The issue that kept me from wanting to be a priest was the obligation of priestly celibacy. A priest once asked me whether I would do anything in the world that the Lord asked of me. I answered, in my own naive way, “yes”. He then asked, would you then give up a spouse, a family and a home to serve God and His people as a priest? After much internal reflection and struggle, I could only answer “yes”. And so I asked Archbishop Zayek if he would accept me to study as a priest in the Maronite Church. That was almost 30 years ago. At that time the issue of priestly celibacy was settled for me, or so I thought.
By the time I had finished four years of college, I wasn’t looking forward to more academic studies. Nonetheless, I said “yes” to the requirement of further studies to become a priest and so I entered our Maronite Seminary in Washington, DC. Four years later I finished my priestly formation, or so I thought.
Archbishop Zayek wanted me to specialize by studying in Rome. I preferred Paris because of the French language, since most of our Maronite history and theology was chronicled in French. Archbishop Zayek prevailed, I went to Rome to study my preferred subject, Spiritual Theology, which is the study of how the human heart comes to know and love God.
All during the 6 years of post-college formation I struggled with the issue of celibacy, sometimes living it better than other times. However, the issue would not affect me until later. I had friends, my home parish in Flint, and my family who were all supportive. Likewise, the parishes and missions I served as a seminarian- Peoria, Brooklyn, Richmond, Detroit and Washington DC – were all such good experiences of priesthood for me. I hardly felt the difficulties that celibacy would entail. Then came my first parish assignment.
In the summer of 1983 I was assigned temporarily to Philadelphia. During my six weeks there Archbishop Zayek invited me to come to the Chancery in Brooklyn. It was there that he presented me with a letter assigning me to succeed Fr Peter Mahfoud as Administrator (and later Pastor) of St. George in Uniontown, PA. Little did I know that this would be my most challenging yet most beautiful priestly assignment.
The 11 years I spent there as a parish priest were a watershed of love and priestly experience. It was there that I experienced the beauty as well as the struggles of a parish priest in the service of others. I shared the joys and sorrows of life with the families of the parish. As is typical of our Maronite parishes there was a place in every home and every family for the priest.
The people were so very good to me. I learned there that a priest among his people is one of the most beautiful things on earth. Nonetheless, it was there that my crisis of priestly celibacy took its definitive turn. I would either live celibacy generously or I would leave the priesthood.
There is an expression used by military personnel who risk and sometimes loose their lives in the service of their country- “freedom isn’t free”. The same is true of the inner freedom that celibacy offers a man who desires to serve others; it isn’t free either. It comes at a cost.
I would tend the fields of others, and come home to my own empty field. I would care for the joys and sorrows of others, and come home to my own unattended joys and sorrows. It was there in the painful yet fruitful crucible of priestly experience that my promise, my “yes” of priestly celibacy, was tested and tried.
For a time I was disappointed that the Maronite Church in the USA would not allow an optional celibacy as she did in Lebanon. It seemed that there was no flexibility on this issue. Several Maronite priests here in the USA were advocating an optional celibacy, why was the hierarchy not listening?
These questions and more sent me into a deep personal search for the meaning and value of priestly celibacy. I read, I prayed, I cried, I studied, I counseled. I took some time for myself in quiet retreats. Strangely enough, all during this trial period I also experienced the greatest joys of serving as a priest in his parish. I discovered that my humanity was somehow deepened and my compassion for others grew as I suffered with them in loneliness. My heart was restless, and could only find rest in God.
I was happy as a priest — even in the midst of difficulties. Sometimes I got the feeling that the more I faced squarely and didn’t run from difficulties, the more I was able to offer to others. As a priest, in my own humanity, in my loneliness, in my fears and insecurities, I could make real for others, the presence of Jesus. I was living as Jesus did, alone, but not really alone. This was and still is a great joy for me.
Nonetheless, loneliness was the greatest suffering I have ever experienced. Thank God I came out of this crisis, not with a blast of a trumpet or a flash of lightening, but with a slow and sure peace of mind, that helped me trust my initial and generous “yes” to the Lord as my covenant to Him. I was thus more determined than ever to live a life of generous service as a priest. A priest is by definition, “a man for others” as Pope John Paul II describes him.
Married people, single people, divorced and widowed people, handicapped people all share a certain amount of loneliness and suffering because their lives are not as they had imagined. It is all about accepting the limitations and the imperfections of life, and happiness soon follows. Celibacy gave me an opportunity to live such a deep and real solidarity with them, able to feel their pain, and at the same time lovingly accepting celibacy helped me to be satisfied with my “incomplete” life.
Perhaps I needed to experience this so very personally so that God could make fruitful my priestly service to others. To this day I am not sure why I faced such a difficulty right in the middle of my life as a priest, but I feel so much more confident in God’s mercy and His presence because of it.
I know that my own personal experience of celibacy – its joys and difficulties – are uniquely my own. But I also know that some of my own experience is also common to all of our priests. I know that some priests and lay people are not convinced of the value of a required celibacy, and that I may never convince them, but that is not mine to do. However, I can say from my own personal experience, that priestly celibacy carries with it a real “cost” but also a great gift.
To be a “man for others” as a Maronite priest in the USA is a challenge and a blessing. I hope that my own personal journey to discover the value and meaning of priestly celibacy will be of some help to others as we speak about the important issue facing our Church today – the need for good, holy, happy and generous priests.
+Gregory J. Mansour
(Reprinted with permission.)