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'Celibate Priest Reminds Us of a Sort of Universal Virginity'

So Says Father Amedeo Cencini, Consultor to the Holy See

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain, SEPT. 21, 2004 (Zenit) - A priest through his celibacy should give testimony of nostalgia of God, says a theologian who advises the Holy See on the formation of seminarians.

Father Amedeo Cencini, of the Canossian Sons of Charity, is a professor at the Salesian University and at the Institute of Psychology of the Gregorian University in Rome. Since 1995 he has been a consultor to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Father Cencini granted this interview to us in the context of the 33rd Meeting of Seminary Rectors and Formators, held in Santiago de Compostela, organized by the Spanish bishops' commission on seminaries and universities. The theme of the meeting was "Education in Affectivity for Ministerial Celibacy."

Q: You spoke at the meeting about a new perspective in the emotional formation of candidates to the priesthood. What do you mean?

Father Cencini: There is no intention to propose some extravagant novelty. It is simply an attempt to put the accent on the anthropological dimension within an ecclesial context in which charisms are shared.

In speaking of a "new perspective" in formation for celibacy, I wish to refer to a conception of priestly celibacy, not only as an exclusive characteristic of the priest of Catholic rite, and much less so of an imposition of the Church, but as a gift received "for the edification of the community," to remind everyone that "in the heart of every man and woman there is a place reserved for God, and that only the Eternal can dwell in it."

It is an exigency of love in the creature that only the Creator can fully satisfy.

It might seem exceptional, but with his choice, the celibate priest reminds us that it is a sort of "universal virginity" that all can and must live, within the vocation in which they find themselves.

I know that it is not an obvious truth, but precisely because of this, a radical testimony of individuals who take this truth to extreme consequences, and who give strong and consistent witness of it, is necessary.

Q: Why must a priest be celibate?

Father Cencini: It is known that there is no essential nexus between the priesthood and celibacy. But for reasons of congruence, our Catholic Church, after a historical discernment that was not at all simple and very resisted, has established as decisive the choice of priestly celibacy.

To this I must add that the Church does not impose celibacy on anyone; it simply chooses priests among those who have received this charism.

The "classical" motivation of priestly celibacy is of an eschatological, as the sign of a future state; Christological, because Christ chose to be celibate; and ecclesiological, as a sign of the Church Bride of Christ or as a gesture that calls for total or spousal dedication to the Church, nature.

Obviously, what is most important is that the celibate make these reasons his own and live his celibacy as a choice of love, with a grateful heart free of egoisms, and with a profoundly spiritual attitude. If the priest is not profoundly spiritual, he is a poor celibate.

Q: What contribution does this condition make to the community of faithful?

Father Cencini: For the community of faithful, a convinced and content celibate priest is a testimony of the primacy of the love of God, and a reminder that every human affection is born from divine love and that, if one wishes to remain faithful and profound, one must acknowledge and respect that place of which we spoke of earlier.

Human and divine loves do not compete with one another. In sum, the charisms are found among them, so that they will recognize themselves in that greater one, the charism of love.

Q: Sometimes one hears it said that celibacy, as the life of virginity, is not good for a person's development, which implies the cause of problems related to homosexuality and pederastic practice. What is your opinion?

Father Cencini: This is one of the most foolish and tendentious things that can be said.

The recent scandals of certain Churches must not lead to deception, because there is no scientific proof which demonstrates that in the ambit of ecclesiastical celibacy this type of problems -- homosexuality and, much less so, pedophilia -- is more frequent than in other ambits.

It does not mean that these incidents are not about grave matters, which need our maximum attention.

The fundamental problem is that of formation. In the initial formation, in which careful discernment is necessary, specific attention is given to the area of affectivity and sexuality, and care in permanent formation must not be limited to constant vigilance, but to positive growth in a mature love, in the progressive experience of a relationship with God, which can really fill the heart and make it ever more capable of loving and of loving in a divine way. Because it must not be forgotten that the celibate loves God beyond any other creature in order "to love each creature with the heart and freedom of God," the Supreme Lover.

Q: Is immature sexuality more evident today than in other periods of history?

Father Cencini: The sexual problem with all its consequences, grave and disturbing, is a general problem that assails present-day society.

There is a "loving disorder" that is very difficult to digest. But I don't think there is a substantial and real difference in respect to the past -- probably because today everything is more visible and exposed, and there is an ever-more complicated atmosphere of ethical anomaly and dropout mentality.

This is why the testimony of a celibate priest, convinced and content with his celibacy, is particularly necessary today.

