On Celibacy, Vow of Chastity,
Talk by S. Bridge McKenna during a retreat for priests
Today, we reflect on ministry, and on the whole realm of ministry as priests. I would like to reflect on an area that is a gift that the Lord gives, and invites you as a priest to – that is, the great call to be celibate.
I would like in this brief time to talk on:
For me, you know, when I was 16, we were addressed as ‘mother’. We changed since then, but when I was 16 I didn’t know what it meant. It seemed so funny to have my father coming to see me and calling me ‘mother’. I think now, 22 years later, I understand what my responsibility is, and why I am called ‘sister’. That is what I would like to reflect on.
This morning when Fr. Frank was speaking, he spoke about Corinthians, where Paul spoke about ‘this treasure we possess in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us.” In to-days world,(maybe you don’t hear this as much as I do because of the work I am in with priests) many priests say: ‘You know Bridge I want to be a priest but I am not called to be a celibate” Just recently I met a priest who is very angry that he was called to the priesthood, and still he ministers as a priest. When I said to him: ‘Father, why don’t you ask the Lord for the gift of celibacy?’ he said: ‘I don’t want it!’ Now one has to examine what does it mean to be a celibate? I would like to explain in my own life as a woman what I believe, and what I believe the Lord is asking of us today.
As a woman I would be wrong to say that I wouldn’t love to have children. When I was in hospital, the time I was crippled with arthritis, my girl friends used to ask me: ‘Bridge, wouldn’t you like to have children? That is what a woman – her whole body – everything about her is, - to give life. I said: ‘Yes, I’d love to.’ Is it wrong for me to say that as a woman ‘Yes, I would love to be a mother’? Certainly not! If I denied, if I said ‘no I wouldn’t’, would I be honest? Would I be where I am today just because I wanted to get away from something?
Getting a religious vocation, or having a call to enter the convent didn’t take away from me the normal womanly instincts and the desires and everything that makes me a woman. If I accepted this call to religious life, in order to be a celibate, it doesn’t mean that I then suppress everything in me that makes me a woman, and that I end up being afraid of men.
I remember being a novice. One of the rules in the Order where I was at the time, (maybe it was just in the Noviciate) was, that when the window cleaner, or a man, appeared on the corridor, a bell would ring and we would all disappear. I often thought back since then – is that a preparation for celibacy? If I were afraid of men, if I was afraid of you – then that is not your problem. That is my problem. If I think that in order to be a celibate I have to keep away from, and have to continuously suppress every feeling, and think that everything about my sexuality is bad – this is completely wrong. The most precious gift to me, and the most precious gift to all of us, - the gift that we have given, that the Lord has asked, - is our sexuality. He doesn’t take it away from us. What God does, I believe, is, that when we give our life totally to him, committed to him, he gives it back to us redeemed. He frees us to be able to love in a way that is much greater than we could ever understand. That is why I often think of my own founders Francis and Clare, of the early people in the church, of the stories of the lives of the great men and women who founded congregations. In the testimony in the canonisation of St. Clare, there is a beautiful passage, which tells about her relationship with Francis. We have very few of her writings, just a few of the letters she wrote to some of her sisters. In one of the letters, she describes the vision that she had which describes her relationship with Francis. It talks about one day in a vision she saw herself with a basin and a towel. She was climbing a stairs as she thought to wash Francis’ feet and help him because of his great suffering. The vision changed and she saw Francis opening his chest bare, and out of it flowing living water and she began to drink. That is her testimony. What it symbolised was, that, through the love they had for each other, and through their dedication to the Lord what was born was a great Franciscan family.
Today, we who call ourselves the Franciscan family, men and women, both parts of the Congregation, were touched by the male and female. Francis and Clare together encouraged each other. If they were afraid of each other, they would never have been able to do what they did.
Why am I celibate? Not because I am supposed to be afraid, or not the idea that I won’t be tempted. Yes, we’ll be tempted. Yes, we’ll be attracted. There are many beautiful men that I see that I could be very much attracted to if I am honest. What does it mean? Does it mean we are going to be free? Fathers, - Never! The teaching that long ago we used to receive about practising ‘angelic purity’ – we’re not angels! You are not an angel. Yes we have to practise purity, but I think often we failed to recognise that Christ calls us as sexual human beings, as men and women with sexuality and emotions. This is why I often say that it is impossible to live this life without a life of prayer. For any of us who think that we are going to go through life not experiencing some day meeting somebody, or getting temptations and struggles – Christ has the right to test us. He also as Pope John Paul II said, will give us the strength.
