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Life without sex

Saturday, July 20, 2002

The Washington Post

The summer after college James Stack fell in love.

He was managing a suburban swimming pool when he met her. He had dated before but this relationship seemed special. There was only one problem: He planned to be a Catholic priest.

The college he had just completed was a seminary, and he was headed for graduate seminary. He was supposed to practice celibacy, though he would not have to make the holy promise formally until ordination. He and his sweetheart kissed, he recalls now, two decades after that summer. "I kept my cool."

But he was devastated. He thought his feelings might mean his call to the priesthood wasn't real. Because of his attraction to women, he knew the duty of celibacy was the main thing he had to come to terms with. Now he was experiencing how difficult that duty could be.

"I had a terrible summer," the shaken seminarian told his mentor priest. "I don't even belong here."

Relax, said his mentor, and tell me about it.

Since at least the fourth grade, Stack had felt what he calls "God's presence in me." As he got older, summers were always trials. He'd be going to the beach with friends, meeting pretty girls.

Then he fell in love. She was Catholic and knew he was a seminarian. She thought maybe he could change his mind. Stack thought maybe he should change his mind. The lady or the priesthood? Choose wrong and betray your soul.

His mentor at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., advised Stack to look inside himself, and pray, and discern his true calling. It took months. "The issue of celibacy -- I really struggled, I really fought," Stack recalls. "It was like Jacob's struggle with the angel."

He broke up with her after Christmas. She married someone else.

Stack stood before a different altar 16 years ago. He felt a profound peace in his decision -- even though he had no real clue how life without sex, physical intimacy, children would be tolerable. He just had a simple faith.

"Why would God call me to something I would be frustrated in?"

Self-denial

Canon law defines celibacy to include "perfect and perpetual continence," meaning no sexual activity of any kind, including masturbation.

It's a rejection of everything we are biologically and socially programmed to crave. It's a denial of the core message of so much music and dancing and writing and painting and advertising. It's a lifestyle that would be lethal to the species if everyone did likewise.

Then why do this?

Celibates like to spark such reflection. Part of the point of celibacy, for Catholics, is to confront people with something bigger than biology, society, music, dancing, writing, painting and advertising. And sex.

From the temple virgins who served the virgin goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome, to the celibate Shakers whose communities died out for lack of sex and children, to the latest "Star Wars" movie, in which the Jedi knights are imagined as a celibate elite, celibacy has been a mark of something higher, purer.

Christians, however, took celibacy to another level. Immaculate finessing of sex is a basic facet of the faith. Jesus was born of a virgin, according to Scripture, and remained a virgin, according to Christian tradition.

Not for everyone

Stack, 42, now pastor of St. Jerome's Church in suburban Hyattsville, Md., says he has no regrets. He found that "celibacy is a gift" from God, and a celibate life over time will "blossom and become beautiful." How, in this fallen Freudian world, is that possible?

On a practical level, Stack says, celibacy frees the priest for greater service than if he also had to attend to a wife and children. Spiritually, he believes it focuses his energy and symbolizes for non-celibates that a greater kingdom exists beyond the physical world.

After Mass on a recent Sunday morning -- the 16th anniversary of his ordination, a date he remembers as faithfully as he would a wedding day --Stack in his white alb and red stole wades into the crowd of parishioners having coffee in the basement of St. Jerome's.

On the surface, the scene might resemble social hour at a Protestant church or synagogue or mosque. But in the minds of Stack and his parishioners, this pastoral relationship has an essentially different quality that makes it deeper, better.

His talent, passion, love belong to no individual woman or man. He is nobody's father, but everybody's Father.

"A married man I wouldn't call at 3 a.m. and say 'My husband's really sick, my kid has been in an accident,'" says parishioner Lucy Younes. "But I would call Father."

She adds: "We live in a society where to love pure and chaste from afar is a lyric from 'The Impossible Dream.' It's nice to know somebody's trying."

Because the celibate priest loves inclusively rather than exclusively, Stack discovered he had "literally thousands and thousands of friends." Celibacy eliminated many of the tensions and jealousies of relationships.

He isn't trouble that as a counselor he has no personal experience with marriage or parental life -- celibates reject the notion that you must have lived a problem to address it. Stack is not too proud to say "I don't know." For aid with marriage questions, he sometimes draws on married parishioners. He says he still notices beautiful women, but is not tempted.

"I'm a man of my promise," he says.

The gift of multiple close friendships fully blossomed two years ago when his best friend, Monsignor Thomas Wells, was stabbed to death, just days after Stack's father died. Stack was crushed, but he discovered how deep his celibate relationships were.

"I realized this is what it's all about," he recalls. "This is my family. They love me."

Yet nice as this sounds, is it unique to celibacy? Marriage does not preclude deep friendships.

Stack leads the way to a small room on the upper floor of the rectory. There is an armchair and a dresser. On the dresser is a white cloth. On the cloth is a cross and a gold-plated pyx containing the Eucharist -- the communion wafer consecrated as the body of Christ.

This is Stack's prayer room, where he spends an hour at the beginning of each day. "That's a huge part of why I'm a celibate priest," he says.

Much as a celibate needs people, he needs solitude too. But he isn't really alone. Celibacy clears a space for profound intimacy with God and Jesus.

"I have a great yearning to be with God, to be alone with God, like you being alone with your life," Stack says. "I sit in there to talk to him, and he talks to me. I don't know how else to put it. I hate to use the word: It's awesome."

Recently, he was in his prayer room preparing a homily. He read from the 14th chapter of John. Jesus said: "And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him."

Alone with God, the celibate felt that love to the bottom of his soul, and he started weeping.


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