Father Gerdenio Sonny Manuel, a Jesuit for four decades and a practicing clinical psychologist and professor, didn’t set out to become a celibacy expert, but the title suits him. Despite the large number of books available on sexual health and wellness, Fr. Manuel recognized that a Catholic priest’s celibacy was a topic that had not been adequately explored, especially in recent years. In the wake of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis, his new book, “Living Celibacy: Healthy Pathways for Priests,” hopes to demystify a vow that is both misunderstood and denigrated.
Targeted at priests and men considering a vocation to the priesthood, the book is also geared for the families of those men and for anyone seeking a richer understanding of celibacy and its potential to help experience God in “vital, dynamic ways,” according to Fr. Manuel, currently a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco.
“I wrote the book because the life of a priest and our celibacy is not widely understood by the public, and what is understood, unfortunately, is the mistaken assumption that emerged after the clergy crisis, that priests are either dysfunctional and that if they aren’t, the life would make them so,” says Fr. Manuel. “People haven’t been talking about this aspect of our life and they haven’t talked about it in a way that is accessible and understandable. If we keep being told that our way of life is odd, we will begin internalizing that.”
In writing the book, Fr. Manuel says he relied very much on his own experiences and on firsthand accounts of priests he encountered through his work as a spiritual director. He says that “celibacy is a gift, but it’s also a choice that God graces. It’s a reciprocal relationship, just like in a marriage. It grows out of all of your own personal history and depth into a new possibility and future; that’s the same dynamic in celibacy, where you are introduced to the whole horizon of God. We have to choose our life – whether you are in a marriage or living celibate.”
Trained at Harvard Medical School and Duke University with a specialty in mental illness and community psychology, Fr. Manuel offers five pathways that promote healthy celibacy. The pathways describe how celibacy is experienced and enacted, some of the opportunities and struggles and how the experience of celibacy can enrich priestly life and ministry.
“I titled the book ‘Living Celibacy’ because it’s a way of life, and rather than seeing celibacy as a void, it’s an opportunity to open oneself up to new relationships,” says Fr. Manuel. “In a marriage you have a child and grow a family, you are cooperating in a new creation. By being celibate, you are invited into people’s lives and you get to witness how the sacred emerges in ordinary human experiences. And you basically name the holy for them – that’s the sacramental moment.”
Fr. Manuel says he hopes people read and react to the book and that it “helps them understand what this life is about and how it is a viable life that can help people find God, find their deepest desires and live in community.”