Moreover, today it is still very evident that a priest cannot consider himself satisfied and with a good conscience simply because "he does not know woman," but must ask himself continually if his celibacy succeeds in giving testimony of the nostalgia of God, if he is able to make it understood that to love God is not a law, an effort, a renunciation or violence to nature, but that it is good because it opens one's heart and opens one wide to others.

Q: To what degree does the consecrated and celibate life respond to this social need?

Father Cencini: The model of a celibate priest is not and cannot be today that of a priest with an ascesis they makes him look sad, serious, almost asocial, but with an ascesis, to give a concrete example, like that of a St. Francis who arrived at such a point in his life as to embrace a leper.

This is what celibacy does: It transforms the heart, makes it capable of feeling an attraction that is not simply human. Such celibacy has much to say to this society and its "loving disorder."

Q: You use the term "celibate for love." What does it mean to integrate sexuality in the life of the priest or the consecrated life?

Father Cencini: Not to relinquish in any way the most important commandment for the Christian, the commandment of love. At times it happens, and perhaps it has happened more in the past than in the present, that concern for the guarding of chastity implies some measures in the priest's lifestyle, in his way of relating, which may make the person chaste but not necessarily virgin or celibate for the Kingdom.

To integrate sexuality in a plan of celibate life means, above all, to see the positive conception of sexuality as a most precious energy created by God and where the Holy Spirit dwells. An energy that comes out of ourselves and which is lived in relation to the other, giving fecundity of life, and to every interpersonal relationship.

To integrate this energy in one's celibacy means to learn to live the sexual instinct or impulse according to its nature and end, in this case, to succeed in liberating the presence of the Spirit that dwells in our flesh. It must be remembered that sexuality passes through the mystery of death and resurrection.

Q: In regard to the topic of homosexuality, and given some of the scandals in seminaries that have been made public recently, what role should spiritual direction or the formator play if this type of problem is detected in a seminarian?

Father Cencini: The question is very delicate and is treated with extreme care, also because when it comes to homosexuality, its nature and genesis, and prospects for solutions and the limitations, there is still no consensus on the part of scholars.

Normally, the first thing that must be clarified is what type of homosexuality it is. The fact of noticing a certain attraction is not always the sign of real homosexuality. There is a structural homosexuality, linked to the lack of identification with the parent of the same sex in the first years of life, with a very strong tendency that normally persists throughout life because it tends to extend to the whole personality.

There can be a non-structural homosexuality, with more recent roots; it is usually in pre-adolescence. It seems much easier to treat in the educational realm. Deep down, it is not real homosexuality and it not extended to the whole personality.

Obviously, each one of these two types [of homosexuality] is followed by a different process of discernment. It is indispensable, therefore, to make a good diagnosis before making any decision.

Very different is the case of someone with pedophile tendencies. Pedophilia, as is known, is recurring and because of this, no one with such tendencies can be admitted to a course of formation of which we are speaking.

Q: In some cases it has been said that the young man or woman may opt for a consecrated or priestly life being aware of their homosexual tendency as, in the end, they will have to fight against their instincts, and it is immaterial if they do so on one side or the other. What is your response to this?

Father Cencini: One does good to a person only when one helps him to live the truth within himself and to make decisions in line with that truth.

Therefore, not only would it be superficial but dangerous to hold as a principle that self-awareness [of the homosexual tendency] will be sufficient for admission to a course of formation.

It is necessary to see, not only that the person is conscious of his homosexuality and of what type it is, but the relationship he establishes with these tendencies -- if he identifies with the risk of not considering the moral slope, or if he feels it as something that does not respond to his ideal and must combat continually -- also how conscious he is of this tendency before God, with or without a penitent conscience.

It is indispensable to know the past experience of this person, if he has had precedents of one kind or another, and if he will be able to keep these inclinations under control to the point of being progressively free and less dependent, but -- take care -- not only in behavior but also in thoughts and desires. As you can see, the discernment is very complex.

Q: Can you explain your phrase: "If we really believe in our ideals, it makes no sense to be afraid of our instincts; on the contrary, we must make use of them to love and to live these very ideals better. With more courage and imagination"?

Father Cencini: It has to do with what I said before about integrating sexuality in a plan of celibate life for the Kingdom.

Sexuality is always the prime material to live one's virginity well. If celibacy is presented only as renunciation of everything that is good, and we appear as the most miserable beings of the world, we deprive the believing community of an indispensable testimony.

Q: What does it mean to "be virgin or celibate for the Kingdom of God"?

Father Cencini: To love God above all creatures, which is the same as saying with all one's heart, soul and strength; to love every creature with the heart and freedom of God, without being tied to any one and without excluding any one, which is the same as saying without proceeding with selective criteria -- elective in human love; more than that, loving in particular the one who is tempted to feel that he is not lovable or who is, in fact, unloved.


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