Recently I was at a young adult gathering and the topic of celibacy was on the forefront of many people’s minds since it has been covered in the press regarding the Amazon synod and the document from Pope Francis that reaffirmed the Church’s long-standing requirement of mandatory clerical celibacy for Latin Rite priests. In the context of the discussion, one of the topics that was raised regarded the concern about loneliness for those who have sacrificed spouse and family for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
This is one of the concerns I hear most not so much from the men who are discerning a call to the priesthood but from their parents. It is interesting that I almost never hear that parents are worried about scandals in the Church. The two biggest issues that most will raise are the desire to have grandchildren and the concern about their son being lonely. The first of these usually only comes when the man is an only child. The second is much more common.
Loneliness is a part of the human condition and is not unique to those who are priests, brothers or sisters. It is surely a factor that affects the lives of married people as well. I have often quipped that a good priest is never lonely because he is surrounded by people and cherishes those moments when he actually gets to be alone. Still, even the most fervent of us who are constantly engaged in ministry will have moments when the pull on the heart that arises from loneliness wells up inside of us. For priests, as for any person who feels lonely, the issue is not so much that this is an emotion we are feeling as much as it is a question of what to do with that feeling. It is perhaps most common to seek to immediately fill that void with television or some other entertainment. Sadly, many people may turn to things that are unhealthy or destructive.
So what are we to do when this emptiness or loneliness fills our heart?
St. Teresa of Calcutta, addressing priests, once said that loneliness is an invitation from God to turn to Him and spend time with Him. She commented that the emptiness that can sometimes come from loneliness is not something to be resisted but rather embraced since the Lord cannot fill what is full, He only can fill that which is empty. When we feel this way it is the Lord gently inviting us to turn to Him and allow Him to fill the void in us. While these words were directed at priests, and certainly are important and applicable in the life of one who has embraced the call to celibacy, they are equally important for any disciple. We live in the most connected era in the history of civilization, yet studies consistently show that one of the greatest challenges affecting the young today is loneliness. Despite multiple followers on social media or the instant information provided by a text message, we are deeply and profoundly unconnected, seemingly desperate for community while chasing after shadows to find it.
The absence of community and human connectedness are at the heart of what can cause one to experience the pain of loneliness. Apart from the invitation to spend time with the Lord there is the importance also for the priest to have a core of brothers he can turn to and spend time with. Ideally, these friendships were fostered during the years in seminary and grow while facing the blessings and challenges of ministry. When this is joined with a number of healthy lay friendships, he will have a support behind him to combat the pitfalls and dangers that can come from loneliness. Jesus knew the importance of spending time alone in prayer with the Father while rejoicing in the company of those around him. If the priest learns to embrace this model, he will find his time alone as a grace that enhances and blesses his ministry and those he serves.