The reading is John Chapter 6 verses 59-71.
After hearing this doctrine in the Synagogue at Capenahum many of his followers said, “this is intolerable language, how could anyone accept it?” Jesus was aware that His followers were complaining about Him and said, “Does this upset you? But there are some of you who do not believe. Jesus knew from the outset those who did not believe and who it was that would betray him. After this many of His disciples left Him and stopped going with Him.
Then Jesus said to the twelve; “What about you, Do you want to go away too?” Simon Peter answered; “Lord who shall we go to; you have the message of eternal life and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God”.
This reading comes from the end of Chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel when Jesus spoke about his flesh being real food and his blood being real drink. Jesus is in the Synagogue at Capenahum. The people cannot believe him, the language seems very strange to them. It must also seem very strange to Simon Peter and the apostles. They were very sad because it seemed to them that now the work of Jesus was about to collapse because of such teaching. Peter stood there before Jesus. 50m away was the home of Simon Peter. His boats were there, his family was there, his life was secure there. On the other hand beside him stood Jesus and he did not understand what Jesus was saying. And yet unlike the crowd, Simon Peter felt that he could not leave Jesus. He said, “Lord who shall we go to, you have the message of eternal life and we believe, we know that you are the Holy One of God.
There was something in Jesus that Simon Peter had discovered. That something could not be found anywhere else. There is something right about Jesus, there was something real about Jesus, there was something of the truth about Jesus. Peter had found something in Jesus and he could not leave Him. This is faith, this is vocation, and this is the beginning of priesthood.
I remember as a child at about 8 living with my family in a farm in Ireland. We had not many books at home. There was a small book, the Gospel of St Matthew. There was of course no television in those years. And so I sat up each evening reading this little book which lay on a book shelf. When I read and reached the end of the gospel of St Matthew I felt something in my heart. I felt that there was something so beautiful about the life of Jesus that must be right. Here in this world there was no more beautiful way of life than living as Jesus lived.
I think we ourselves must make some kind of a personal discovery of that Jesus as a person. We must become aware of a certain truth about Him, a certain beauty about Him, a certain attractiveness about Him.
In his encyclical on Religious Life Pope John Paul starts with the story of the transfiguration. Matthew 17.
The Transfiguration took place as Jesus and His disciples made their way to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem Jesus will be crucified. His experience on the mountain of the transfiguration was to strengthen Him for his Exodus, that is for His journey beyond this life. But it was also an experience for the Apostles. It would strengthen them when they were scandalized by the terrible reality of the crucifixion of Jesus, the disfiguration of Jesus. This memory this unforgettable moment written on their hearts would be something they could not deny. Something they could go back to and draw strength and know that they had touched the REAL.
What I wish to say is that we ourselves must go to our lives and find that something Peter found in Jesus. We must have some moment, some decision, some experience, some encounter with Jesus that makes us say, “Lord I believe even though perhaps, I do not understand, even though I suffer, even though I’m in the darkness. I do know that You are true.
When I was in the Seminary as Rector I spent a lot of time talking to the students. Each one I interviewed four times a year. And certainly for the first few years I continually asked them the same questions. “Why do you want to be a priest?” Generally, at first they replied that they wanted to serve the people.
I pointed out to them that many people want to serve the people but they do not want to be priests, for example their mother, their brother, builders, taxi drivers, nurse and so on. So I gave them a couple of months to reflect on the question why did they want to be a priest.
When they came for the second time they clarified that they wanted to serve the people in the things of God. This was certainly an improvement.
But then I asked them the following question. But why do you want to serve God? What has God done for you? You can freely use your life for what you want to but yet, you want to give it to God, why? Where have you met this God, why do you respond in this way?
During a retreat we really have to go back to the moments when we were sure that God was real, moments and experience upon which we built our vocation and our journey.
