The three countercultural promises of a priest

In just a few weeks, I will ordain three men to the priesthood for the Diocese of Winona-Rochester. Ordaining priests is the greatest privilege that I have as a bishop. Period. When, at the high point of the ceremony, I place my hands on the heads of the deacons and call forth the Holy Spirit upon them, I will be standing in the tradition of the Apostles, who similarly laid hands on those to whom they imparted authority. I can testify that nothing in my life has ever made me feel more humble and more grateful.

There are three great promises that a man makes when he accepts diaconal and then priestly ordination, and each one of them is a marvelous countersign to our culture today. First, he promises to recite faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours, that wonderful compilation of Psalms, hymns, and prayers, offered at five points throughout the day. I have been engaging in this prayer for the past 38 years of my priesthood, and I can testify that, though sometimes challenging, it has been a tremendous source of spiritual strength. It involves, to put it simply, the steady and conscious consecration of time.

As so many studies have shown, younger people today in the West are rapidly secularizing themselves and disaffiliating from the institutional churches. They constitute, as Charles Taylor has argued, the first generation literally in human history that is coming of age without a keen sense of the transcendent. And as I have been insisting for years, this emptying out of the sacred has wreaked havoc in the minds, hearts, and souls of this generation, among whom the numbers measuring anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation have been spiking. Therefore, when a young man makes a solemn promise before God and his community that he will, for the rest of his life, pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day, he is standing athwart this soul-killing secularism. He is declaiming that God exists and that God matters.

The second promise that a man makes is to live celibately. I know it has been said a thousand times, but it bears repeating: Celibacy is not a denigration of sex and marriage! We ought always to avoid a dualistic or Platonizing interpretation of celibacy whereby the renunciation of marriage is construed as a sort of judgment on physicality or pleasure. So, what is the right way to read celibacy? It is, first, a path of freedom. Untied to spouse and children -- and all of the responsibilities attendant thereto -- the celibate man can dedicate himself entirely to God and the people he serves. As I type these words, I can see my bishop's ring, which is not simply a sign of my office but also a wedding ring, for it signals my untrammeled devotion to the people the Lord has entrusted to me. St. Paul clearly teaches: "the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided" (1 Cor. 7:32-34). Moreover, celibacy provides a witness, even now, as to the way we will love in heaven, where, as Jesus himself said, "we neither marry nor are given in marriage." This doesn't mean, of course, that heavenly love is less than married love here below; on the contrary, it is greater, more intense, fuller, and richer. How indispensable that, in a society practically obsessed with sex and sexual freedom, there should be, living among us, men who embody a spiritualized form of love.

The third and final promise that a man makes at his ordination is to obey his bishop. "I promise obedience to you and your successors," he says as he places his hands, in the manner of a feudal vassal, in the hands of the ordaining prelate. I vividly remember when I did this on the day of my ordination, placing my hands in those of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, whom I barely knew, and vowing to do, within the limits of law and morality, whatever he or his unnamed and unknown successors would ask me to do. At that moment, I surrendered my "career" -- which is to say, any itinerary or trajectory that I would set for myself. I put my life in the hands of my bishop, trusting that, through his will, the Holy Spirit would direct me. Once more, how strange this move seems today! One of the most fundamental values for people now is self-determination, and not only regarding the direction of one's life, but the very meaning of it. I have often referred to ours as "the culture of self-invention." We have even reached the point where the determination of one's gender and bodily identity is entirely a matter of personal choice. Whereas the default position of most young people today is that their lives belong entirely to them, the priest, on the day of his ordination, says that his life does not belong to him at all, but rather to God and for God's purposes.

If you're in the neighborhood of Winona this June 8, I invite you to come to the beautiful basilica of St. Stanislaus Kostka and watch three young men make a joyful and very countercultural commitment.

- Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester.