The promise of celibacy: Seminary formators discuss how priesthood candidates prepare for chaste lives

In photo above, Father William Dillard, right, director of spiritual formation for Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore., speaks with Diocese of Sacramento seminarians Ryan Maher, left, and Edgar Lozano-Cuevas.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph chose celibacy. The apostles chose celibacy. For centuries, priests and religious have chosen celibacy. So why in the 21st century has the call to celibacy been questioned to such a relentless degree?

“So much of modern secular society sees one’s identity in sexual expression and any fetters to this is seen as a great evil,” says Father Pius Pietrzyk, a Dominican Friar of the St. Joseph Province and a teacher and formation advisor at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park.

He admits the Roman Catholic Church’s tradition is directly opposed to the modern secular outlook, and “not just about sexuality, but the way in which sexuality has become the predominant characteristic of the human person, which is perverse really because the dominant characteristic of the human person is being a child of God.”

Still, the media, pop culture and sometimes even the reaches of the Christian faithful cannot wrap their heads around the radical, countercultural idea of celibacy. Father Pius sees how popular opinion has succumbed to a belief that celibacy is a problem.

“But we see celibacy as the solution,” says Father Pius, generally referring to the view of seminary educators and the larger church on celibacy as a supernatural gift of one’s whole self to the church – the people of God – for the purpose of loving and leading souls to God.

Father Pius candidly offers “celibacy is not a ‘natural’ option; men and women are created for one another and for the family and children.” He agrees it’s natural for people to want to fulfill these desires. Yet, without pause, he moves to the underpinnings of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.

“The celibate life has to be not a natural one but a supernatural one,” he explains, accentuating how celibacy must be rooted in the supernatural: “It’s essential.”

“Priesthood discernment and celibacy discernment are two different things,” notes Father William Dillard, director of spiritual formation for Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore.

“A man may have a strong desire to be a priest, but he may not have the call or gift of celibacy,” he clarifies. “Is God, the Holy Spirit, giving him this supernatural grace?”  Father William adds it also must be “something he wants to embrace in a healthy, well-balanced, lifegiving and joyful way.”

Preparing for a celibate life

A candidate goes through some preparation before seminary, fully aware that if ordained he will declare specific promises of obedience, celibacy, simplicity and prayer. He will practice and live these disciplines for three years prior to entering seminary as he begins to discern his priestly calling.

Interviews with the diocesan vocation director, and application and screening proceedings prior to admission also delve into many criteria, including the capacity of a man to live a celibate life. Father William describes this “in-take” process as an extensive dialogue which includes the topic of celibacy.

“They’ll discuss a candidate’s sexual history, the level of sexual maturity and the motives for celibacy,” Father William says, stressing the candidate’s dedication to Jesus Christ for the sake of the kingdom. He adds that a licensed, professional psychologist evaluates the candidate’s affective make up and ability to live a celibate life, looking for a type of maturity that demonstrates readiness for the priesthood and ordained ministry.

Seminaries assign a formation director and a spiritual director to every student. As a formation director, Father Pius meets regularly with his students informally and at least once a month formally, serving as an agent of the seminary with the purpose of dealing with issues in the “external forum,” or matters of public assessment. He reports back to the home diocese on how a man is doing on behalf of the whole formation faculty in a formal written report at the end of the year.

As a spiritual director, Father William deals with the “internal forum” in his work with priest candidates, which includes matters of conscience and spiritual development. 

“Spiritual formation is the heart of priestly formation,” Father William explains, pointing to how “it is the dimension of formation that integrates all others –academic, human and pastoral – and it is spirituality that allows a priest to live and act as a priest of Jesus Christ.” He notes the comprehensive and integrative approach of all seminary education, including how the subject of celibacy is interwoven into instruction and experience. 

 “There is no ‘Celibacy 101’ and it is not a formal part of the academic curriculum,” confirms Father Pius, “but it is a major part of the formation curriculum.”

 “We’re training them to be ‘spiritual fathers’ and celibacy is integrated into this,” says Father Pius. “They are not natural fathers but spiritual fathers, and they’re able to do this because they are removed from biological fatherhood.” He explains that the supernatural nature of an integrated celibate life achieves this uncommon priestly state of spiritual fatherhood in a purer, fuller way through the ideals of service and self-giving love for all.

“When a priest makes his solemn public promise before his bishop, at the heart of that is a promise to a life of single-hearted service towards God and the People of God,” Father William expresses, maintaining that celibacy is incumbent upon the radical availability a priest offers.

It can be a struggle

“Do students come in with struggles about celibacy? I’m absolutely certain they do,” Father Pius says, sharing real and practical truths. “They come from a world that is saturated with sex – it’s readily available. It’s the norm.” He concedes that society openly talks about casual sex as normal, good and accepted, and any idea of chaste living is disregarded within the realm of one’s vocation.

“Seminarians have lived in this culture,” he says, acknowledging that people develop patterns of “giving in” to culture whether simply accepting the prevalent attitude or in fact living it.

Father Pius says the process of discerning and choosing a celibate life is difficult and at times truly “a suffering,” just as the rejection of any worldly temptation in favor of living virtuously is often experienced as suffering. This is why the seminary prepares a candidate for many years to answer the calling confidently. 

“We help seminarians understand that the answer is the cross,” Father Pius says, submitting that suffering is not a bad thing. “On the contrary, it’s a good thing,” he stresses, telling how candidates unite their sufferings to the cross and “that can be redemptive.”

“The celibates I know are neither angry or frustrated,” Father Pius says. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles but by and large they’re happy with the life they’ve chosen. I think that the willingness to witness to Christ in celibacy and to find joy in it is probably the best evangelical tool we have.”

“The church needs to double down on its teaching about celibacy and its primacy to help highlight it,” Father Pius insists. “We have to be vocal about it and stop apologizing for celibacy, but rather point out this obsession with sexual expression which is so prevalent in modern culture.”

“Celibacy isn’t just a bundle of negatives,” Father Pius adds, listing the top-of-mind criticisms. “It’s not just not getting married, not having children and not having sex but rather, first and foremost, it has a positive spiritual dimension that is in the imitation of Christ.” 

Father William insists “celibacy is a good thing,” as he ponders its fruits and celebrates the inclusive way in which celibacy allows priests to love more in a life-giving way, as a spiritual father. “It is a beautiful gift to the church.”


About vocations to the priesthood in the Diocese of Sacramento at

About St. Patrick’s Seminary & University at

About Mount Angel Seminary at

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