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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Father Raymond Gawronski and Priestly Celibacy

Fr. Raymond Gawronski's room at St. John Vianney Seminary looked out toward the mountains. In the winter, at first dawn, the sun would reflect off the top of those mountains in powerful red and orange hues that grew longer and brighter. This glory he saw on those mornings were as a shadow of the divine glory already dawning on humanity. Renouncing sin, moderating our use of comforts and conveniences, fasting, keeping vigil, all of this removes veils before the Light of Christ as He shines our hearts. The priesthood and priestly celibacy were also part of this dawning.

Father Gawronski lived in this new light and dedicated his priesthood so that others might do so too. Such a life was cultivated most of all through long hours in quiet prayer alone, in intimacy with the Father, attending to the Word of the Father with love. Indeed, besides periodically spending time in the wilderness, he would rise in the very early in the morning daily and spend hours in prayer long before most everyone else in the seminary was awake. He immersed himself in this silence convinced that this saving Word disguises Himself in the solitude and quietude of our earthly existence, and in that hiddenness, He teaches us all things. A spiritual director, he was very concerned about the distraction that technology presents in our relationship with the Lord. He saw over-indulgence and excessive gratification as a particular threat to the priestly way of life - escapes from the very mystery that celibate chastity ought otherwise avail a soul, and a contributing reason to the lack of fruitfulness in the priestly ministry of many today. It is true that he loved movies, operas, literature and all kinds of music, but he also was weary of our tendency to entertain ourselves to death. Thus, he constantly reminded those priests and seminarians who came to him for direction that not even intellectual pursuits were enough for our hearts. We needed to keep ourselves vigilant and ready for something much more meaningful. He knew that Lord comes as a thief in the night. He tried to convince those who sought his counsel not to cling so fearfully to the dreams that they might lose. The safety of a cubicle might open to a successful career, even an ecclesial one, but will never demand very much in terms of human maturity. Christ demands everything, even the courage to step beyond the limits of social convention and into a wilderness vulnerable to Divine Love. In that wilderness, Fr. Raymond would help men let the Thief steal their hearts -- reassuring them that they came from Him to begin with. We simply put the goodness of God first and when we do, we make ourselves vulnerable to His coming into our lives and to steal us away. What do we really lose if we trust God? If there is nothing to lose, why not trust Him with the gift of our sexuality as well? This particular reflection is offered for those who are discerning whether to embrace celibate chastity for the sake of the Kingdom and who believe that the Lord might be calling them to the priesthood. Celibate chastity opens to this radical trust, the surrender of this nuptial gift to the Lord so that He can make us fruitful in a manner that goes beyond all our expectations. This is not merely a practical reality - it is a mystical one. When this kind of chastity is unleashed in the priesthood, this spiritual fruitfulness is brought to bear on the salvation of the whole world. A Ukrainian monk of Mt. Tabor in California, Fr. Raymond Gawronski, also known as Br. John Mary, was an avid advocate of priestly celibacy, even for the Eastern Churches. This is because he connected the gift of ministerial priesthood with Christ's chaste manhood, and argued that Christ's chaste masculinity was intrinsically a priestly reality. Those who entered into this mystery of Christ's priestly existence through ordination were not only stamped by it, but it inserted them into the whole work of redemption in a singular way, in a way that takes up even their own masculinity. Moreover, the relationship between priesthood and manhood opens out to the horizon of Christ's celibate chastity and the new unity of love and truth found in the Body of Christ. Father Gawronski's position had Patristic foundations. The Fathers held that every human Christ did, He did as God and everything divine He did, He did as Man. This means that if He was celibate in his chaste masculinity, something divine was being manifest in it. If He was priestly in his filial relationship to the Father, something profoundly human was being manifest in it too. Christ, the High Priest, was celibate and spiritually fecund in his human body as the Son of God, and priests who serve the Body of Christ are meant to participate in this mystery. The priest who lives in celibate chastity out of devotion to Christ shares in the spiritual