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The Priest's Way To God

MORE than once in these pages we have reminded our readers that, although the priesthood is not a state of perfection in the canonical sense, yet there is no doubt whatever that a priest is bound to tend to perfection in virtue of his ordination and his office. St. Thomas in the Summa

Cf. II-IIae, q. 184, art 8; q. 189, art 1 ad 3

is quite definite about this, saying that in the priest, because of the most august mysteries to which he is dedicated, ‘there is required greater interior sanctity than is required for the religious state.’ Pius X was insistent on this point. In his very first Encyclica1,

E Supremi Apostolatus, Oct. 4th 1903

he summed up his policy in the words of St. Paul: ‘Instaurare omnia in Christo . . . ut videlicet sit omnia in omnibus Christus.’

Ephes. I, 10.; Coloss. III, 11

And, in order to achieve this purpose, he exhorts the hierarchy to make their first charge that of sanctifying the clergy: for Christ must first be formed in those who are chosen for the work of forming him in others. And the standard of holiness he sets for priests is significant. ‘Qui tamen explere munus queant, nisi priores ipsi Christum induerint? Atque ita induerint, ut illud Apostoli eiusdem usurpare possint. “Vivo ego, iam non ego, vivit vero in me Christus . . . Mihi vivere Christus est.”

Gal. II, 20; Phil. I, 21

‘ He even quotes the exhortation of St. Paul:

Ephes. IV, 3

Ut occurramus in virum perfectum, in mensuram aetatis plenitudinis Christi,’ which, although addressed to all men, especially applies to the priest who, he writes, ‘idcirco dicitur alter Christus, non una sane potestatis communicatione sed etiam imitatione factorum, qua expressam in se Christi imaginem praeferat.’

Let us note this double aspect of our union with Christ. It is the priest’s great privilege to be an ‘alter Christusby a share in his power. His work is our work; his strength is our strength. We sacrifice in his name, we absolve in his name, we preach and minister in his name. In all these works, it is his grace that gives us the power to perform our priestly functions. At times, perhaps, our humility is not deep enough to prevent us ascribing some of our priestly work to ourselves, but few of us are so mad as to forget that the principal part is played by God himself. The very magnitude of the task imposed upon us by our ministry of itself recalls to us the fact that we share in the power of Christ. But we are not so mindful of the other facet of the identification which makes each of us an ‘alter Christus’: namely, that to which the Pope refers when he writes, ‘sed etiam imitatione factorum,’ Elsewhere he has expressed his teaching in a lapidary formula: ‘Est igitur nobis persona Christi gerenda.’ We must in fact put on the mind of Christ and share his interior dispositions as much as, if not more than, his exterior deeds. And while the circumstances of our appointed work will limit the extent to which we can exercise our share in Christ’s powers and actions, little except our own lack of good will and generosity can limit the degree to which he can reproduce in us his interior dispositions by his grace.

And this is what he requires of us. He has not called us servants; he has chosen us to be his friends. And the friendship he looks for is that which, according to Pius X, is characterized by a union of mind and heart, a sharing of sentiment and outlook, a community of purpose and effort. As the Pope writes: ‘Quoniam vero idem velle idem nolle, ea demum firma amicitia est; tenemur ut amici, hoc sentire in nobis quod et in Christo Jesu, qui est Sanctus, innocens, impollutus. . . . At maxime, ut ministri eius in praecellentissimo sacrificio, quod perenni virtute pro mundi vita innovatur, debemus ea animi conformatione uti, qua ille ad aram crucis seipsum obtulit hostiam immaculatam Deo.’ In other words we have to unite ourselves to Christ our Victim as well as to Christ our High-Priest. Friendship with Christ will not be very deep or very sincere if it excludes a sharing of his sentiments in regard to suffering. But we need not be afraid of being generous with him, for he has assured us that his yoke is easy and his burden light.

We have quoted Pius X, not in order to convince the priest of his obligation to be holy, but to show him that it is both possible and practical for him to be holy, and that holiness for a priest consists in loving friendship with the Sacred Heart. In fact, it is part of a priest’s vocation.

If we priests fail our Lord, this, I think, is the point at which we fail him. There is a tendency to feel that the most important thing we do for our Lord is the work of our ministry or rather the apparent success of that work. Friendship and love tend to be regarded as the ornament of a priestly life rather than as its essential purpose. Yet this is just the opposite of the truth. When our Lord was ordaining the apostles and giving them his last testament before his death, all his words were of love and union rather than of works and fruit- bearing. It is true they were being made apostles; it is true they were being sent forth to bear fruit. But their apostolate and their fruitfulness were to be the result of their union with Jesus. We priests cannot ponder too often or too deeply those mysterious words of our Lord at the last supper: ‘Abide in me: and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the Vine: you the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.’

John XV, 4–5

Any fruit we bear in the ministry is the result of union with Christ, if not our own union, then someone else’s. That in fact is where we priests can delude ourselves very seriously. Our ministry may be quite fruitful for souls, but the major part of the reward may go to someone else whose union with Christ brought down the grace that made our work fruitful. We should not forget the teaching of Pius XI with regard to the value of contemplative monasteries in the mission fields. Approving the Constitutions of the Carthusians, he wrote: ‘It is easy to understand how they who arduously fulfil the duty of prayer and penance contribute more to the increase of the Church and the welfare of mankind than those who labour in the tilling of the Master’s field. For unless the former drew down from heaven a shower of divine graces to water the field that is being tilled, the evangelical labourers would indeed reap from their toil a more scanty crop.’