When I confirm children throughout the diocese of Kokstad I generally go on the day previous to give them a retreat. And we reflect on the person and the work of the Holy Spirit. But in the second half of the retreat I like to ask them have they themselves ever met this Holy Spirit. Sure. We see Him most clearly in the life of Jesus. But perhaps, we ourselves have encountered the Spirit of God in our lives.
I give them the time to reflect individually. Then they share in twos and in threes, and then we invite those who want to share their experience with the whole group. We are never short of witnesses. Many of our people have very clear concept of the realness of God. They are sure that sure that God has touched their lives.
I remember a woman living in a village in that great area in Pondoland sharing her experience. She lived with five small children as her husband was away in Johannesburg. They lived in a simple house in the village out in the country. And like most rural country people they were unprotected. It is true they have little doors, windows but any determined robber can come in.
One night ten man broke into the house late at night just before the family went to bed. They immediately began to ransack the house and take what they wanted. They then looked at the woman and began to debate among themselves whether they should rape and kill her. The poor woman looking at the little frightened children fell on knees before the picture of Jesus. She begged Him to protect her. When the man saw her praying they halted and then began to leave one after the other. This woman really felt that was Jesus who protected her on that night. Many people have such experience.
If there is anything clear from the Bible itself, it is that God acts in history. We see God acting in the life of Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets, in Jesus, in the early Church, in the Acts of the Apostles. Yes, God acts in history. But God acts now in our history. And we need to become aware of the action of Jesus in my life. It is true I need the experience of the scriptures to discern the quality of my encounter with Jesus. But certainly you as a priest will have encountered Jesus. And we must bring that into a lived relationship.
As priests it easily happens that our experience of the living God can be crowded out by the pressures of life. We remember Jesus’ story of the grain that fell among the rocks and among the thorns, how the cares and worries of life often extinguishes the life of the seed of the Word of God. For example, resentment and anger enters the heart of the priest and dominates thoughts and emotions. We get into habits of sin which make us uncouth and insensitive to the presence of the goodness of God. We become comfort seekers and center our lives around the vanities of life. We lack a desire for God, we lack attention to God, we are not aware of what St Francis calls; ‘the touch of the bridegroom”. Sometimes too because of our sins we begin to despair. All the time we are driven by our need to control life and everything around us and we are intolerant of any interruptions. And yet, God often comes at the moments of interruption.
So we need to return now to the experience of God. We need to arouse our desires for God. You will remember before the Pope’s visit to England, the English catholic magazine, the Tablet, gave many prominent people the opportunity to write on the subject, “What I would say if I had five minutes alone with the Pope in England”. What would you say, what would you ask for, what would you share if you could spend five minutes with Jesus?
Oh God, you are my God, my soul thirsts for you. I am like a dry weary land without water. Psalm 60.
During a terrible earthquake a large city was destroyed. When the rescuers finally broke in to some ruined houses they found beneath a broken table the dead body of a young woman. But beneath her body and alive was a little child. When the terrible trembling of the earthquake began the woman snatched up her child, she protected the child beneath her own body she dived underneath the table to save them both. She died, her own body was crushed but doing so she shielded her child. Such is love, such is the love that God has for us; by His own body He shields us from the destruction our sin bring upon us.
We need to go back then to experience the gratuitous love God has for us. I remember a Sister who was a wonderful nurse all her life telling how her vocation began at Lourdes Mission in Umzimkhulu. One Sunday afternoon as she returned from church she suddenly felt surrounded by a great wave of love as she crossed the fields alone on the hills to her home. She felt loved by God and from that moment she wanted to belong to God.
Celibacy can only be lived by someone who loves, by someone who has experienced love, by someone who has experienced God’s love.
Modern life is sex saturated. The media, print and electronic media seem to center their plots, their stories, their interests about the sexual activity of people. This gives us the exaggerated opinion that sex is life, that sex is all.
But those who are called to live celibate life are called to love yes, to actually love more , to love in an unselfish way. they are called to admire and appreciate the real beauty of people and not just their bodily aspect. Celibacy is a call to love more not to love less.
