Continence for the sake of the Kingdom meant to have a spiritual fulfilment

For the first time this year the Wednesday general audience was held in St Peter's Square. As is now customary, the Holy Father drove through  the crowd in an open landrover car before taking his seat on the raised platform. The following is the text of his discourse.

1. We continue our reflections on celibacy and virginity "for the Kingdom of Heaven".

Continence for the Kingdom of Heaven is certainly linked to the revelation of the fact that in the Kingdom of Heaven people "will no longer marry" (Mt 22:30). It is a charismatic sign.  The human being, male and female, who, in the earthly situation where people usually marry (Lk 20:34), freely chooses continence "for the Kingdom of Heaven”, indicates that in that kingdom, which is the "other world” of the resurrection, people will no longer marry (Mk 12:25), because God will be ''everything to every one" (1 Cor 15:28).

Such a human being, man and woman, indicates the eschatological "virginity" of the risen man, in whom there will be revealed, I would say, the absolute and eternal nuptial meaning of the glorified body in union with God himself through the "face to face" vision of him; and glorified also through the union of a perfect intersubjectivity, which will unite all who "participate in the other world”, men and women, in the mystery of the communion of saints.

Earthly continence for the "Kingdom of Heaven" is undoubtedly a sign that indicates this truth and this reality. It is a sign that the body, whose end is not the grave, is directed to glorification. Already by this very fact, I would say, continence "for the Kingdom of Heaven" is a witness among men that anticipates the future resurrection. However, this charismatic sign of the "other world" expresses the force and the most authentic dynamics of the mystery of the “redemption of the body": a mystery which Christ has inscribed in man's earthly history and has been deeply rooted by him in this history.  So, then, continence "for the Kingdom of Heaven" bears, above all, the imprint of the likeness to Christ who, in the work of redemption, did himself make this choice "for the Kingdom of Heaven".

The virginal mystery

2. Indeed, Christ's whole life, right from the beginning, was a discreet but clear distancing of himself from that which in the Old Testament had so profoundly determined the meaning of the body. Christ—as if against the expectations of the whole Old Testament tradition—was born of Mary who, at the moment of the annunciation, clearly says of herself:  “How can this be, since I know not man” (Lk 1:34), and thereby professes her virginity.  Though he is born of her like every other man, as a son of his mother, even though his coming into the world is accompanied by the presence of a man who is Mary's spouse and, in the eyes of the law and of men, her husband, nonetheless Mary's maternity is virginal.  To this virginal maternity of Mary there corresponds the virginal mystery of Joseph who, following the voice from on high, does not hesitate to "take Mary... for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 1:20).

Even though, then, Jesus Christ's virginal conception and birth were hidden from men, even though in the eyes of his contemporaries of Nazareth, he was regarded as " the carpenter's son" (Mt 13:55) (ut putabatur filius Joseph:  Lk 3:23), nevertheless the very reality and essential truth of his conception and birth is in itself far removed from what in the Old Testament tradition was exclusively in favour of marriage, and which rendered continence incomprehensible and out of favour. How, therefore, could “continence for the Kingdom of Heaven” be understood, if the expected Messiah was to be "David's descendant", and as was held, was to be a son of the royal stock "according to the flesh"? Only Mary and Joseph, who had lived the mystery of his conception and birth, became the first witnesses of a fruitfulness different from that of the flesh, that is, of a fruitfulness of the Spirit: "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Mt l :20).

Gradually revealed

3. The story of Jesus' birth is certainly in line with that "continence for the Kingdom of Heaven" of which Christ will speak one day to his disciples. This event, however, remains hidden to the men of that time and also to the disciples. Only gradually will it be revealed to the eyes of the Church on the basis of the witness and texts of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The marriage of Mary and Joseph (in which the Church honours Joseph as Mary’s spouse, and Mary as his spouse), conceals within itself, at the same time, the mystery of the perfect communion of the persons, of the man and the woman in the conjugal pact, and also the mystery of that singular “continence for the Kingdom of Heaven”: a continence that served, in the history of salvation, the most perfect "fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit". Indeed, it was in a certain sense the absolute fullness of that spiritual fruitfulness, since precisely in the Nazareth conditions of the pact of Mary and Joseph in marriage and in continence. there was realized the gift of the incarnation of the Eternal Word: the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father, was conceived and born as man from the Virgin Mary.

The grace of the hypostatic union is connected precisely with this—I would say—absolute fullness of supernatural fruitfulness, fruitfulness in the Holy Spirit, participated by a human creature, Mary, in the order of "continence for the Kingdom of Heaven". Mary's divine maternity is also, in a certain sense, a superabundant revelation of that fruitfulness in the Holy Spirit to which man submits his spirit, when he freely chooses continence " in the body": namely, continence “for the Kingdom of Heaven”.

Example of Jesus

4. This image had to be gradually revealed to the Church's awareness in the ever new generations of confessors of Christ, when—together with the Gospel of the infancy— there was consolidated in them the certainty of the divine maternity of the Virgin, who had conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Even though only indirectly—yet essentially and fundamentally—this certainty should help one to understand, on the one hand, the sanctity of marriage, and on the other, the disinterestedness in view “of the Kingdom of Heaven”, of which Christ had spoken to his disciples. Nonetheless, when he spoke to them about it for the first time (as attested by the evangelist Matthew in chapter 19:10-12), that great mystery of his conception and birth was completely unknown to them.  It was hidden from them as it was from all the hearers and interlocutors of Jesus of Nazareth.

When Christ spoke of those who “had made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19: 12), the disciples could understand it only on the basis of his personal example. Such a continence must have impressed itself on their consciousness as a particular trait of likeness to Christ, who had himself remained celibate “for the Kingdom of Heaven”. The departure from the tradition of the Old Covenant, in which marriage and procreative fruitfulness “in the body” were a religiously privileged condition, had to be effected especially on the basis of the example of Christ himself.  Only little by little did it come to be realized that “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” attaches a particular meaning to that spiritual and supernatural fruitfulness of man which comes from the Holy Spirit (Spirit of God), and that fruitfulness, in a specific sense and in determined cases, is served precisely by continence “for the Kingdom of Heaven”. 

More or less all these elements of Gospel awareness (that is, of an exact consciousness of the New Covenant in Christ) concerning continence are found in Paul. We shall seek to show that at a suitable time.

To sum up, we can say that the principal theme of today's reflection has been the relationship between continence “for the Kingdom of Heaven”, proclaimed by Christ, and the supernatural fruitfulness of the human spirit which comes from the Holy Spirit. 

L'Osservatore Romano March 29, 1982
Reprinted with permission