. Jerome, in NPNF 2nd series, Volume VI, p. 355)

"He who can receive this, let him receive it." What is this? If natural ability is meant, no one is able, while if supernatural ability is meant, all are able. I say that 'can' includes the power of the will. For some have a firm will, while others do not. And it is manifest that he who has a firm will does not fear many impulses, while he who does not, falls by a slight impulse. Whence it is as though one were to say, he who is able by firmness of will, not from nature but from God, let him receive it. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew, Lecture 19, n. 1572).

This recommendation for which the Pope takes the whole responsibility is a very paternal word which is inspired solely by the good of religious communities. It is this: "Be rigorous."…
By these words his Holiness wished to allude not only to the severity of discipline in general, but above all and in a very special manner, to the severity which is necessary when accepting postulants. Someone may say that they are already too severe; the Pope authorizes the answer that it is he who wishes it to be so… If, in fact, we desire to preserve the splendor of religious life, we must be severe above all where vocations are concerned, because divine grace helps, but does not destroy human nature, and therefore it remains necessary to struggle, a necessity which is even more grace in religious life. It is for that reason that we cannot run the risk of unsuitable elements infiltrating a religious community, for these elements not only will not be useful for anything, they will be on the contrary so many obstacles, so many stumbling-blocks; they will constitute so much cockle among the wheat.
It is not exaggeration, but experience, which tells us that in human collectivities, even restricted ones, almost inevitably deficiencies are produced. A religious family need not, for all that, reduce the number of its members; on the contrary, they must be increased; but it must so act that all its members will be chosen souls, elite, soldiers. A difficult thing, a difficult task, but necessary. In fact, when many men gather together, the good qualities, especially the highest ones, do not add up to a sum total; each one keeps his own; on the contrary, the deficiencies, the bad qualities, join one another and fuse. (Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the Friars Minor Capuchins, July 10, 1938)

To worldly gaze, which does not penetrate beneath the surface, religious life may appear more especially as a refuge from the tempest, a spiritual repose in a peaceful retreat, a desert where weaker souls seek a refuge far from the perils and worries of the world. But the world is blind. For a firm heart, intrepid before earthly trials, like that of your Blessed Mother Foundress, religious life is religion lived before God and man, and if it is a retreat, it is at the same time an arena of abnegation and prayer, of action and labor, from which one comes forth more firm and more eager, ready for greater sacrifices and for greater activity in the service of God and souls, totally under the sway of a charity more intense, bolder, even impassible in the face of death. (Pius XII, Allocution to the pilgrims at the beatification of Magdalene of Canossa, December 9, 1941, in States of Perfection, p. 326)

Superiority of celibacy

Secondly, it seems to follow, if virginity or celibacy is superior to marriage as a way of living and growing in love of God and neighbor, as the Church teaches, and if it is open to all, then the only reason for someone not to embrace virginity or celibacy would be that they are do weak to do so.
Now the Church does clearly teach that virginity or celibacy is superior to marriage as a way of expressing and growing in love of God.

"If anyone says that the married state is to be preferred to the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and happier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony, let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Canons on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Can. 10).32. This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as We have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent , and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Finally, We and Our Predecessors have often expounded it and earnestly advocated it whenever occasion offered (Encyclical Letter Sacra Virginitas, Pius XII, March 25, 1954).

The second way to perfection, by which a man may be more free to devote himself to God, and to cling more perfectly to him, is the observance of perpetual chastity… The way of continence is most necessary for attaining perfection… Abraham had so great spiritual perfection in virtue, that his spirit did not fall short of perfect love for God on account either of temporal possessions or of married life. But if another man who does not have the same spiritual virtue, strives to attain perfection, while retaining riches and entering into marriage, his error in presuming to treat Our Lord's words as of small account will soon be demonstrated. (St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, Ch. 9)

Again, the Church teaches that a person is free to decide for marriage or for celibacy.