fecundity of the Lord's mystical Body. The priesthood is not a bodiless reality. It is an inherently relational mystery. The priest mediates in the relationship between God and man through his priestly actions performed not only in the invisible movements of soul, but also in his flesh. The more integrated priestly actions are with the movements of a priests heart, the better mediator he becomes. In the Great High Priest, these actions were perfectly integrated in a new way so that those joined to Him by faith also realize a new integration of body and soul. Those who are ordained priests in Christ signify this integration through Word and Sacrament for the whole Mystical Body. Christ's Body is not accidental to his redeeming mission - it is its very instrument - that mystery through which the mystery of our salvation is realized. What is the body, however, except that by which we realize communion with one another, the gift by which we unveil the spiritual truth, that by which we are able to speak heart to heart? No where is this realized more in the natural order of things than in marriage. Here, man and woman gift the total gift of themselves, one to the other, through a total gift of their bodies, a complete sanctioning and blessing of one another's fecundity. The celibate foregoes such communion, and remains deprived of the mutual possession of hearts that marriage knows. Yet, when chaste celibacy is subordinated to faith in Christ, the possibility of an even deeper and more fruitful communication opens. This is because celibacy is animated by faith towards new relationships of grace. Renouncing the natural friendship of marriage out of devotion to Christ opens onto new supernatural friendships - relations of grace established in the Body of Christ. Such a renunciation, when made out of devotion to Christ in faith, shares in the mystery of Christ's death. Only the unique really dies, he argued. Christ was the most unique man who ever lived. There is something superabundantly unique about his death. While it is true for every Christian that the closer one draws to the uniqueness of the Lord, the more one realizes his own uniqueness in the Lord; in the celibate chastity in the priesthood, this is true in a particular way. Joined to the uniqueness of Christ's chastity through their own renunciation, they are enabled to enter into this special dimension of His death, the dimension of his dying as a chaste man totally dedicated to the Father. Dying with Him spiritually this way, celibate priests become with Him a source of life in a particular way. Along these lines, Father Gawronski recognized that we must be ready to be emptied of anything that the Lord deems necessary for Him to communicate Himself to us. This is where Christ's divine sonship comes in and defines humanity's priesthood before God in a whole new way. The Lord always acted in obedience to the Father and His obedient love is the wellspring of all human salvation - the power by which the whole world is made subject to Him. Faith in Christ opens to this obedient mystery - through union with Him, we participate in His own loving obedience, extending in space and time its saving mystery. This is why indifference to all that is not the will of God is a specifically Christian attitude. We are not indifferent to the world or to the plight of those who suffer. We are not cynical about the goodness of creation or people. While this is true of every Christian, for the priest, this divine and filial readiness animates his priestly actions so that in him, the saving work of the Great High Priest is manifest to the Church anew. In this, Fr. Gawronski proposed that the Only begotten Son of the Father opened up the pathway of obedience to us in our frailty by suffering in his chaste flesh the chastisement of our sin. This is to say that our Savior mediates the saving love of the Father through surrendering His masculine purity to us completely, even to the point that we have abused all that is good, beautiful and true about his chaste manhood unto death on the Cross. In suffering His passion and death out of love for us and obedience to the Father, the Father's merciful love bears away our sin and frees us for a better love, a more meaningful life. Not all priests are called to be monks but something about their very existence is oriented to chaste celibacy - an offering of their body for the sake of the Body of Christ in obedience to the Lord whose saving mystery they mediate. Fr. Gawronski knew that the priesthood, rooted in Christ's own filially animated masculinity, is an office - a gift entrusted by the Lord to exercise His power and authority for the building up of the Church. As such, since His power and authority come from obedience unto death and ordered to the same obedience, a priest can only carry it out to the extent that he enters into this same mystery -- and in this, the dawn from on high is breaking upon us.

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