Women as
sisters in the faith

The mystery of celibacy can teach a priest about the special dignity of the opposite sex.

By Cristoforo Fernandez LC

The topic of the relationship between priests and women brings to mind the original plan of God who, when creating the human person in his own image, created "male and female" (cf. Genesis 1:27). In this context Sacred Scripture presents the vocation of matrimony and family in which man is given a "helpmate" with whom he unites, "and both become one body" (Genesis 2:24).

When a priest pursues his vocation to celibacy, he not only "leaves his father and mother," but also the possibility of any marital relationship with a woman. His relation with all women takes on a peculiar spiritual and human form, which does not necessarily exclude them from helping him. One can understand, therefore, why, when the Lord proposed this vocation to his disciples, he added: "Let anyone accept this who can" (Matthew 19:12). This "mystery" has more to do with praxis than with doctrine, because the priest -while understanding the demands and motivations for celibacy - also feels the tendencies of his own human nature.

Moreover, unless a priest adequately resolves this paradox inherent in his vocation, he endangers his priesthood and exposes himself to living a life of celibacy in frustration.

"When I was a child, I used to like to go for walks in the country and it amused me to chop the heads off flowers with a stick. Later, when I went to school, I used to like to pick a flower and put it on my table. Then I told myself that flowers were beautiful right there where they grew, and so I stopped cutting them and admired them in their natural setting. It was the same with women. One day I told the Lord that I didn't want to pick any one single woman because I wanted to let them all bloom there where they were." That is how Fr. Stephan Kovalski recalled his experience of choosing celibacy in order to live among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta's "City of Joy."

With this image in mind, I can see how women are in fact the flowers of this earth whom God has planted to embellish, perfume and console human existence, some as mothers, others as sisters or as companions. A man also perceives the development of his sentiments toward women: while the child "chops their heads off," the youth discovers a particular fascination in women, at first in general, and afterward more selectively, until finally he chooses a mate.

Fr. Kovalski refers to his own personal option for celibacy with an expression that sounds very modest: "because I wanted to let them all bloom there where they were." In other words, as a man he wanted to admire them there where they grew, and as a priest he wanted to leave them to bloom in their natural habitat.

However, it is not just a question of "leaving them", but also of giving the Kingdom of Heaven the place it should occupy as the complete and sole object of love and with all the consequences this entails in the priestly vocation. As St. John of the Cross so beautifully put it: "Heaven is mine. Jesus is mine. Mary is mine. All is mine." When one wants to hold on to some particular object, all else escapes him, but when one possesses nothing, then he can enjoy all. This is one of the keys to voluntary celibacy, and only in this light has chastity a meaning. The total gift of oneself in celibacy is in fact an option of love.

In Fr. Kovalski's case, as in that of every priest, it was an option for love of God, and also of the innumerable sisters that God gave him in compensation.

Today more than ever priests can be aware of the extraordinary value of women in society and in the Church. Indeed, their religious practice and apostolic action often seems to have more impact than that of men.

Moreover, Pope John Paul II has majestically portrayed the charism and genius of femininity in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem. According to the Holy Father, the essential components of women are so exemplary as regards the sincere gift of self, that this can be compared to the great mystery of the Church as Spouse united to Christ. The Pope underlines the special sensitivity that woman has for man, and, indeed, for everything essentially human, and which is expressed in the natural tendency to especially direct her attention toward some particular person. The woman's personality, given her tremendous capacity of love, cannot fulfill itself except by giving love to others. Her strength lies precisely in the gift of self, and in the fact that God entrusted man to her. "Thus the 'perfect woman' (cf. Proverbs 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit." Likewise this can be said of each of the women who surround the priest in his ministerial practice.

The experience of the priest's relationship with women materializes at the different levels of his being as man, as priest and as pastor. As a man he is instinctively aware of the tendency to search for completeness in a stable relationship with a woman, a relationship which he may also perceive as distorted on account of original sin. As a priest he feels the tension between the joys of self-giving and the sacrifices this implies. As a pastor he must deal with many women, both young and mature.

Fr. Kovalski -an exemplary priest and pastor- describes in detail the variety of sentiments that assailed him amid the daily realities of his ministry in the slums: "How could I not fail to dream sometimes of a certain human tenderness? How, amid so much misery, could I fail to succumb to desirable women, who were such beacons of grace and seduction in their multicolored saris? In the ugliness of the slum, they were beauty itself. They were flowers."

The fact is, priestly ordination does not change that natural tendency in a man toward feelings of tenderness or attraction to women, who may radiate their charms unconsciously.