Yes there are precautions and there are ways that the Lord wants to protect us in this call. The first thing that I would say to you is that to be a celibate is not to be a suppressed sexual man or woman. Today there are many, many priests, and many sisters, who have never loved anybody. They go through life protecting their being celibate and have never been touched by any warmth or experience any kind of compassion or feeling.
I remember giving a retreat, and, after the retreat, a priest came to me. He said: ‘Bridge, I never heard a woman preach before in my life. I have a terrible confession’ – and he was beautiful, because he was humble enough to do what wasn’t easy. He said: ‘I’m 55 years a priest, and I’m a celibate if that means that I never went to bed with any woman. But,’ he said, ‘let me tell you I have never in my life loved anybody.’ He went on to explain how he hurt his housekeeper so she wouldn’t get too close to him, and he kept all these nuns at arms length so that they wouldn’t. He said: ‘you know I think I realised today, - I’m really not a celibate. In Matthews gospel it says, - some people renounce marriage, the whole procreation of genital sexuality, – for what? For the kingdom of God! But’ you know Bridge, I am celibate and yet I have never loved.’ Fathers, wouldn’t it be frightening to end up on the day we stand before the Lord and to say: ‘God, I kept myself. I stayed away from women. I am good. Yet nobody ever experienced that divine humanity, Jesus living in me, reaching out to touch.’
I think maybe fear has caused this, and maybe the whole area I’ve heard about, of ‘friendships – be careful!’ I think often people are driven by fear rather than being driven by love. I think for many people their celibate life is a cross, whereas it is supposed to be liberating t he for the gospel.
The reason I am celibate is not to bind me so that I won’t be fully a woman to give life. As a woman, I may not give physical life, but I have a role and mission as a woman to give emotional life, psychological life and spiritual life. This is why I don’t agree with what is happening through the feminist movement in the world where the world is being de-feminised. We as women have something to offer in giving life that you can not offer, but you as men have something to give. You have to give life. What father spoke about last night is I think an example of the importance of the life giving love of Christ that you are called to give. I’m going to use an example myself.
Some time ago, there was a marvellous insight to me in a teaching. About seven or eight years ago in a particular diocese in the U.S. I was invited by the bishop to give a talk on Holy Orders. There was a group of 5,000 people at this talk. It was very interesting because everybody on the platform was giving talks. The bishop spoke on Confirmation, somebody else on Communion and the different sacraments. I’m the only woman up there and I’m speaking on Holy Orders, which is funny. I wasn’t even in the country when they made the decision. I prayed a lot about it, and I got up and thought I did a great job and a great teaching on what a priest is. I was telling the people how they had to take care of the priest, that he had his limitations etc. After the talk, there was a marvellous response from the laity. Five minutes later in the room where I went into, five priests came to me. The first one was leaving the next day to get married. The next was suffering from terrible depression. The next was involved with a girl and had a terrible struggle with his own sexuality, how far he could of, and what to do. I’m listening to all these and saying – here I am telling all these people how great the priests are, and it is the priests I am convicting. They are the ones who are really struggling. On the way back from the conference, I got an inspiration, and the inspiration that came was like an inner voice. ‘Bridge, you have spoken about the priesthood. You have told the people how great it is and you have seen now the suffering. What are you going to do for these men? I felt the Lord saying: ‘I want you to go away and fast and pray.’ The date came to me and I went to Mother Angelica’s monastery, which is in Birmingham. I went off to fast and pray, and just seek what was it that the Lord was teaching me through this crisis that so many priests were having – through the sadness of the priesthood; - men who seemed to be so cold and so burdened. It was the feast of St .John Vianney, patron saint of diocesan priests and of parish priests.
When I got to the airport in New Orleans on my way to Birmingham I saw a lot of priests at the airport, and I thought – am I having another vision – but they seemed to be walking around. One of them came up to me and said, ‘Are you Bridge McKenna?’ I said, ‘Yes.” He said, ‘you know you prayed for me and I was healed.’ I said, ‘Father, am I seeing lots of priests here?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes! Did you not know Fr. Arupe is passing through and we are all Jesuits out here at the airport to see him.’ I thought, -how interesting. Here I was, leaving to go to pray and literally the whole province was out at the airport.
