There is a strong possibility that the appointment of “elders” by Saints Paul and Barnabas in the early church communities established throughout the Mediterranean world was the foundation for the discipline of celibacy that has enriched the Catholic Church down through the centuries.
“They appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.” The Greek word for elder, presbyter, evolved into the German word, priester, into the French word, prete, and into the English word, priest. But it is the original connotation of “elder” as older person or even senior citizen that is of concern now.
In the ancient world, an elder, in both secular and sacred circles, was a person of proven stature, a person who had raised a family, succeeded in business and was able to enjoy the fruit of his labors. An elder would naturally have a mature wife, grown children, and respectable resources to provide for himself and his family. To be an elder implied a certain amount of freedom. A younger man would be concerned about securing a trade, establishing a reputation as a good worker, providing for his family, forming a reputable household. An elder as an established community figure would not have to worry about these concerns; he would be free to dedicate his life to the community of the church. Legitimate family cares would already have been settled and the service of the wider community would be feasible. The man who had proven himself a good “pater familias” to his own family was now free to assume the role of “pater familias” to the local church family. This ability to be free from other commitments in order to award total dedication to his spiritual children, his believing brothers and sisters in the church, set a policy, a discipline, an ideal, that would evolve into the celibate life that Pius XII called the jewel in the sacerdotal crown.
When St. Paul enumerates the requirements for a bishop he demands that such a candidate “be married but once.”
This underlines the argument presented above. An elder who was recently re-married, initiating a new spousal relationship, starting on a second family, taking on new responsibilities, would not be able to demonstrate the same total dedication to church life that a man in a mature relationship would be. An elder should be able to dedicate himself fulltime toward spiritual generation and not be distracted, no matter how legitimately, with generating a new family of his own. Hence, St. Paul demands a bishop be married just once.
Christ certainly esteemed the married life, restoring it to its original status as a lifetime of familial love established in Eden. Christ’s church would understand the Savior’s reverence for marriage and would see it evolve into the sacrament of matrimony so sadly misunderstood, threatened, and abused today. St. Paul for his part would see the sacrificial love of Christ for the church reflected in the nuptial love of husband and wife. So the celibate Catholic priesthood does not generate from any disregard for marriage. Rather, the roots of celibacy are solidly ecclesial as suggested above – the freedom to dedicate oneself entirely to the church community – but its roots are also Christological and eschatological.
It must not be overlooked that Christ himself was celibate. Jesus knew that his was mission of spiritual generation. He came to introduce the believing world to his Father, God. He came to deepen man’s appreciation of the supernatural. He came to affirm the reality of the heavenly, the eternal, the otherworldly. He chose to focus as well on the poor, the down-trodden, and the alienated rather than on the attractive, the appealing, and the alluring. Certainly Christ did this by his preaching but he also conveyed these transcendent values by the example of his celibate life. Christ sacrificed the comforts of this world in order to bear witness to the consolations of the next world.
Celibacy was then and is now counter-cultural. The ancient Jews were very family oriented. The unmarried man was a curiosity. Jesus chose this state to bear witness to a world beyond his neighborhood. Modern man is very carnal-minded. The celibate man is again a curiosity. The celibate priest bears witness once again to a world beyond the physical. Single-minded Christ-like dedication and hope-filled Christ-like otherworldliness are at the heart of celibacy.