We hear people speak about "celibacy" and "chastity" but we wonder what such practice actually involves. According to the Webster's New World Dictionary (1988), a "chaste" person is one who is (1) not indulging in unlawful sexual activity; virtuous (2) sexually abstinent; celibate -- whereas, a "celibate" person is one who (1) is unmarried, especially one under a vow to remain unmarried (2) abstains from sexual intercourse. So, as so often happens, the dictionary gives us the run-around by saying "chaste means celibate and celibate means chaste" -- got it?
The 1994 edition of The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia devotes it's commentary primarily to those who have implicitly vowed celibacy as part of their acceptance/ordination. The Code of Cannon Law of 1983 specifies that no person may be ordained unless he has "assumed the obligation of celibacy before God and the Church." The history and complexity of the subject is far too extensive to completely cover in the limited space available here.
When one chooses to accept the call to a ministry which requires a celibate life, then celibacy becomes one of the elements of life that is dedicated to be in direct and full-time service to God. That is why, when you see a priest or nun wearing a "wedding band," it is an outward sign of their marriage to Christ -- the Holy Bridegroom. The ring of a bishop, cardinal or pope take on extraordinary meaning in that the faithful will kiss the ring, not only to show respect to the office, but also show devotion to their "spouse" -- Christ. In some cultures and faith traditions the faithful will kiss the hand of the spiritual leader to acknowledge the dedicated hand that provides them with their spiritual food.
That statement brings to mind an embarrassing event that occurred to me 42 years ago. I was walking in my Franciscan habit on a street in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a small child broke away from his mother, ran over to me, grabbed my hand and kissed it. I tried to stay calm. I gave him a great smile and blessed him -- he and his mother beamed a big smile back at me.
For the lay person, celibacy can also be an offering to God. It can be for a period of time until the single individual makes a vow to a chosen lifemate and it can be for an indefinite time after the death of the lifemate.
I can assure you that the choice can instill in you a universal love of ALL of God's creation -- which gives us a sample of God's love for us.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury
. [1 Corinthians 13:4-5]