My niece, fatherhood, and celibacy
I had two “prayer hours” left in my yearly silent retreat when I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to the most joyous news I had received in a long time. After almost nine months of Advent-like expectation, my niece, Alena Rose Nerbun, had been born. She is my younger brother’s first baby. As I lay restlessly in bed, my excitement was indescribable and my smile ran from ear to ear. JP is a father! Alena is and forever will remain his flesh and blood.
This exuberance may surprise many who know me, given the fact that I already had 11 nieces and nephews from two of my sisters. As much as I dearly love each of them, and am godfather to two, the fact that I am incapable of being a mother lessens what I potentially could share in common with my sisters. In the case of my brother, we are both now fathers. I am a spiritual father to the hundreds to which I minister as a priest, he is now a biological and spiritual father to Alena.
But another reason exists for my great emotion. It goes back to those two prayer hours I had left on my silent retreat. The first was to pray with and reflect upon the ‘Proclamation of the Gospel’, the Third Luminous Mystery of the rosary, and the ‘Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper’, the fifth and final Luminous Mystery of the rosary.
Together they articulate the essence of celibacy: a radical self-sacrifice and self-giving (Eucharist) to be a bright and visible testimony (a proclamation of the Gospel). Beyond the practical reasons of finances, time, and the ability to easily move to a new assignment, celibacy continues to awe people and make them stop in their tracks. And while for most it tends to evoke a response of ‘you can’t have sex?!’, for me celibacy recalls the radical promise I have willingly made to never be a biological father, but to embrace the spiritual fatherhood of innumerable children that Christ promised (cf. Mt 19:29). As great and true as that is, I still experience suffering and pain knowing that I will never teach my own biological flesh and bones to walk and talk with the Lord.
As much as it has come under fire in recent years, because of the visible failure by some, celibacy will always provide an efficacious sign and example with which no one can reckon. It is unprecedented and one of a kind. In the priest who authentically lives it, such a death to self is truly Eucharistic and Christ-like, and from it the spiritual nurturing of others takes root and buds forth.
Celibacy isn’t elitist. Rather, celibacy is to live as a Christian in a way that is out of the ordinary. Christ lived that way and also taught that some have been given the grace to live that way for the kingdom (cf. Mt 19:11-12), i.e., to live on earth in a way that is like those who live with God and the saints in heaven.
Today, I am living the paradox of the Gospel as a priest, where I can say as I did moments ago at Mass: “This is my Body … This is my Blood”, and joyfully profess my unity with the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and give thanks for the birth of Alena.
By Father David Nerbun