So I go to make the retreat. The first day a priest arrived, celebrated the Eucharist and told them he was 50 years a priest. That whole day I felt the Lord calling me to thank him for the gift of the priesthood. The next day a priest came who talked about his life (without knowing anything about my being there) – about the need he had. He was in great difficulty. For the five days I was there God gave me a different intention each day. The very last day when I was leaving, I was sitting at 6 o’clock in the morning (Mass at 6.30) praying. All of a sudden I get this – as clear as a Television screen – a picture of a group of priests. I see this priest, and it is as if I see Jesus taking his hand and putting it on the priests face, and saying to me, ‘This man is pure of heart. He will become for you a protection as Joseph was for Mary. You’ll come to know him, very clearly.’ His face was distinct. My reaction was – my God I want nothing to do. I’m listening to the problems of priests and sisters, and I thought I couldn’t.
Four years later, without knowing it, I met this particular priest. I met him at a time that he was beginning his work for priests. We talked and I prayed. As I turned to walk out of the college a voice said to me – ‘this is the priest that is pure of heart.’ I can only say, fathers, for me, not that many years have gone by, I think God allowed me this experience – because this priest and myself are very food friends. I would say much closer than anyone would ever have told me it is possible. What the Lord has shown me, is that once you commit your life to him, he will give us support; he will allow us to experience the support of friends.
He taught me much through it and today I would say this priest has been the greatest support, and has protected me. He is not with me; I don’t even see him. He lives in one part of the world and I’m in the other. When I was in Latin-America I remember sitting in the chapel one day. A man came in who was very disturbed. He was trying to take the hosts, and there was a lot of trouble in the chapel. I was sitting praying in the midst of it all. A woman walked up to me and to my interpreter, and she said: ‘Bridge I don’t know what you’ll think of this, but I just got an image of a priest with his vestments around you protecting you. There is some priest somewhere in the world who loves you a lot, and who prays for you.’ You know, fathers, I think it has taught me that it is possible to have a good healthy friendship. Yes it is - but only when our heart is first committed to Christ. There are many women in our world today, and I have met them, who are not interested in your celibacy, not interested in you as a celibate man to be a priest. This is where you need discernment. This is where I need discernment. We have to recognise there are women who will follow you. There are women who will use all kinds of techniques, or all kinds of ways to manipulate you. A woman who takes a priest out of the priesthood doesn’t really love him, because if she loved him – real love makes you a better man. I have found in this relationship which I treasure extraordinary awareness of the presence of Christ. (My mother General has prayed often with me and this priest, and we have worked in many places). I always say that, you know, sometimes we forget that Jesus himself, who was man, had the ministry of women. It is important for us not to go through our lives afraid.
Now there were three things he taught me and I share this with you because I think it is important:-
1st. Nobody can possess anybody:- As a celibate, nobody can possess me, or you - no woman. This is why, in friendships or relationships, these are the signs we have to keep before us, always. I am first the Lords. If the Lord is first in my life then I am able to love in a very free way. If I have a friendship, if there is somebody that I love and that I can share and pray with, that loves me, - if that person wants to possess me then it is not good. I would say to you, being a woman myself, to recognise that often that can happen with women that want to possess. That is where you have to say – this can’t be.
2nd: Secretiveness:- There is a difference in prudence and secretiveness. Prudence means – yes we have to be prudent – we have to take precautions, but there is a difference in doing things in the dark or living in this fear. Why should I be afraid? This friend that I have, - my Congregation love him. They all know him. We have given retreats. Why should I be afraid to say that I love somebody? I love him enough to want him to be the best priest. He would say the same for me. It has made me more of a woman I think than I could ever have been. There was something in me that needed to be challenged, just as in him as a man. But, I can’t be secretive or then I’m afraid there is something wrong with it. There is nothing wrong with it. Is there something wrong with John of the Cross, who is supposed to have carried an image of St. Teresa in his wallet all the time?
