The notion has been floating around that priests are incapable of properly giving marriage prep courses or counseling married couples. Some couples may even ask, “How could you, a celibate man, possibly know what we’re going through?” Yes, it’s true, I could never fully know what it’s like to be married, but are the two vocations really that far apart from each other?
At the heart of each vocation are the vows we make. The key component is fidelity. I may not have been married, but I do know what it takes to be faithful. It takes just as much strength, if not more, to be celibate and faithful to my own vows – especially living in a society that preaches that my way of life is impossible. Although I am not married, I am also aware, as a priest, what leads to divorce. We priests often times have a desk full of annulment cases. Wouldn’t you think priests know more than the average couple what destroys a marriage and what saves it? While a couple may have their own perspective of marriage based on their lived experience, priests have been witnesses to hundreds if not thousands of successful and failed marriages. We have heard thousands of confessions from troubled spouses, dwelt with difficult annulment cases, and in many cases, saved dozens of marriages from falling apart.
We are two sides of the same coin. If a priest fails at his vocation, chances are he probably would have failed as a husband as well. Fidelity demands that we always keep the other person in mind before ourselves. It’s not about what we can receive but rather what we can give. Both vocations are meant for holiness. In many cases, the priest has the very same temptations to be unfaithful to his vows as your average husband. He is as much human as the next person. Vocations fall apart when we become self-centered. A good and holy priest can counsel a married person because he, himself, recognizes the incredible discipline and dedication it takes to remain faithful.
Both vocations have their difficulties. There are days where there are arguments between husbands and wives just as there are arguments between priests and the laity. There are arguments among priests themselves who have to live under the same roof day in and day out (and we don’t get to choose who we live with). There are even arguments among priests and their bishop. There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. All because a priest is not married does not mean he cannot counsel a couple on human relationships. That’s akin to saying a doctor cannot treat a cancer patient unless they themselves have had cancer. It’s absurd. Both vocations require sacrifice. Both are at the service of others. Both seek holiness. Who better to help a struggling couple seeking sanctity than a priest espoused to Christ? Besides, when priests recognize the limitations of their counseling abilities they tend to have numerous resources that can point couples in the right direction, just as no one couple will have all the answers for all married persons. So in short, yes, a priest is very capable of providing marriage preparation and counseling.