Celibate Love and the Cycle of Tenderness


“The vow of celibacy is a matter of keeping one’s word to Christ and the Church. a duty and a proof of the priest’s inner maturity; it is the expression of his personal dignity.”

—Pope St. John Paul II

“There is no force in the world better able to alter anything from its course than love.”

—Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J.

What If Everyone Saw?

As I began to write this on St. Valentine’s Day, intending to celebrate and honor the unselfish and “true” love of celibate men and women — priests, religious, and others who choose to be celibate in specific times or relationships — two other events converged.

First, our pastor gave a unique and challenging Ash Wednesday homily to our students at Mass. He played a part of a song from the musical Dear Evan Hansen called “Words Fail”:

No, I’d rather pretend I’m something better than these broken parts

Pretend I’m something

I’m something other than the mess I am

’Cause then I don’t have to look at it

And no one gets to look at it

No, no one can really see …

’Cause what if everyone saw?

What if everyone knew?

Would they like what they saw?

Or would they hate it too?

Will I just keep on running away from what’s true?

All I ever do is run

So how do I step in

Step into the sun?

This song beautifully summarizes much of the angst, confusion, and hurt which many middle school students feel. For some, it is easier than others to become true to themselves and to embrace the dignity and uniqueness of their creation. Those students typically have one thing in common: the unselfish and unconditional love of some adult. Although the singer above maintains, “That’s not a worthy explanation,” he notes the following:

 I never had the dad who stuck it out

No corny jokes or baseball gloves

No mom who just was there

’Cause mom was all that she had to be

We see this play out repeatedly in middle school, in one way or another: A child must have the unconditional, unselfish love of an adult in order to become the person he or she was created to be, or else that child suffers. As Catholic Christians, we understand that love as a tendril of the glorious, living love of God growing and glowing through each of us. If we love as God loved, we spread that love exponentially to our children, to their children, and beyond. It is a saving love, a healing love, and a love that asks for nothing in return. That is the love which children need to grow, and as a parent, the most precious gift is to see not only your own children maturing in love and dignity but to witness them passing that love on to their own babies.

The Cycle of Pain

The second event was the horrific shooting at a school in southern Florida in which 17 people were killed by a 19-year-old former student who had been expelled. This scenario has been repeated too many times: an angry, hurt-filled man lashes out in order to hurt others. Whether it is through domestic violence, gang violence, child abuse, drug abuse, or murder writ large or small, broken men (and, to a lesser extent, women) justify their own unworthiness to the world.  Unless that hurt is healed, it gets transmitted to others.

Fr. Greg Boyle, who has worked for over 30 years with gang members in Los Angeles through Homeboy Industries, perhaps explained it best. “[I]f you don’t transform your pain, you’re just going to keep transmitting it.” This is only changed, says Fr. Boyle, through a “culture of tenderness,” the radical love of Jesus Christ proclaimed. “So it breaks this cycle, and pretty soon, if they cooperate and surrender to [a culture of tenderness], then they become the sanctuary that they sought there. And then they go home and they provide that sanctuary to their kids, and suddenly you’ve broken a cycle.”

Where that cycle has not been broken, where that hurt has not been healed, pain is transmitted again and again in a continued downward spiral.

Unconditional, unselfish love is what Jesus exemplified. This radical love is so challenging for us to grasp and entirely contrary to what the world teaches. Are you hit? Hit back. Are you humiliated? Humiliate back. Will you love me? Only if you “love” me back. Are you scorned and rejected? Scorn and reject back. If not healed, we continue to transmit this pain to ourselves and to others. It is only through the “culture of tenderness” based on the love which Jesus taught that this cycle is broken.

Celibate Love: The “Quieter Love”

This unselfish, unconditional love is perfected in celibate love. While we traditionally understand celibacy as the absence of sexual relations, it is so much more than this. It is the love which does not require something in return.

Sexual love, by its very nature, involves an exchange of physical pleasure. There is always something expected or anticipated by each party to the conjugal relationship. Remove the sexual component, and you have a pure love in which each party gives to the other without any expectation of return. They love only for love’s sake. This is the love which truly binds one person to another. This is the love that C.S. Lewis calls “a quieter love” which enables couples to keep the promise of fidelity. It is during these times, often when there is no conjugal relationship by choice or by reason of age or infirm, that the love of a couple deepens and matures.

Celibate love does not just apply to couples. A primary example is the perfect love that a parent has for his or her child. When a parent loves without any conditions or expectation of return, this is the extension of the pure love which our heavenly Father showers upon us. It is this love which enables a child to grow healthfully in mind, body, and spirit, in order to become a well-balanced, mature adult. We learn to give this love to our own children by the example of our parents.

Men and women who choose celibacy for all of the ways they love for the rest of their lives are truly heroic. They love with the understanding that they may never have that love reciprocated. Yet they give … and give, and give. As they continue, day in and day out, to love selflessly and unconditionally, I hope that they are loved in return; but that is not their goal or purpose in loving. It is merely to love as He loved us. They exemplify the highest form of dignity which a human can possess, and they provide an example to all of us: This is what Jesus meant when He commanded us to love one another.

To Love with No Expectation

We need more celibate love in our world. We need more men and women, not just priests and religious, who will love unreservedly and unselfishly, with no expectation or demand for something in return. For it is only through this kind of love — this “culture of tenderness” — that we will find peace for ourselves, for our children, and for our society.

It begins with each of us. Let us start today.

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3 thoughts on “Celibate Love and the Cycle of Tenderness”

  1. How do you know that, Ann? Even in married life, people can be celibate. I think what you get out of it depends upon how celibacy is viewed. Is it a burden or a gift?
    God be with you.

  2. I’m somewhat aggravated that the post was written by someone who doesn’t live a celibate life herself. I’m celibate but not by my own choosing. I accept it and offer it as a sacrifice. I do hope the world does get peace because I know this sacrifice will never provide anything for me.

  3. Pingback: VVEDNESDAY EXTRA – Big Pulpit

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