3rd: Reverence:- My gift as a sister, as a celibate woman – my vocation is a gift. I have to reverence myself as a woman and reverence the gift I have. That means that I recognise that if I reverence myself others will reverence me. It is the same with you as a priest. If you reverence your vocation and your call, then you will call others to reverence you. I think we all need to have that reverence for each other. The great thing about this in my relationship is that I have a great reverence for this priest, for his priesthood; a tremendous sense of gratitude for what God has given him and I pray very often for him. One of the very interesting things that happened was that he was struck down with a illness and at 4 a.m., 5,000 miles away, I was called and told to ‘phone him. Incidents like that have happened which have shown me that there can be much more unity of heart than connecting, - you know – intercourse of bodies. What is more important is the oneness of heart.
I share these three things with you because I think that it is important not to shun if at times God gives you a gift like this. I know many bishops, cardinals and priests throughout the world who are tremendous men and who have beautiful friendships. But, I also know many men and many sisters who are living double lives. I often say isn’t it foolish. We are not deceiving anybody but ourselves if we play around. There are many priests who have left women really hurt. Many sisters who have been used, and, in the same way, many sisters who have used priests. We are weak, and we fall. None of us can point the finger, and the good thing is that the Lord forgives us. We need to recognise that that is not what God wants. A celibate is not someone who with one hand says to the world ‘here I am, I am giving this’, and at the same time ‘I am taking it back.’
The other thing I will say before I briefly talk on fatherhood is that none of us will ever be free from temptations. So many priests worry, so many priests struggle, and I would just say this much to you – that we have to try. We live in a society that no matter where you look every thing you look, -T.V., adds, everything is suggestive. Newspaper, magazines, everything. We have emotions. We are not made of stone. If a ship sees a storm, it is going to try to divert from the storm. The way to protect yourself is: -if you get upset and you know you are sexually aroused, and struggle with problems in yourself and your sexuality, ask yourself – what do you read? – What kind of movies do you go to? - What kind of company? – Afterwards you are very upset and uptight, then you have to question yourself. If we want to be pure of heart, and if we want to live, our part is to try to avoid occasions, what we call the occasions of sin. Don’t allow Satan to brow beat people into thinking ‘I am evil because I am tempted”. Jesus never said you wouldn’t e. The greater judgement that priests and sisters often forget to examine is – Do we love?
Temptations? We have to ask God for the strength and continuously, daily, and ask him to give us the grace.
The last thing I will say is on fatherhood. One of the greatest needs in our world today is love. Not the distorted kind of love we hear about in soap operas and see in stories. The reason you are called ‘father’, and the reason I was called ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ is because I have a mission.
I had 600 priests on retreat in Lourdes. I now know a mother of 15 children is capable of loving all 15 of them and yet not leaving out any. I would say with the 600 people, I had that ability. I think the Lord has given me for priests the same love – that I couldn’t have maybe if I wasn’t a celibate – to be able to love priests, no matter what is wrong no matter how much they have fallen. To be able to meet each one with love – I would say it is the love of a mother.
I say to you as a priest, ‘ask yourself today, how many people have you fathered into the kingdom of God? How many people have you ever reached out and really loved as a father loves? You know Fr. Frank spoke of the Fatherhood of God. The Father is love. Jesus talked about – ‘my Father will give you whatever you ask’, - the image of the prodigal coming back to the father. I’m going to illustrate this with a beautiful teaching that happened – in fact it happened to the priest that I am very close to.
About a year ago, we were giving a retreat in the south of Ireland. The parish priest in this particular parish was a man who was I’m sure a good man, but very very hard, distant, - a very cold man. There was a mission going on in the parish church, and there was one priest giving the mission. He was really snowed under (overloaded) with confessions.
So my friend said, ‘I’ll go over and hear confessions for you’. So he went over and during it a young girl came in. He couldn’t tell what went on in confession, but he could talk about outside.
After some time with this young girl, he said: ‘There are other people waiting to go to confession, so could I talk to you outside?’
She said: “No, I’m not important. It doesn’t make any difference.” He said: ‘I’m up at the convent if you want to contact me.’ She said: ‘No – it doesn’t matter!”
She was desperate! Twenty years of age. She left the confessional and went off.
That afternoon, Father went out for a walk and when he came back, he got a 'phone call, and the voice said: ‘Father – this is Mary. I was at confession last night. Can I talk to you.’
