03 November 2009

Celibacy and Religious Life

A friend sent an email with this request in it:

This semester we are teaching Theology of the Body, right up my ally. I missed one planning meeting and it happened to be the meeting when we broke up responsibilities of who was teaching what chapter, so guess what chapter I got? Yeah that's right Celibacy and Religious Life and I am suppose to stand up and give them a personal testimony type thing while tying in the chapter. Kind of hard when I am not in the religious life, so this is where you come in. I was hoping you could put a little something together that I could read to the high school kids, from a young person that is in the seminary....

My response (Sorry in advance for the length):

Hi, my name is Matt Janeczko. You’ve never met me before. In fact, you’ll likely never meet me. I grew up in New Jersey, went to school with Nichole in Washington, DC, lived in Virginia for a year, spent a summer traveling across the country, moved to Brooklyn, New York for nine months, then lived in Victoria, Kansas for two months. Right now, I’m living in Allison Park, Pennsylvania, a suburb just north of the city of Pittsburgh. I’d like to consider myself a pretty normal guy. I’m a big Mets fan and New York Giants fan. My hobbies are reading and running. I finished a half-marathon a few weeks ago and am training for the Pittsburgh marathon in May. Despite my New Jersey roots, I’m a big country music fan. I played baseball up through high school, but never tried out for it in college. Standing only 5 feet, six inches was sort of an impediment. So, as you can see, I’m a pretty normal guy. In fact, we’re probably pretty similar. Oh, and I’m Catholic too. I always sort of had my faith on my mind growing up, but I never got too into it. My family went to church on Sunday and we said a prayer before dinner. But, there was nothing more than that. I got involved with some youth group-type stuff in high school and in college, but God was never priority number one. Maybe Jesus was important, but just as long as there wasn’t a football game on, you know?

This began to change a bit in college. My third year at Catholic University, it changed a lot. My mother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. After some pretty serious treatments, she recovered, but the entire ordeal lasted about nine months and taught me something about the preciousness of life. Pretty soon, I began looking at life differently. I began to see the gift of life as just that: a gift. And I began to think about how I could respond to just how lucky I was. I took a job as a youth minister for a year in Maryland – that’s when I lived in Virginia. I worked with middle and high school students and young adults at Resurrection Parish. But, after a while, I began to realize that I thought I heard God calling me to something more. In reasons that will become a bit clearer in a little bit, I decided to make a big change in my life. I’m now a Capuchin Franciscan in my second year of formation – think of formation as school for friars. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of St. Francis before, but here are some of the basics. Francis was born in an Italian city, Assisi, in the 13th century. His dad was a rich merchant who went away for long stretches and had big dreams for his son. Francis wanted to be a rich knight; whenever there was a big party in town Francis was there. However, God had other ideas for Francis. In Francis’ first battle was a night he was captured. During his recovery from the entire ordeal, he began to hear the stirrings of God in his heart. One day Francis made his way into an old church and heard the voice of God telling him to “rebuild my church.” Francis thought God meant the actual building. In reality, God wanted Francis to rebuild the Body of Christ. Pretty soon Francis had given away all of his belongings – and gotten into big trouble with his father – and started preaching the love of God to anyone he met. To make a long story short, there were soon men – and later women – attracted to Francis’ way of life and his vision of loving God. These people became the first Franciscans. Eight hundred years later, we’re still here.

Now that the background is finished, I should probably explain to you why I’m writing this. Nichole asked me to write to you all about the ideas of celibacy and religious life. Now, I know immediately what you’re probably thinking, if, at least, you’re anything like me. Celibacy equals no sex. How can that be any fun at all? Isn’t everyone supposed to get married, have kids, and grow old watching their grandkids play with the dog on the front lawn? Well, I’m writing to tell you that isn’t all there is to life. There are some people who are called by God to live celibate – unmarried – lives as a part of their ministry in the church. Before you think that this sounds boring, I want to introduce to you three different people and tell you a bit of their stories. Two of them have lived long, happy lives doing amazing things for the church. The third story is of a guy who is just starting out on his celibate journey.

