Dear Fr Anthony,
Where do priests and religious find fulfillment and comfort in life? It seems that in marriage, everything is more or less concrete (Spouses comfort one another when they have had a bad day, take joy in children’s accomplishments, etc.). On the other hand, priests and religious have less tangible emotional releases such as prayer. Is it enough on which to base a joyful life?
Just look at the faces of Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis…
To answer your question you have to take into account that there are a multiplicity of particular “vocations” or paths within the priesthood and religious, consecrated life; and while your question is posed in more abstract and general terms, people live the priesthood and consecrated life “in the concrete”, among particular companions and friends, working with concrete people in very concrete circumstances, interacting and reacting.
When Peter asked Jesus a very similar question (“We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Matthew 19:27) the answer he received was: “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:28-29) As you can see, it is a double answer in which the first part is said directly of the apostles and the second is about everyone who gives up all these things for the Kingdom. St Mark in his gospel (10:29) adds in a little something extra that they will receive: he says, “with persecutions.”
So Jesus himself is the one who tells us that he will not be outdone in generosity. Now, this does not take away from the real point that you are asking about, that closeness and human companionship that we give up by the vow of celibacy. There is no doubt that there is a world of a difference between those human expressions of closeness and the more spiritual kind of satisfactions of a priest. It is definitely something real that we give up.
Now, the emotional satisfaction that we receive, the sense of family, is not only abstract and spiritual. It is also very real: the priest’s “family” is large, every time he pardons sins in Confession, every time he helps someone die well, or is able to bring consolation and hope, he is rewarded with immense satisfaction. At such times many priests are able to say sincerely, “it was worth giving up everything else to have been here for that person.”
As well, while we know in theory that prayer “ought to” be enough, as you look at it from the outside the priesthood still seems a lonely life; but just like the life of a parent involves much sacrifice that makes sense only in a context of love (and few times in “feeling good”), the same way the real sacrifices a priest makes find their meaning for him in his love for Christ and for the people Christ has put in his hands. It is true that his prayer-life is not one continuous emotional high but has many, many valleys and deserts; it is true he has to die to himself in many ways; it is true that often the truth he has to preach is not going to be accepted by all, but none of this matters. Actually, in some mysterious way it is then that Christ becomes a “more real” presence in his life. There is a depth and quality of happiness (the happiness of the Beatitudes) that is easier to experience than to explain, when we turn everything over to Christ, and it seems to increase when the human motives to doubt it seem greater.