Because we live an unmarried life many people not only in Africa but everywhere in the world think of priests as strange creatures. They feel that our lives should be centered on sex. And yet, this world which professes to be so professional about sexuality is a world filled with soulless marriages, abandoned children, people with Aids and STDs, and a world saturated by sex. It seems that modern world does not have a proper understanding of the great gift of sexuality.
Sexuality is based upon friendship, is based upon relationship, is based upon self-giving love. Sexuality that is pure lust will leave people totally empty, they feel used, they hate each other and even hate themselves. Abuse of sexuality is at the heart of so much crime and family suffering and abandonment of children in the world today, the world does not understand sexuality.
There was a family near Ladysmith, they had a shop. The father and mother as good parents educated their two children, a boy and his sister who was some six years younger than him. When the boy finished the Matric he went to University and then came back to run the business at home with his father. The girl too later went to University and after 8 years qualified as a medical doctor. She opened a fine practice in a great city.
The boy at home married and after a number of years had a family of five children. But one day he and his wife were involved in a car accident in which both of them died. They left 5 young children, a large business and an aging father and mother.
This girl who was now enjoying a fine practice in the city in Durban reflected on the situation. She loved her brother and she loved her brother’s children, she loved her parents. So she decided out of love to abandon her practice in Durban and return to run the business, look after the children and care for her parents. Later she opened a clinic beside the shop where she offered free medical service for all the very poor people in the area.
This girl never married yet she showed a wonderful love though she did not express it simply in sexuality.
So a priest is called to love, to love people and to give himself to bring joy and hope into lives.
For celibate living we need a real relationship with God. Without prayer living in celibacy is simple impossible and could even be harmful.
Celibate living involves a balanced person, capable of relating with others.
Of course celibacy is difficult. To live in marriage is also difficult. St Jerome lived at first in Rome as the secretary of the Pope. But because of the life he experienced in Rome, a life of loose living and sexual immorality Jerome decided to become a monk and went to the Syrian desert. And there he began to pray seriously. But we find in his prayers an expression like this, “Lord, I left the city of Rome because of immorality and now when I kneel down to pray what comes before my eyes. It is the image of dancing girls”. So we are tempted and as long as we live in this world we will be tempted. The saints were tempted, St Francis had to throw himself to the snow to extinguish some of his sexual temptations.
St John of the Cross is a man of deep spirituality. He confides that one Sunday morning he was at home by himself when an attractive young woman came to see him. She said she loved him very much and would love to be his wife. John kindly sent her away. Just before he died he remembered this incident and said; “You know it is very hard to send her away”.
Celibacy is made difficult often by yourselves not only by the devil. Anything that helps us deepen our love for Christ will enable us to better live a pure life. A neglected and empty prayer life, stress, boredom, laziness, curiosity, faulty friendships, having no private borders in our houses, no space to be alone, friendships with unsuitable people, watching bad videos, utilizing evil sites on the internet, reading bad books and magazines all make it difficult for us if we wish to live a celibate life. We must make decisions to abandon such habits.
We need to remember that temptation is not a sin. We cannot prevent the birds from flying over our heads but we can stop them from nesting in our hair. We must drive away temptations when they come by having other interests in life and things to do. The sooner we act against thoughts and imaginations the easier it is to deal with them. We need to go to confession frequently and have a spiritual director. We must remember that failure in this area has almost ruined the Catholic Church throughout the world. But at the same time we must remember that God is infinitely merciful and understands the material of which we are made.
Finally I would say celibacy lived lovingly and with kindness and mercy towards people brings a wonderful blessing on the church and on the world and on the parish where the priest lives. It brings them very close to God, very close to people, able to relate with women as fully human persons and not just sexual objects.
Kierkegaard the great Danish writer said, “Lust and joy cannot co-exist.”
Bishop William Slattery ofm