In choosing a state of life there is no doubt but that it is in the power and discretion of each one to prefer one or the other: either to embrace the counsel of virginity given by Jesus Christ, or to bind himself in the bonds of matrimony. (Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii. The pope is here quoting Rerum Novarum.)4… no one may prevent those who are canonically suitable from entering religion, since the religious state by its very nature lies open to all the faithful and is to be held in honor by all. "Let no one, who is unwilling, be driven to this kind of consecrated life; but, if one wishes it, let there be no one who will dissuade him, much less prevent him from undertaking it." (The General Statutes annexed to the Apostolic Constitution Sedes Sapientiae, The Sacred Congregation of Religious, 1957, Art. 32)

Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom. (Pope John Paul II, Dilecti Amici, n. 10)


The fundamental vocation of all is the vocation to love. "Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 11; also cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1604). The vocation to a particular way of life is a determination of this common vocation to love. "The word 'vocation' indicates that there exists for every person a proper direction of his development through commitment of his entire life in the service of certain values… And therefore a vocation always means some principal direction of love that a particular person has" (Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility).

The choice of the concrete way in which to fulfill, live out, and grow in the vocation to love is generally left up to the choice of the individual person (though in some cases God intervenes to call someone in a particularly special way, as he did with Abraham). Nevertheless the way in which one may best live out the vocation to love depends on both external and interior factors. Pope John Paul II says:

Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom, and at the same time is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature. Examining these circumstances, the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognizes this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her. (Dilecti Amici, n. 9)

Generally, however, the primacy belongs to the interior factors, to the capacity, readiness, and commitment to pursue a particular path as an expression of and means to love. The devotion with which one pursues a particular way of life (supposing that it is a good and holy way of life) is more important than its mere objective superiority, or lack thereof. The Pope states:

According to the consistent teaching and practice of the Church, virginity realized as a deliberately chosen life-vocation, based on a vow of chastity, and in combination with the two other vows of poverty and obedience, creates particularly favorable conditions for attaining evangelical perfection. The combination of conditions that results from applying the evangelical counsels in the lives of particular men, and especially in communal life, is called the state of perfection. The "state of perfection," however, is not the same as perfection itself, which is realized by every man through striving in the manner proper to his vocation to fulfill the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. It may happen that a a man who is outside the "state of perfection," is, by observing this greatest commandment, effectively more perfect than someone who chose that state. In the light of the Gospel, every man solves the problem of his vocation in practice above all by adopting a conscious personal attitude towards the supreme demand contained in the commandment of love. This attitude is above all a function of a person, the state (marriage, celibacy, even virginity understood only as the "state" or an element of the state) plays in it a secondary role. (Love and Responsibility)

A person who chooses celibacy without a strong inner commitment to it as a way of love (which realistically can be absent in someone who chooses it simply because it is the "higher state"), which generally goes along with an inner peace, may not in fact really attain the proper goal of celibacy, may be himself troubled by the dividedness of heart that St. Paul ascribes to married persons in general. St. Thomas Aquinas says that "[the evangelical] counsels, considered in themselves, are advantageous for all; but due to some people being poorly disposed, it happens that some of them are not advantageous, because their heart [affectus] is not inclined to them" (ST I-II 108:4). And Pope John Paul II explains:

Paul observes that the man who is bound by the marriage bond "finds himself divided" (1 Cor 7:34) because of his family duties (see 1 Cor 7:34). From this observation, it seems thus to follow that the unmarried person should be characterized by an inner integration, by a unification that would allow him to devote himself completely to the service of the kingdom of God in all its dimensions. This attitude presupposes abstention from marriage, exclusively "for the kingdom of God," and a life directed uniquely to this goal. Otherwise "division" can secretly enter also the life of an unmarried person, who, being deprived, on the one hand, of married life and, on the other hand, of a clear goal for which he should renounce marriage, could find himself faced with a certain emptiness. (Pope John Paul II, General Audience, July 7, 1982)

Understanding of celibacy

This single-heartedness, this strong commitment to celibacy as a way of love, presupposes on the one hand a particular light and understanding, which is a gift of grace (though it certainly need not be experienced as a inspiration, in contrast to so-called ordinary Christian faith and prudence).

