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The Priest's Way To God

AT the close of our last chapter we dwelt on the connection between mental prayer and the general tone of a priest’s spiritual life. To one with any experience of the spiritual life, this connection soon becomes quite obvious. Without mental prayer in some form or other the spiritual life will not flourish; but, on the other hand, unless the spiritual life is healthy, mental prayer soon becomes difficult. It becomes clear, then, that mental prayer is not merely one particular exercise of the spiritual life, tucked away in its own corner of the day, for it is, in fact, both a source and a summary of our relations with God. If we are not sincere in our service of God, we cannot be sincere in our prayer, we cannot talk to him or even meet him without constraint and uneasiness. In actual fact the whole spiritual life is a unity; all our actions should, in a wide sense of the word, be a prayer, an expression of our devotion to God. Consider but one example given by our Lord’s life. Entering into the world he said to the Father: ‘Behold I come to do thy will.’ And we know that he never ceased to do that will and to fulfil that prayer of consecration, for he was obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross. In fact, the very sacrifice of Calvary which ended our Lord’s life in the eyes of the Jews was but a summing-up and a perfect expression of the whole of his life.

Now, we priests offer that very same sacrifice every time we say Mass. If we want to follow him, if we want to live a spiritual life, we must endeavour to mean the Mass, to be sincere in what we say when we offer sacrifice to God. And we must also endeavour to see that our day’s work and actions are in harmony with our daily sacrifice. It is true that the theology of the Mass is very deep and complicated. The immensity of the sacrifice of Christ, as High Priest, of himself as Victim is so overwhelming that we are apt to overlook our personal association with him as Priest and as Victim. It is this latter association that is especially relevant here. In the encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ we are reminded that not only does Christ offer himself in the Mass by the ministry of the priests, but that he also offers each of his members. So that when we priests are offering Mass, we cannot avoid offering ourselves. Unfortunately, we tend to overlook that fact. We feel, perhaps, in some vague way that although sacrifice in the Old Law was an external sign of an interior sacrifice, the offerer offering the victim as evidence of his will to offer himself to God, yet since Christ has replaced the sacrifice of the Old by his unique sacrifice of the New Law, there is no need to worry about our personal part in the matter. Even if this were true—even if sacrifice had lost its function as a visible sign of our invisible sacrifice—yet, since Christ offers us in the Mass, we must be prepared to take our place with him as victims. We are his friends, not merely his servants. And the mark of friendship in this connection is, as Pius X pointed out to us priests, summed up in the phrase: idem velle, idem nolle, to have the mind of Christ, to share his views, to share his devotion to the Father.

We cannot too earnestly urge the importance, for every priest, of this personal participation in the sacrifice of Christ. The point is so important that we feel justified in citing some authorities. St. Thomas, speaking of the priest’s Communion at Mass, writes: ‘Whoever offers a sacrifice ought to become a partaker in it, because the external sacrifice which is offered is a sign of the interior sacrifice by which one offers oneself to God. Hence by the fact that he partakes in the sacrifice (namely by Communion) the offerer shows that he really shares in the interior sacrifice.’

Summa Theol. III, 83–4

Pius XI was most insistent on the need for such participation even by the laity. One text from Miserentissimus Deus, the encyclical on reparation, will suffice. ‘We must, then, form together in the august sacrifice of the Blessed Eucharist the act of immolation made by the priest with that of the faithful so that they too may offer themselves up as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing unto God.” Therefore St. Cyprian dared to affirm that “the sacrifice of our Lord is not complete as far as our sanctification is concerned unless our offerings and sacrifices correspond to his Passion.”’ The late Holy Father Pius XII developed the point in his encyclical, Mediator Dei. He desires ‘that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity.’ He continues by quoting St. Paul: ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,’ and exhorts the faithful: ‘Together with him and through him let them make their oblation and in union with him let them offer up themselves.’ Explaining the above text of St. Paul, the Holy Father warns us that it ‘requires that all Christians should possess, as far as is humanly possible, the same dispositions as those which the Divine Redeemer had when he offered himself in sacrifice: that is to say, they should, in a humble attitude of mind, pay adoration, honour, praise and thanksgiving to the supreme majesty of God. Moreover, it means that they must assume to some extent the character of a victim, that they deny themselves as the Gospel commands, that freely and of their own accord they do penance and that each detests and satisfies for his sins. It means, in a word, that we must all undergo with Christ a mystical death on the Cross, so that we can apply to ourselves the words of St. Paul: “With Christ I am nailed to the Cross.”’

