Franciscan friars take three vows: poverty, obedience, and chastity.
When we hear these words, they may sound negative, as though we lack money, freedom, and love, respectively. We know from our own lives that poverty, imprisonment, and loneliness are terrible things which harm people significantly. So if the vows only took things from us, they would destroy us. On the other hand, when we understand the vows as positive gifts, we may find that they enliven us, fill us with joy.
I suspect that of the three, the positive value of chastity is the most misunderstood. Some people talk about sex as though it were a “need.” I think the assumption is that if a person cannot have lovers or a family, they must inevitably become frustrated and repressed. God, save us from frustrated and repressed people!
The reality is the opposite: for those who are called to it, the vow of chastity gives us lots of love, and even a new way of loving.
First, a bit of etymology: the word “friar” comes from the word for “frater,” which means “brother.” You may note that many of us are called, “Brother Such-and-so.” This is our identity. Within the human family, our role is not that of the husband nor the lover, it is that of brother. In Jesus Christ, God became our brother. When we live the vow of chastity well, we become good brothers to you, just like Jesus.
As your brothers, we stand beside you. We stand up for you. We listen to you and encourage you. We love you as a good brother would. A husband must have a special love for his wife, but a brother should love all his brothers and sisters.
The crazy thing about it is just how much love we receive. First and foremost, we experience God’s great love for us, which is the foundation of all that we are.
Then, we get to share that love with others, and others share their love with us. Personally, I can say that as a friar I am very loved. The people I know have been so good to me in ways I absolutely do not deserve, and I do my best to honor them and live up to this love.
By not marrying, we do not lose a family; on the contrary, we commit ourselves as sons of God and brothers to the whole human family. You are part of our family and we are part of yours. Our life has its struggles, but in my experience, lack of love is not one of them!
In other words, the vow of chastity really isn’t about what we lack. It’s really not about sex at all. The no-sex thing is secondary to learning a new way to love. Love is the point of our vow of chastity. This vow is not negative. Chastity is deeply life-giving and joyful.
friar Thomas Fetz OFM Conv.