Christ speaks about an understanding ("Not all can understand it, but only those to whom it has been granted," Mt 19:11); and it is not a question of an "understanding" in the abstract, but an understanding that influences the decision, the personal choice in which the "gift," that is, the grace, must find an adequate resonance in the human will. (Pope John Paul II, General Audience of March 31, 1982)

Jesus calls attention to the gift of divine light necessary to "understand" the way of voluntary celibacy. Not all can understand it, in the sense that not all are "able" to grasp its meaning, to accept it, to put it into practice. This gift of light and decision is only granted to some. It is a privilege granted them for the sake of a greater love. We should not be surprised then if many, not understanding the value of consecrated celibacy, are not attracted to it, and often are not even able to appreciate it. This means that there is a diversity of ways, charisms, and functions, as Saint Paul recognized, who spontaneously wished to share his ideal of virginal life with all. Indeed he wrote: "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each," he adds, "has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" (1 Cor 7:7). (Pope John Paul II, General Audience, November 16, 1994)

Love of celibacy

The firm choice of celibacy presupposes also a certain love of celibacy, deriving from a love of Christ, a desire for a greater freedom for service of others, or similar causes. This does not mean that a person feels no desire for marriage, but that the love of celibacy outweighs it, so to speak, so that the person is capable of devoting themselves wholeheartedly to the love of God and neighbor in celibacy.

Since it is a question of comparison of one desire with another, the sufficiency of a person's will or desire for celibacy depends both upon that will, and upon the desire for marriage. The fact that a person's love seeks expression in marriage rather than in celibacy could be attributed to a "lack" of or "less" appreciation of celibacy as a concrete possibility for onself, arising either from neglect, ignorance, or from God's not giving that "charism"; but it could also be attributed to a "greater" desire for a holy marriage, to raise children for Christ.

The determination of the direction a particular person's love takes depends partly upon natural factors, which make a person more inclined to one way of life than another. This natural difference in a certain way redounds to charity itself, inasmuch as "charity is firmer when it is founded on nature" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, ch. 4, lec. 2). The determination of love depends also upon divine providence (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III, ch. 134, and Contra Impugnantes II, ch. 4, ad 1), and simply upon the will of God, of which charity is a participation. We do not possess charity as something totally of our own; it is essentially a share in God's own love, and God is the one to direct it. From charity springs a connatural judgment of what is in accordance with God's will, a judgment that is not altogether reducible to human reasoning, though human reasoning may be somehow involved in it. St. Francis de Sales describes this autonomy of charity in his Treatise on the Love of God:

When charity draws some to poverty and withdraws others from it, when she impels some to marriage and others to continence, when she shuts one up in a cloister and makes another leave it, she has no need to give an account to any one: for she has the plenitude of power in the Christian law, as it is written: charity can do all things (Cf. 1 Cor 13:7); she has the fullness of prudence, as it is said: charity does nothing in vain. And if any would contest, and demand of her why she does so, she will boldly answer: The Lord has need of it. All is made for charity, and charity for God. (Treatise on the Love of God, book 8, ch. 6)

This focus on the direction of love as an inner principle does not exclude other motives for marriage: St. Francis also gives the example of one who is required to marry for the sake of the common good: "You are perhaps a prince, by whose posterity the subjects of your crown are to be preserved in peace, and assured against tyranny, sedition, civil wars: the effecting, therefore, of so great a good, obliges you to beget lawful successors in a holy marriage." (Ibid.) But in most cases, such external considerations are not of themselves sufficient for a choice.

In answer to the original question, then, it should be said that the vocation of marriage is not only for those who are too weak to embrace the vocation of celibacy, but for those who, according to circumstances of natural disposition, providence, and the interior movement of charity, find marriage the fullest way of expressing and growing in this charity.