Brother Jim

Brother Jim grew up in Ireland. He’s a Capuchin just like me, but he’s much older. In fact, I don’t think anyone really knows how old Brother Jim is. But, trust me, he’s old. When he was a young man, the Capuchins in Ireland decided to open up a new mission in California. Brother Jim was picked for the task. He came to the United States and began working in California. At some point, he volunteered to go further south to work in Mexico, despite not knowing a word of Spanish. In his entire 18 years there, it seems Br. Jim only learned how to say, “Buenos Noches.” And yet, each day found many of the young people of the desperately poor area following him around as he tended his garden. To and fro he would move from the garden to the friar’s home to the market place with his vegetables. With a huge smile on his face, he greeted everyone he met. He spent 18 years there making all sort of friends and being loved and loving people who couldn’t understand him and who he couldn’t understand. As he got closer to eighty years old, Brother Jim finally moved back to the United States. Now living in California, in his upper 80s – we think – Brother Jim spends eight hours a day in the sun tending to the gardens. He still beats everyone into the chapel each morning – we think he gets there about five in the morning. And he still cleans the dishes for all the friars after each meal. Jim is a man totally in love with his brothers and sisters. In his older age, Brother Jim has become a bit hard of hearing, but we think that he sometimes plays along just to get people to laugh. Some people will shout and shout and shout to get his attention, but then another will quietly say something and he’ll respond with a big grin on his face. Here is a man who knows how to laugh, love and to live life! Here’s another brief story which will tell you exactly what Brother Jim is all about.

As Jim got older people would always ask him, “Brother Jim, what are you doing in Mexico?” “Doing the Lord’s work,” he would respond. Then they’d ask, “Well, when are you going to come back home and retire?” “When the work is finished,” he’d respond. And finally the question would come, “How will you know when it’s finished?” Inevitably, Jim would say, “When God tells me it’s finished.” Then he’d break into a big grin and start laughing as his Irish blue eyes twinkled. Jim has lived at least sixty years without a wife, girlfriend or child. And yet as soon as anyone meets Brother Jim, they fall in love with him. What you see is what you get. There is no threat of Brother Jim making fun of you, no chance of him asking you to do something to earn his love. He gives it freely without cost.

And that’s the first lesson about being celibate: celibate priests, brothers and nuns can love without cost. You know they speak with you because they love God and are trying to love you. Being celibate allows us to go places that no one else can go.

Celibacy is about transparency: what you see is what you get.

Sister Kitty

When she leaves a voice message on your phone, she’ll always identify herself as Sister Katharine. But, to all the people in Baltimore and to those who work with Southwest Visions, she’s known as Sister Kitty. Sister grew up in Georgia and joined the Sisters of Mercy as a young woman. It’s the only life she’s ever known. She has spent time in Central America and the United States. Sister Kitty isn’t as old as Brother Jim, but she’s getting up there. She’s broken a leg and had heart troubles, but she hasn’t let that slow her down. I met Sister Kitty as a youth minister. She currently works with the group she helped found, Southwest Visions. This organization buys abandoned houses and empty lots in the most decrepit part of the city of Baltimore and sells and rents them at a low cost to families looking to escape cramped apartments for a life in their very own homes. Two summers in a row I had the pleasure of helping chaperon a group of high schoolers who helped Sister Kitty pull weeds, clean empty lots and sweep up sidewalks. The thing about Sister Kitty is that she knows just about everyone; and, if she doesn’t know you, she’ll get to know you by the end of a simple conversation. She has a smile that can light up a room and a still-present soft southern accent which puts even the harshest city dweller immediately at ease.