This exhortation is addressed to the laity. If this is their ‘chief duty and supreme privilege,’ how much more is it ours? If these are the dispositions appropriate for those who assist at Mass, what must be expected of us priests who such a special part fulfil in offering it? At least, we too must apply to ourselves the words of St. Paul: ‘With Christ, I am nailed to the Cross.’

Lest, however, a wrong emphasis on the necessity of sacrifice should make our vocation appear too negative or too gloomy, let us recall St. Augustine’s description of true sacrifice: ‘Omne opus quod agitur ut sancta societate inhaereamus Deo,’ and be assured that the ultimate purpose of sacrifice is not so much the desstruction of ourselves as the uniting of ourselves to God. Many priests will get a new light on the Mass from the translation of Canon Masure’s book, The Christian Sacrifice. But whatever we do, we should leave nothing undone to come to some proper appreciation of what we are about when we offer Mass. A proper view and a sincere celebration can and must be the centre and source of a most holy spiritual life.

But our devotion and our dispositions must not be confined merely to the time of Mass. If we offer ourselves as victims, we do not cease to be victims when we leave the altar. We must be prepared to have God take us at our word. We have given ourselves to him in the same way as Jesus Christ gave himself to his Father; we cannot but expect that the Father will treat us as he treated his Son. In fact, it is for that very purpose that Jesus has called us to be his priests—that by sharing in his life and death, we may share in his joy and his glory. Patience, then, has a very special significance for us priests; patience, especially in the ordinary trials of the ordinary day’s routine, makes us participators in the Passion of Christ. And indeed every priest would do well to take patience as the subject of his particular examen for, say, a month every year. Our own spiritual lives would benefit from it and so too would those with whom we have to work.

We must strive, then, to practice patience as a means of carrying out our offering of ourselves in our daily Mass. But there is another point to which we must give particular attention, a weakness which we must be careful to avoid. If we have truly given ourselves to God, self-seeking must no longer be a principle of our actions. Fr. Grou S.J., in his wonderful book, Manual for Interior Souls, puts before us an ideal which may seem too high but which contains the secret of peace and holiness. He writes: ‘The first result of our devotion to God (and, we may add, of our sacrifice of ourselves in the Mass) should be the union of our hearts with the adoration and annihilation of Jesus in his Mother’s womb. When we give ourselves to God, it is unfortunately too often with a view to becoming something great, something distinguished, pride and self-love exercising a strong influence over our dedication to God. Let us now give ourselves to him with no other view than to be entirely consumed and destroyed, with no other desire than to sacrifice for ever all self-esteem, all anxiety for our spiritual exaltation, all personal interests, all views, all considerations and reflections concerned with self. Let us once and for all lose sight of ourselves and give up our being to God alone.’

Some readers may feel that such an ideal is too high for a diocesan priest. And indeed one cannot help sympathizing with such an objection, for Fr. Grou is asking for a very complete sacrifice of oneself. Yet the matter may appear in a different light if we recall the words of the bishop who ordained us: ‘Understand what you do, imitate what you handle.’ We ‘handle’ the sacrifice of Christ, we are asked to imitate it. Such a high ideal will, perhaps, become more acceptable to us if we read the encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, of our late Holy Father, Pius XII. He is writing for all the faithful but time and time again he returns to the need of their making an offering of themselves in union with the Christian sacrifice. To them he writes: ‘In order that the oblation by which the faithful offer the Divine Victim in this sacrifice to the Heavenly Father may have its full effect, it is necessary that the people add something else, namely the offering of themselves as a victim.’ If that is what the Holy Father required from the laity, what did he ask from us, his priests? Truly can we exhort each other: ‘Let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus!’ And it is no impracticable ideal, for we have the power of Christ at our disposal. By him and in him we have all fullness so that nothing is wanting to us in any grace.

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