Reply to objections:

To the first set of objections, that marriage is a concession to weakness, for those who cannot otherwise be chaste, it should be said that the saints are addressing their own situation, and that in fact practically all persons marrying were not doing so from a rightly based conviction that marriage was the best means for living the divine love, but out of a desire for offspring, for economic reasons, for convenience, pleasure, or other such motives. For a long time there was a kind of self-reinforcing cycle in this matter. To the degree that little emphasis was put on marriage as a means to holiness, persons tended not to choose marriage in order to become holy–those who were intent on holiness tended to seek to remain single. The result of this was that persons had few examples of marriage as a means to holiness, which led to their not seeing marriage as a means to holiness, which led to persons seeking holiness not getting married, etc. St. Augustine points out: "[There are some marriages in which the spouses are not divided in heart, but completely devoted to God.] But they are very rare: who denies this? And being rare, nearly all the persons who are such, were not joined together in order to be such, but being already joined together became such (On the Good of Marriage, n. 14). That is, where there are few examples of holy marriages, people will not enter marriage seeking or expecting to become holy.

The second set of objections, that celibacy is for those with a strong will, should be granted inasmuch as Christian celibacy, in order to be Christian celibacy, more strictly requires a firm intention of living for God alone than marriage does, which is also a natural way of life. Yet we should note that the strength required is the strength spoken of by St. Paul: "I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me… for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:9-10); "I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). It is the strength of those who recognize their complete weakness, and rely on God alone.

To the objection based on the superiority of celibacy over marriage, the reply is clear from what was said. The choice of marriage as a vocation normally presupposes a relative inability to choose or live celibacy with a whole-heartedness as a divine calling and way of love, but this formal comparison does not necessarily imply an absolute weakness.

Universal Call to Holiness

"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call" (Eph. 4:4).

St. Francis de Sales, whose feast we celebrate today, is known for his teaching that all Christians are called to holiness. The teaching of the universal call to holiness did not originate with the Second Vatican Council, but was also taught before. "Universal call," means, quite simply, that all men and women and called to holiness. And in Casti Connubii, for example, Pope Pius XI says precisely that: "All men of every condition," in whatever state of life they are, "can and ought to imitate that most perfect example of holiness," Christ himself, "and by God's grace to arrive at the summit of perfection." (n. 23) Nevertheless the universal call to holiness is a particularly special emphasis of the Second Vatican Council; it is taken up expressly in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, which we look at today. The following is an attempt to draw out briefly some of the basic important points made in this chapter on this universal vocation of all Christians.

The Fathers of Vatican II see the call to holiness as deriving from two sources: the mystery of the Church, and more fundamentally, the mystery of Christ himself.

The Church and Holiness
"The Church is believed to be indefectibly holy" (n. 39), for Christ gave himself up for her "that he might sanctify her," uniting her to himself as his body and perfecting her by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because the Church is holy, all members of the Church are called to be holy, "to become what they are," and to manifest this holiness in their lives, by faithfulness to the movement of the Spirit, by the practice of charity.

Christ and Holiness
Christ himself preached holiness of life to all. "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." He provided the means for holiness, sending the Spirit, who pours love into men's hearts, that they might love God above all, and love each other as Christ loves them. Moreover, in baptism the faithful put on Christ, becoming sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. Thus they are made holy by the grace of God. They must then hold on to this holiness and live it out in their concrete lives, they must live in a manner that is fitting to those who are holy.

The Council concludes then, that all members of the Church, all Christ's faithful, whatever their rank or status, are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity.

Attainment of Holiness
The concrete way of attaining holiness and the perfection of charity depends on one's situation and duties, yet some things can be said in general:
(1) we should use our strengths and talents as a gift from Christ.
(2) We should follow Christ and become like him, seeking the Father's will in all things, the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
(3) We should use our personal gifts and fulfill our duties in the spirit of faith working through love.
(4) We should receive all things with faith from the hand of the heavenly Father.

These four means of attaining holiness can be grouped into two basic attitudes: the spirit to accept all things as coming from the loving hand of God, and the aim to do all things in accordance with God's will out of love for him.

