These things are real

Gerdenio Manuel, S.J., M.Div. ’78 talks with Ron Hansen M.A. ’95 about finding grace versus the dark side, requesting the last seat on the Titanic, and a question all Catholic priests face: How can you live this life healthily as a celibate?

These things are real
Illustration by Sarah Wilkins

Gerdenio “Sonny” Manuel, S.J., graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1971 and entered the California Province of the Society of Jesus that September. After receiving his master of divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, he was ordained in 1979, then went east to Duke University, earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1985. Hired by Santa Clara’s psychology department that fall, he also co-founded the Eastside Project—which became the Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Center for Community-Based Learning—and for 13 years was a clinical psychologist in private practice.

Fr. Manuel’s service to the Society of Jesus has included the positions of director of Vocations, director of Jesuits in Formation, and rector of the Jesuit Community at Santa Clara University, where he was also the first dean of the School of Education, Counseling Psychology, and Pastoral Ministries, and vice provost for University programs and multicultural education. All those experiences have contributed to his wise, sympathetic, and eminently practical Living Celibacy: Healthy Pathways for Priests, published in 2012 by Paulist Press. Enlisting the aid of well-chosen stories and homilies, dispelling myths about the Catholic priesthood, and reflecting on late-night conversations with his Jesuit brothers, Manuel presents five pathways for ensuring the psychosexual health of seminarians, priests, and others who seek guidance about love and commitment.

Since 2012 Fr. Manuel has been the director of the Saint Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco while serving as the coordinator for joining the California and Oregon provinces. In addition to his recent book, he has published more than 20 articles and book chapters on coping with stress or trauma and the relationship of psychology, faith, and religious life.

Ron Hansen’s edited interview of Sonny Manuel was recorded at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos.

Ron Hansen: What prompted you to write Living Celibacy?

Sonny Manuel: It was a question I wanted to ask myself: How can you live this life healthily as a celibate? You know how people say you always study what you are most curious about in your own life? One of my first articles and master’s thesis was about healthy celibacy, and the larger topic I was studying at Duke was traumatic life events. Later I chaired the Sensitive Incidents Team for the California Jesuits and heard the complaints of people who had been abused by priests, and I did some work with clergy who had engaged in that conduct. I also helped with personnel interventions for the Diocese of San Jose. And of course there were things I’d heard in confessions, and just listening to people as a superior, so it was a whole spectrum of experiences. I think everyone struggles with chastity at some level, but the question was: How do some people find health versus what happens when things go wrong?

RH: Could you define for our readers what celibacy means?

SM: Well, celibacy in its simplest form is the commitment not to marry. But all Christians are called to live chastity: to live in a very core way a fundamentally loving life where love is the priority, not instant physical or sexual gratification.

RH: When interviewing candidates for the Society of Jesus, how do you determine if they have the charism to be celibate?

SM: There’s a notion I’m kind of famous for, which is that joining a religious order can seem like you’re asking for the last seat on the Titanic. Entrance into religious orders or clerical life is in decline, and its very effectiveness as an institution has been under question. So in this age of clergy sexual misconduct, I always ask: Why would you want to put your face behind that collar? What I look for is some acknowledgment that these things are real. It’s problematic if people minimize or deny it, and it’s really exceptional when applicants say with a certain sense of humility and without exaggerating that “there but for good fortune I would go.” The vow of chastity is to be in touch with reality, because, in the end, as priests we’re called to celebrate the holy.

RH: Meaning through prayer?

SM: Prayer is to priests what sex is to people who marry, because the way in which we can be with others is to pray, and certainly as a priest a lot of that prayer comes out of separation and even abandonment, but there is an intimate connection there. Eternal love is in all our prayers, in every sacrament. Most people experience it around the whole struggle with death and dying, but we vowed religious experience it through all these separations that we have. We are not without the desire to have permanent, lasting, and true relationships, but we cannot have them in the flesh.

RH: Have you found that most people misunderstand or mischaracterize this particular vow?

SM: Yes. Part of why I wrote the book is because we don’t talk about celibacy in a clear way so that our religious vows are accessible to the laity in a way they understand. For too long we have made it just a life of mystery, and I think that has caused a lot of problems. I wrote the book during my sabbatical year, and there are parts of it that I had in my head from having done workshops for Jesuit superiors, the dioceses, and priests. The connection between finding God in deep, thoughtful encounters with God’s creation, with God’s people, and with God’s self is the beginning of a vocation and lands, in the end, on celebrating the holy. That doesn’t just happen in priests’ lives; it happens in every life where God and Christ and love have taken root. The giving just becomes automatic and unquestioned, as with couples after a long marriage. You know, “Whatever’s mine is yours.” There’s just no question about it. I don’t know that that came so easily to me in religious life 40 years ago. You say it, you promise it, but it’s because you’ve lived it through all that time that you can give it away with greater confidence.

RH: And what about the hope some have that in the future Catholic priests would be allowed to marry?

SM: I don’t think what makes priesthood holy is necessarily chastity and celibacy. Whether a priest is married or unmarried, all the terrible things that can happen will still happen. They’ve done ministry studies across denominations, and married clergy have the same issues around sexual misconduct and alcoholism. Whatever our vocation is, the goal is to live saintly lives. I’ve seen a lot of really wonderful things done by people who don’t have clerical office or recognition but who are either caregivers or service providers and have a generosity about giving their lives and a way of attending to others that I think is sacramental.

RH: Could you summarize the five healthy pathways you present in Living Celibacy?

SM: The first is to live close to God in our deepest desires. It’s the whole question of, Where have you found the holy? When you find grace in your life, what does it ask of you and what do you want to give in return?

Then I point out that priests have to ask who and how they are connected to human community. We tend to look at sex as functional and not relational. To promise to be celibate is not a promise to not be relational. And the other reality is that it’s the very relational quality of community that calls one to priesthood in the first place. We need to develop relationships and communities of support.

The third healthy pathway is a tipping point for everybody; it’s whether they have the humility and courage to ask, “Do you love me?” Because we are loved first, and it’s in realization of that gift that we automatically become generative. One of the ways we stay faithful to the love we’ve received is by continuing to trust in it, which means to be able to ask for love. You can ask from your spouse, your partner, your children, “Will you do this for me?” If you’re not alive enough to ask for love, you won’t hear it from the people who are asking for love from you. If you don’t know what it’s like to be neglected or not acknowledged, you won’t recognize when someone is really in need of attention and care.

The fourth thing I recommend is that you have to learn how to deal and cope with stress. Stressors are either going to turn you to grace or turn you to the dark side. You have to be able to discover and acknowledge what’s happening in you that might be dark, and then you need to be able to interpret and understand where this feeling is coming from. “Why am I acting so desperately? What is it I’m not getting? Is this playing out earlier scenarios in my life that need attention?” Because I feel deprived in some way, I may have a public life that is one thing and a secret life that’s another, and that becomes deeply fragmenting.

And finally I recommend celebrating the holy. To celebrate the holy is to celebrate that your life is not your own, that you do give your life over to God, and then it’s just a following of a movement that is taking place in your life all along the way.

RH: I have read that at any given time, 65 percent of the world is celibate, unmarried, or alone. Could your book provide healthy pathways for them, too?

SM: A lot of those people might be single because their spouses have died. Their lives may be touched by tragedy or physical or financial circumstances that really don’t allow them to have a partner. But the real question is, Are you ever really alone? If God’s promise is to say to each person, I am here, I am with you, I am for you—if I can find that as a celibate priest who’s alone—that can be, I hope, a witness to other people.

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