by Father Raniero Cantalamessa
"One cannot speak about virginity and celibacy without continually comparing it with marriage... in fact in some aspects comparing the two is the best way to discover the nature and goodness of the charism proper to each", writes Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, a priest of Ascoli, Italy, who has been preacher to the Papal Household since 1980.
Father Cantalamessa's 1995 book, Virginity: A Positive Approach to Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Trans. Charles Serignat, NY, Alba House, 1995) is, if anything, more timely now than when it was written. An excerpt from the book's Introduction is presented here.
Virginity, Celibacy and Marriage
The same reasons which justify virginity for the sake of the Kingdom can also sustain and motivate the efforts of young Christian men or women to preserve their physical and spiritual chastity and integrity until their wedding day. If virginity is that which enables the consecrated person to say to Christ: "My most exquisite fruits I have reserved for You, my Love" (cf. Song of Solomon 7:14), it is also true that to keep oneself chaste with a view to marriage makes it possible, on the wedding day, to give the beloved a priceless gift (secretly desired by everyone) -- the gift of hearing those same words addressed to oneself in their most literal sense: "I have reserved my most exquisite fruits for you, my love".
In any case, one cannot speak about virginity and celibacy without continually comparing it with marriage. Therefore to speak about them is also to speak about marriage; in fact in some aspects, comparing the two is the best way to discover the nature and goodness of the charism proper to each.
Today we are witnessing a real attack by the dominant culture against this value of virginity. According to the well-known tendency to despise what one has lost or is unable to attain (as the fox in the fable said of the grapes: "They are not yet ripe"), secular culture casts suspicion and even ridicule on this traditional value which nature itself defends by surrounding it with the delicate yet sturdy safeguard of modesty. Young men and women are pressured by their surroundings -- often even by the school environment which ought to help them mature -- to be ashamed of their chastity, to do everything to hide it, even to boast about experiences they have not had, simply so as not to appear different from other people. Someone has said that hypocrisy used to be the tribute paid by vice to virtue. Today it is the tribute paid by virtue to vice.
The effect of this mindless assault has been indirectly felt within the Church as well. Nor could it be otherwise, since we live in the world and breathe its air. Whether we go out or stay at home, we are besieged and "de-evangelized" on every side and by every means. Celibacy and virginity, it is sometimes said, prevent healthy, complete personal development. They keep a man from being fully a man, and a woman from being fully a woman. One consequence of this is apparent in the way we present our vocational material. Sometimes at vocation meetings I have had the impression that the invitation to follow a call to special consecration is made with this tacit but clear implication: "Embrace our way of life despite the fact that it involves celibacy or virginity; actually, you will be able to contribute to the coming of the Kingdom, help the poor, raise people's awareness, live without being enslaved to things, and promote social justice". I believe that we must acknowledge our lack of faith and have the courage to invite young people to embrace our consecrated life not despite the virginity and celibacy it entails, but because of them, or at least also because of them. This ideal may very well be the one that will cause young people to fall in love with the religious and priestly life and draw them to it, rather than distance them from it. It has happened before; it happened in the first ages of the Church.
The fact is that virginity for the Kingdom is a splendid value which changing times and fashions cannot alter. All the forces and wisdom of this world, all the so-called human sciences may join together in protest against this form of life, calling it "an outdated abomination" and raising all kinds of suspicion against it; all the sins and infidelities of the very people who have chosen to embrace it may be added to this, and still it would remain, because it was instituted by Jesus. No one will ever be able to uproot that which the Son of God planted with His own hand when He came into the world.
The world itself, without realizing it, pays its own tribute to this value when it uses the words "virgin" and "pure" in a very positive way. An unspoiled landscape is often described as "virgin", the best wool is labeled "pure", and so on. We need to reclaim these words and symbols which our secularized culture has borrowed from the Bible and Christian tradition and emptied completely of their religious meaning.
In an age like our own, when sexual excesses threaten the very sources of life and the basis of society itself, when nature protests with dire warning signals, it is a duty and a joy for believers to rediscover the radical alternative of the Gospel. This alternative does not rule out sex, but brings out its human, free, rational character, preventing it from degenerating into sheer instinct and banality. The poet Tagore, expressing an evangelical insight, writes: "Chastity is a wealth that comes from abundance of love" (not from the lack of it).
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