The Council in the following paragraphs makes a number of particular remarks on the paths to holiness of bishops, priests, clerics, married persons, and those who suffer. It then returns to the theme of holiness as the common pursuit of all. Holiness is first of all a gift of grace, the gift of love by which we love God above all things and our neighbor for God's sake. But in order for love to grow, we must cooperate with this grace, completing what God has begun in us. (n. 42)

Some actions flowing from grace are common to all Christians: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, participation in the liturgy, prayer, self-denial, service of our brothers and sisters, and the practice of all the virtues. All such actions are to be ruled by charity, enlivened by charity, and expressions of charity.

Some exceptional expressions of love, which are not actually common to all Christians, are given particular mention by the Council.

The greatest proof of love is martyrdom. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for Christ and one's brethren. Not all will be faced with martyrdom, but all must be prepared to confess Christ, whatever may come, whether it means losing one's job, one's reputation, or even one's life.

Virginity, Poverty, and Obedience
The evangelical counsels of virginity/celibacy, poverty, and obedience are special means for fostering the holiness of the Church, each being in its own way a particular imitation of Christ.

The chapter closes with the summary statement: "all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive."

Call to Holiness in Marriage
See also the article on the call to holiness in Christian marriage.

Universal Call to Poverty?
The spirit of poverty, and even a degree of actual poverty, is a invitation and call not only to religious, but to all Christians. A very worth-while book on the gospel call to poverty is Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom by Thomas Dubay. This book is written for all Catholics (not just for those considering or discerning a religious vocation!) and seeks to present the Gospel challenge simply and directly, and thus help them to live their Christian vocation.

Discerning Your Personal Vocation

I came across an interesting article by Fr. Peter Ryan, How to Discern Elements of Your Personal Vocation. [No longer accessible at the original address].

The article is a bit disorganized, jumping back and forth between points, but it is thought provoking, and raises some interesting questions, which I'll address in upcoming blogposts.

He gives several points to bear in mind when preparing to discern your vocation (or anything else for that matter), which I'll summarize here:

(1) Discernment pertains to morally acceptable options, so we should eliminate options that are simply wrong, before making discernment. (this is not strictly true; the most important discernment we do is to discern or distinguish good options from bad options, in order to choose the good. See the post on the object of discernment: what do we discern – JB.)
(2) It is possible to discern one's personal vocation. God has a preference regarding what he wants us to do: he wants us to do the very best thing. God would not have a plan for us, yet keep us from discovering it, so it must be possible to discern this plan.
(3) One must be motivated to discern one's personal vocation. He gives three reasons for discerning one's vocation: (1) the first and least helpful reason, is that we are morally obliged to do so (I comment on this statement in a later post: Commandments and Counsels – JB); (2) it is in our own interest to discern; (3) discerning our vocation is pleasing to God.
(4) The proper disposition for discerning one's vocation presupposes that one is detached from any agenda of one's own. Having such an agenda hinders the discernment of God's plan, and also the acceptance of that plan. (See the post Detachment and Discernment – JB)
(5) As regards the future, we cannot discern whether we should do something, but only whether we should try to do it.
(6) Nothing is wasted in God's providence. Even when what we judged God was calling us to seek does not work out, this attempt has a place in God's plan.
(7) Discerning one's personal vocation is not accomplished once and for all, but is ongoing. Even a major commitment such as that of marriage or religious life does not settle or eliminate all future questions and discernment.

The process of discernment of vocation Fr. Peter gives is based on the third time for discernment given by St. Ignatius Loyola.

(1) We should seek only what God wants, and ask him to make us see what he wants us to do.
(2) We should look at our gifts and experience, and relate them to the world around us, considering all our options, and the pros and cons of each option. If one option remains as clearly the best, the discernment may end there.
(3) If several options remain, and are not settled by the consideration of pros and cons, then we should look at our affective response to them, our how heart moves in regard to them. We must distinguish those movements that are in us, but are not really integrated into our "converted selves", from those which arise from our converted hearts, and be moved in our discernment only by the latter kind of desires.

Questions for those discerning a religious vocation

Fr. Philip Powell gives some good practical points, and questions that those discerning a religious vocation should ask themselves. These questions to ask when discerning a vocation may be found, together with comments on the Anti-Christ, and the difference between magic and prayer, at his blog Domine, da mihi hanc aquam!