by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD(Cand), DHS, OCV
The vocation to the priesthood is a sublime one, as the priest is the minister of life-giving sacraments for the people of God. It is a vocation of service, of ministry. A priest is a servant-leader. Starting from the diaconate, which was instituted to help “wait tables”, and among other things, help the widows and the orphans who are the treasure of the Church, the man in holy orders is ordained to follow the complete self-giving of the Lord to the Church.
Recently, there has been a fringe movement to see priests as the “bridegrooms of the Church”. Or, equally appallingly, the bridegrooms of the ever Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The reasoning goes as follows. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church. Priests image Christ. Therefore priests are bridegrooms of the Church. And because the archtype of the Church is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is also the Bride of Christ, the priest is the bridegroom of Mary. The title floating around is “in persona Christi sponsi Ecclesiae” or “in the person of Christ, Bridegroom of the Church”.
This thinking is dangerous, and contrary to the traditional teaching of the Church. It makes the Blessed Virgin Mary into a sexual object, an affective replacement “spouse” for the woman the Latin priest chooses to give up in matrimony in order to receive holy orders. Far from the respect the priest should be paying to the Blessed Virgin as his mother, the mother of his Master, it puts him on an equal footing with the Mother of God. Spouses, after all, enjoy a certain equality. It makes him infinitely presumptuous, to usurp the place of the glorious St. Joseph, chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary, and of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, such a priest would deem himself better than the Apostle John, who honored, revered, and respected the Virgin as his Mother and not as his Bride. Jesus did not entrust the Virgin to John as Bride, but as Mother. John, a bishop, an Apostle, was to respect, honor, and care for the Virgin as Mother, not as his equal.
A priest is a servant of Christ, a disciple of Christ. In the Latin Church, he willingly gives up marriage to serve as the “friend of the Bridegroom”. A servant or friend does not presume to fancy himself the bridegroom himself. He honors the Bridegroom by serving the Bridegroom in precisely that capacity as friend or disciple. He does not presume to usurp the Bridegroom’s place. The priest serves the Church, anticipating the wants of the Bridegroom and Bride. How does the Divine Bridegroom desire his services to serve the Bride?
It is well known that an image has its limitations. A portrait can be said to be an image of someone. But it lacks life, intelligence, a heart beat, etc. Just as an image of a human can lack many important characteristics of the human being, so too can the image of Christ the Eternal Priest lack as well. A good place to start would be the sacrament of the diaconate. The deacon does not mirror or image or share in the facet of Christ as “head” of the Church (in persona Christi capitis). This is an important clarification that the Church has recently made. So if the deacon, although he images Christ in service, does not in headship, is it too great a leap to believe that a special, intimate aspect of Christ is not shared with priests and bishops, namely, that of being Bridegroom to the Church?
As St. Thomas well put it centuries ago, squashing the idea that holy orders makes a priest/bishop a bridegroom of the Church:
In the reception of Holy Orders someone is not consecrated as a bridegroom, but as the minister of the bridegroom; and so virginity is not required for signifying the integrity of spiritual matrimony, as it is required in the veiling of the woman who is consecrated as the bride. Sent. D. 38 A.5. R. 3.
Any participation of priests/bishops in Christ’s relation to the Church as Bridegroom is very remote, because marriage is not an essential element of holy orders. This is why there are married priests. This is why bishops, although they receive a ring entrusting the Church to their care, can move dioceses, meaning that they are not actually married to the local Church (otherwise, such a move would be adulterous or divorce-like).
There is suggestion that the “evangelical counsels” or “celibacy” inserts a man deeper into the so-called bridegroom dimension of human priests. This cannot be, because neither the evangelical counsels nor celibacy constitute matrimony, spiritual or otherwise. This is a common misconception, based no doubt on the popular idea that the evangelical counsels somehow constitute a human being into a bride of Christ in religious life. But it doesn’t. In fact, St. Thomas links spiritual matrimony not with celibacy but virginity, specifically, virginity that has been “veiled” or consecrated by the bishop, who, incidentally, acts as the “friend of the Bridegroom”, not the Bridegroom himself. In other words, St. Thomas is talking about the solemn liturgical consecration of virgins, found in the Roman Pontifical, in which a female (and he says only a female qualifies to be a Bride of Christ), is elevated to the sublime dignity of being a Bride of Christ.
The Blessed Virgin is not the only Bride of Christ along with the Church. Priests, take heed. For others receive the sublime dignity of being elevated to bridehood with the Son of God, bound by a matrimonial spousal bond. They are the sacred virgins, members of the Ordo Virginum. Do not presume that because you are a priest, that you can lift your eyes unto them and take them unto yourselves as your spouses. They are sacrosanct, off limits, the spouses of the Lord Jesus Christ who have been overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit, to whom you have pledged to serve in continence as your Master and Leader.
If you have chosen the priesthood, you have chosen to renounce marriage. You have chosen a vocation in which you sublimate your marital inclinations in order to serve the Bridegroom as disciples. To serve Him and His Bride. To honor the Church as your Mother. To honor Mary as your Mother. To honor individual consecrated virgins as your spiritual mothers. They are espoused to your Master and pray for you. You have renounced marriage to serve the eternal Bridegroom with greater freedom.
Lastly, if the claim is that a man must be able to be complete in his roles of father, son, husband, and brother, then let us remember that in Sacra Virginitas, the Pope Pius XII pointed out that chastity is not “against” nature, and that human nature will not suffer from being unmarried. Mary is wedded to another, she is off limits to priests. And if the claim is for man to not be able to handle solitude, then why are priests so very special? Are there not bachelors, religious monks, friars, married men who are continent for different reasons? Should they all take on consecrated virgins as their brides because they need to find an outlet for the spousal proclivities? This is absolutely absurd and not well thought out. And what of the women? Should they be seeking out all the clerics as their bridegrooms and center their affectivity on them?
Let this be the audacious proposal: let those with marriage bonds have spousal affectivity and those without marriage bonds restrain themselves. Husbands and wives have the right to spousal affectivity. Sacred virgins have the right to spousal affectivity with their Spouse, Jesus Christ. But all others have chosen other vocations. Let them be content.