He said: ‘OK Come up to the convent.’ She said: ‘No I wouldn’t go near the convent.’ He said: ‘Well, I’ll meet you at your home.’ She said: ‘No, you couldn’t come to my home.’ He said: ‘So, where will I meet you?’ She said: ‘I’ll meet you at the football field.’
So, at 8 in the morning, an Irish winter's morning, he set out to meet this young girl of twenty, in the football field. He goes down, and he comes home.
That night he got a call again. He told her, ‘I’m going back to Dublin. Give me your name and address.’ She said, ‘No.’ She held on to his hand and told him this awful story, that her life was very troubled. So he gave her his name and address and said ‘will you write to me?’ This was Holy Thursday.
The letters started coming. She would say:- ‘Dear Father…’ and at the end- ‘yours in trust, Mary”, with the address –‘my room’ at the top. The letters would arrive and she’d pour out her burdens etc. Then she ‘phoned him, and he would just listen. One night she went on and on with her story – half and hour on a pay telephone. He said: ‘Mary, you know I love you. Do you love me?’
‘Ah Father, I couldn’t say that.’
‘Well you have to learn to be able to say that,- to be really able to say it?’
So, a couple of weeks later she contacted him again. To make a long story short, she finally wrote in December. She told him:– ‘that she had a congenital heart disease, - that the story she told him wasn’t true, - that she was afraid to give her name for fear he would be taken away from her, - that her father was American and her mother Irish, - that they were killed in a boat accident in the states when she was four, - that she was adopted by a family in Ireland (her mothers family), but when they discovered she had a congenital heart disease they rejected her. Her adopted brothers misused her. She had nobody. She couldn’t contact her brother in the United States. She was desperate. Any time she was ill her adopted mother would take off (go away). She didn’t know what to do. She was scared of the priest. She wanted to talk. Someone told her there was a priest hearing confession, why wouldn’t she go.’ She said: ‘Father I had to tell you this, and I want to thank you.’
He wrote back. He told her he was praying for her and he was leaving the country but to call him when he got back. He arrived back in Ireland. No call came, but a letter and a package. When he opened the letter, it said: “Dear Father, why did God let it go so long, and now I have to die, that somebody come into my life that loved me.’ Then in detail, the letter told how she had left the church and had become very bitter, but in the last nine months of her life, she returned to the Sacraments and her whole life changed. At the end she said: ‘I often wondered why priests were called ‘father’, but now I know, as I die with this heart disease. (She had an operation, which wasn’t successful). On my deathbed at 20/21 I know now that I am not afraid to die, because if the Father that you talked to me about, reflects you, then why should I be afraid to die.
She made a tape on her deathbed and she gave a most beautiful definition of the fatherhood of the priest. At the end she said: ‘Father, I love you very much. I send you the most precious gift’ – a tennis ball, the pen she wrote with, and little things. There was a space in the box. She said: ‘I leave the space, because I hope maybe there is someone who has a terrible life, like I had, will meet you, and that the space in their life will be filled as mine was.
Her cousin delivered the letter that father wrote to her on her deathbed. They couldn’t understand. They thought she had a boy friend and couldn’t understand that she was writing all these letters, but he was never writing to her. When she opened the letter and saw it was from a priest, she in turn wrote to the priest.
The little girl went to the Kingdom whispering his name as she died. They said she had the most beautiful death. I heard him talk on ‘fatherhood’ afterwards. Ask yourself – you have the privilege of being called ‘father’ – for what? So that you can love people into God’s kingdom. As a priest, and as celibate, if you are afraid to love, afraid to reach out to people – people are crying out. It is love that conquered. It is love that converts, because it is love that Jesus reached out his hands for.
So, I’d like to pray that as a celibate man, the gift you have will not bind you but liberate you to be a great lover. Remember when you are going through struggles and temptations, that the Lord knows. He didn’t call you out of your manhood, out of your sexuality. He called you as a man, with a human body, with all the drives and everything that makes you a man. I don’t think God is going to brow beat you, and condemn you for the struggles you have to cope with, but God is going to ask you – 'Why did you deny my children the love that I wanted to give them through you'.
Let us pray that God will give to us a great charisma of celibacy; and that God will make you a happy priest, because when you love people, it is great to be able to give God’s love and know that that is what he asks of.