In such situations, according to Fr. Kovalski, the important thing is to remain lucid. He himself did so by holding on firmly to the fundamental option he had made, and by learning to distinguish his own reactions when temptations arose. "Since I had decided not to seek a lasting love, with all its associated implications, I had no right to accept passing loves either. After all, I had responded once and for all to the appeal of the Lord of the Gospels and I made mine his injunction to have no other household except the one that he would show me."

Moreover, he understood well that one of the fundamental means of perseverance was never to forget his life of prayer. Those precious moments near Jesus Christ helped him to clarify his ideas and to sharpen his will. He experienced that whenever he doubted, talking with Jesus in the Tabernacle shielded him from temptations and calmed the storm that raged within his soul.

However, it wasn't always easy for Fr. Kovalski, nor is it for any priest in today's world. In his "Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 1995," Pope John Paul II says, "The Lord's prayer: 'And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,' takes on a specific meaning in the context of contemporary civilization, steeped as it is in elements of hedonism, selfcenteredness and sensuality." Thus he says, "The vocation to celibacy needs to be consciously protected by keeping special watch over one's feelings and over one's whole conduct." Here, one can direct special attention to ensure a proper use by the priest of the mass media, especially television and readings.

Nowadays there is the danger of a certain "normality" in the relationship between the priest and women. Ordinarily it is difficult to expect women to create distance between themselves and a priest, unless he knows how to promote it naturally. The important thing for the priest lies in his having a personality which so authentically radiates light and purity, that women feel attracted toward him precisely with that same kind of purity.

The Pope seems to suggest this in his Letter when he compares the relationship between priests and women to that which exists between son and mother, between brother and sister, where "'woman as sister' represents a specific manifestation of the spiritual beauty of women; but it is at the same time a revelation that they are in a certain sense 'set apart.'"

Surely it is in the context of this gentleness of human and spiritual sentiments that he reminds priests of the traditional advice of priestly spirituality to treat women "with the respect and prudence that corresponds to their dignity."

Lack of sincerity in this matter is extremely dangerous. Some, influenced by dubious schools of psychology, preach another way of living celibacy by strongly recommending intimate friendships and flirtations between priests and women, without, they say, going any further. Such an opinion obviously lacks a realistic anthropology, and rather seems to reveal blatant hypocrisy.

"We should not assume that a conscious and free choice, as profound as it may be, is in itself sufficient to correctly channel these passions. They are instinctive and blind, and always seek their own objectives, no matter how far the subject has travelled along the path of interior purification. Lives of numerous saints and Christian mystics abundantly illustrate the point."' (1)

Once again, Fr. Kovalski's experience vividly illustrates this point. He admirably analyzes the effects that relationships with women in the slums produced on his sensibility: "An innuendo, a hand laid on mine, a flirtatious way of adjusting a sari, or a disturbing look sometimes led me to think their intentions might be suspect. But then perhaps I was mistaken, because in India links between men and women are frequently stamped with a certain ambiguity."

In any case, those were intimate emotions that he had to manage with honesty and responsibility. He also realized that his condition as a religious did not protect him completely in these situations. Nevertheless, the important aid of priestly attire can never be ignored.

He further observes: "I noticed that it was always during periods of relaxation that temptation hit me hardest, and not during intervals of intense trial. It was always during a phase when my relationship with God was in some way impoverished that I was most vulnerable." Fr. Kovalski also offers an explanation: "If you don't find your joy in God, you seek it elsewhere." He finally notes that "I was particularly aware of this kind of danger in my relationship with Margareta, the young Christian widow who had brought me the bread and wine for my first Mass in the slum," because for every man there will always be a woman who responds more intensely than others to his sensibilities.

Today's world offers the priest a magnificent opportunity of a true and sincere pastoral and spiritual relationship with women, in a spirit of authentic celibacy.

A correct external relationship is not sufficient. The interior attitude is much more important, an attitude of true appreciation, regard and affection that reflects the way our Lord himself treated women and led them as "sisters" toward the Father.

As John Paul II put it in his Letter, "Every priest thus has the great responsibility of developing an authentic way of relating which does not admit of ambiguity. In this perspective, Saint Paul exhorts his disciple Timothy to treat 'older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity'" (1 Timothy 5:2).0

(1) Maciel, M., Integral Formation of Catholic Priests, New York: Alba House, 1992, pp. 81-82.
This article appeared in Sacerdos, Year 3, n.7, April-June 1996, pp.17-20, and is reproduced with permission.

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