One day, I watched over a group of youth clearing an empty lot in which Southwest Visions had not yet been able to build a house. At this particular moment, I was on my hands and knees attempting to coax a stubborn weed-whacker into working. Sr. Kitty pulled up in her car to inspect the progress. Before she walked over to me, however, she started talking to a complete stranger walking down the street. He spoke mostly Spanish; she spoke only English. (First Brother Jim and now Sister Kitty lacked Spanish skills – take this a lesson – not even clergy and religious are perfect!) I spoke just a little bit of Spanish, so I went over there to see what I could do. It turns out that this man, Hector, had not been able to find work for a few days. He lived in a small apartment with a few other guys; he sent back whatever money he could to his family in Central America. Sr. Kitty immediately sprang into action. She knew someone who needed a backyard cleaned up. Pretty soon, we were all in Sr. Kitty’s car traveling to “just the right place.” Sr. Kitty didn’t speak Hector’s language, and Hector barely spoke hers. But, Sr. Kitty saw a person in need and was going to respond. Now, think about this for a minute: Baltimore is one of the most dangerous cities in America. Drug violence is rampant and sometimes one doesn’t even know if the police can be trusted. But here I was with Sr. Kitty and a man we had met on the street just a few minutes before driving away to find him work. Sr. Kitty had no fear. She didn’t need to think about anything but the person across from her in need. I’m not saying that being a sister, brother or priest gives you special magical powers or anything like that. Sr. Kitty knew the area pretty well and wouldn’t have gotten involved with him if she thought the situation was dangerous. But, still: she was completely available to help.

By remaining celibate, people in the religious life are able to witness in a very special way to others. Not only are they able to be transparent, they’re also able to be completely available to those who need to be served. Just as Jesus was constantly being bugged by all sort of people who needed healing in their lives, so too is Sr. Kitty available all the time to do what needs to be done.

Celibacy is about availability: we can always be focused on serving the person in front of us.


I loved being a youth minister. I spent long hours at the office preparing activities. I tried to make it to as many school plays, musicals, softball games, baseball games and other events as I could. I found myself spending way more time at the office than the forty hours that is normal for a job. This was all well and good: the parents were happy, the youth were happy and most importantly, my boss, the pastor of the parish was happy. And I was happy too. Yet, there was a problem: I spent everything I had at the “office” each day. And by the way I started my forty-five minute commute home, it was usually after dark. At this time I was dating a spectacular young woman. She graduated a year behind me at Catholic, so she was still taking classes. As much as I loved spending time with her, I found myself drawn more and more to ministering to many people. I couldn’t just love her; I found myself needing to love more and more people.

One day driving home, I experienced a sort of revelation in the car. I’m wired for inclusive love, not exclusive love. Let me explain. Most people get married, right? They are wired for exclusive love. They witness to the love that God has for us by loving their husband or wife and their children. Surely they’ll have other friends and interests, but if they’re putting their all into the marriage, they will make their own family the priority. On the other hand, if you are like me, you’re wired for inclusive love. You can’t just be tied down to one girl or one family. This isn’t to say that you marry several women at one time! Quite the opposite. Focusing on an inclusive love means you attempt to better mirror the love that Jesus has for us. Jesus doesn’t love you more than me or me more than you. He loves us both very much. And that is what being a religious calls us to do. To love specifically as Jesus did. We are called to love as many people as much as possible. Priests and religious might not have a wife or husband to whom they go home each night, but we find ourselves part of more families than we can imagine. We baptize, marry, and bury. We counsel, teach and heal. We listen, we advise and we forgive. We do all these things for the people of God. We love inclusively.

Celibacy is about love: the type of love that reaches to everyone around us.

I hope this has given you a better picture of what celibate life is all about. Surely there are difficulties in this life. I get lonely sometimes. But, you know what? Married people get lonely sometimes too. Don’t believe me? Ask one.

Celibacy isn’t for everyone, but for those who are called by God to it, there is nothing more rewarding. Celibacy makes us transparent people, it makes us available people and it frees us up to be more loving to others.

And if that doesn’t make you think twice about following a call to be a priest, brother or sister (or friar like me), then how about this: Don’t take my word for it, talk to God about it.


Dan said...

Great article and a I like the 'Inclusive Love' description. Good to read 'real'articles about people being led to the celibate life today.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! As a religious sister myself I find the article quite well written. I love your use of the term inclusive love. Inded you made me think of my own vows! Thank you!