The vocation to celibacy for the heavenly kingdom and the call to marriage are often perceived if not in opposition to each other, at least of difficult combination. On the one hand, for the celibate, the renouncement of conjugal love is seen as a renouncement tout court, and on the other hand, the choice to unite in matrimony may sometimes appear like a diminishment of the pureness of love. St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Ephesus, uses an expression that offers a vision which resolves the apparent opposition between virginal love and conjugal love. Speaking of the reciprocal duty of love between husband and wife, the apostle exalts the original vocation of man to leave his father and his mother to unite himself to his wife, so that “the two become one flesh,” (Genesis 2:24) but immediately adds, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” (Ephesians 5:32). This use of the terms of comparison reveals a new perspective: the greatness of conjugal love is affirmed in its fullness, but placed in a dependent relationship with the love of Christ for the Church.
Here some questions arise which also have to do with the teaching of the Church: “How can a celibate Christ be a model for married people? How can you who are celibate teach and make rules about marriage, of which you have no experience?” The very words of St. Paul indicate the answer. The love of Christ for the Church is certainly both virginal and spousal love because it is a love which, to quote Benedict XVI, “may certainly be called eros , yet it is also totally agape .” ( Deus Caritas Est , 9). A love which is free and prior (“not that we have loved God but that he loved us” 1 John 4:10); unconditional and merciful (“while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” Romans 5:8); sacrificed (“realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” 1 Peter 1:18-19). These are characteristics which apparently do not seem to connote conjugal love, as it is commonly understood, which is, yes, a gift of oneself, but in a reciprocity which requires mutual support and gratification.
Yet, precisely so that conjugal love can be lived not as a temporary, exhilarating experience but persevere as a project for life, spouses, too, need to be capable of a freely given and prior love in which, at least one of them, is capable of loving even when the other does not; of a unconditional and merciful love so that at least one of them is capable of forgiving when the other, after having conquered his weakness, repents; of a love which sacrifices so that at least one of them knows how to bear the suffering of waiting without resigning oneself to defeat. In all of this, the model is Christ because he has loved his Church in this way, as a bride and, “handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Benedict XVI is right, then, when he affirms that, “Fundamentally, love is a single reality but with different dimensions.” ( Deus Caritas Est , 8). In its full significance, love is agapic love, that is, love which is capable of integrating passion ( eros ) and donation ( agape ) in order to satisfy the human heart, whatever its vocation. In this sense, virginal love and conjugal love cannot but spring from one fount and have a single model, which is Christ. Certainly, there are different modalities in the two vocations, but their common source guarantees complementarity. The charism of celibacy for the Kingdom can help spouses not to make an absolute of human love and in anticipation of the definitive communion with God-Love, to bear the weight and the price of the gift of self, despite the weaknesses of the conjugal experience. Those who are called here on earth to consecrate themselves to an undivided love of God can learn from married people the concreteness and actuality of love which cannot be addressed only to God, whom they do not see, but must also show itself to its neighbors, whom they do see. In this way, one does not fall into the illusion that to love God means not to love anyone with that love with which Christ loved us. The reciprocal illumination enriches both vocations and the entire Church in its mission to witness the love of God in the world.
St. Peter’s Square
April 26, 2019
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