A.A.S. Oct. 15th 1924

The point about this principle is not that it glorifies the contemplative life at the expense of the diocesan clergy, but rather that it warns the apostolic labourer that he too must be a contemplative. If he does not make his interior life of prayer and sacrifice the mainspring of his apostolic labours, he runs the risk of finding that most of the merit for his successes has been awarded to someone else.

However, the merit and fruitfulness of our apostolic labours are not the most important consideration. It is still more important for us to ask ourselves are we giving our Lord what he wants form us. Are we giving him that for which he ordained us? Recent years have seen many accounts of communications from the Sacred Heart, some perhaps less authentic than others, but all agreeing on one point, namely, that our Lord is not satisfied with the return we priests are making for his love. He has chosen us to be his special friends. He has chosen us to share the joys and sorrows of his heart, to give him sympathy for his sorrow, love for his love. He has not chosen us because of any merit or talent of our own, but because of his own goodness and mercy. He has not chosen us for what we are, but for what he can make of us. Any good there is in us is there because of his love. Because he has first loved us he has shared everything with us. He shared with us his merits, his powers, his virtues, his priesthood. He even shared in the punishment of all our sins, for he cannot share in their guilt. He has taken all our debts on himself. He has chosen us to share in his work, not because he needed our co-operation, but because he wanted us to share in his reward, in his happiness in heaven. And the one thing he wants from us above all else is our personal love. Is he being disappointed?

Perhaps it is because of a misunderstanding on our part, a false humility, a Jansenistic reverence, an exaggerated fear, that we fail to give him the generous love of intimate friendship for which he chose us to be priests. Perhaps it is because of a ‘legalistic’ view of our duties, which tends to emphasize the external action rather than the interior disposition, which sees in our obligations the prescriptions of a penal code rather than the beseeching appeal of a divine Heart impatient for our love. We do not know our Lord. We do not know his love. We do not know the longings of his Sacred Heart.

It would seem that our Lord feels that we priests treat him as One far away, One known all too slightly, One in whom we have too little confidence. He wants us to rekindle our faith, love and confidence, and to live trustfully in his intimacy, loving and loved. He wants us priests to carry on his work of casting the fire of Divine love upon the earth, but he insists that we can do that only if we know him and love him as he longs to be loved. Instead it would seem that we have too little confidence in him, that we even avoid him. He would have us use greater intimacy and confidence in our dealings with him, uniting ourselves to him in our hearts where he is ever present as long as we are in the state of grace. Love must dominate our fears, and we must never forget that, above all else, he loves us. He chose us because of the love he has for us, but he is hurt by our failure to trust in that love when we realize our own miseries and our faults. We do not understand his heart. We do not realize that it is our very destitution and helplessness that move his mercy towards us. We do not realize that by acknowledging and accepting our poverty and misery, and then turning trustfully to him, we give him pleasure and glory far in excess of our offences. He loves us as we are. He knows our frailties. He knows we will fall again. He knows how little value can be set on our promises.

But he is quite prepared to save us and restore us each time after our falls if we but turn to him with humble confession and loving confidence. For above all he wants our union and intimacy with him. His delight is to be with us in our very hearts, to be sought there, to be loved there. He has chosen us for this very life of union with him, to comfort him and to make reparation for the sins of those who offend him.

He wants us priests to study his heart, to know and share its feelings, to do all we can to realize its desires. No one can recall his address to the apostles at the last supper without realizing how true all this is; and we must remember that every word there has a special message for each one of us who are his priests. Pius X has warned us that holiness of life is the only thing which makes us worthy priests. If we fail in this we fail in everything. Haec. . . . sacerdoti si desit, desunt ei omnia.

Cf. Haerenti Animo, Aug. 4th 1908

We must, then, try to correspond fully with our vocation. No sense of our unworthiness or our incapacity, no consciousness of our coldness, our tepidity or even of our sinfulness should deter us from seeking intimate friendship with Jesus. It is our nothingness that he wants. The only foundation for his work in our souls is our incapacity, our misery, our futility. He will even accept our sins, for he is our Saviour, come to save us from our sins. Even our future sins will be no barrier to our present intimacy as long as they are not willed here and now. In fact the glory of his love is wonderfully shown in his choice of such unsuitable material for the masterpieces of his mercy. To let our shortcomings persuade us that we are not included in his invitation to intimate friendship is to forget completely the laws of the supernatural life. First of all that life is completely super-natural; it is not limited by the limitations of nature. Secondly, it is gratuitous; even where merited, it is only so because of a gratuitous promise of reward. But above all, the supernatural is a participation in the divine. So that when it is a question of returning our Lord’s love, our natural ability to love does not enter into it; we have to receive from our Lord the very love by which we are to love him. That is why our human or personal limitations should never be allowed to interfere with our hopes of fulfilling our vocation to be the chosen friends of our Lord, or with our privilege of making reparation to his wounded heart. For it is from his own heart that we are to draw the means and the strength to be his friends and to make reparation to him. He himself symbolized this in the case of St. Margaret Mary when he exchanged hearts with her. He expressed it to her explicitly time and time again. His heart is the source of all our love and friendship for him. What we have to do is to learn to draw upon its treasures.

We must, then, first of all make the person of Jesus a living reality in our lives by frequently conversing with him, in our prayer, in our visits to the Blessed Sacrament, in our Stations of the Cross. We must keep him before our eyes by our reading and our remembering. Secondly, we must remove any obstacles to intimate friendship which there may be in our outlook or in our lives. Attachment to sin, exaggerated fear of suffering, over-strict notions of our obligations, could interfere with our generous giving of ourselves. In this connection some harm may have been done by wrong distinctions between the active and the contemplative life, between the ascetical and the mystical life. It is true that there are Orders especially organized for contemplation; it is true that there are special states of infused prayer which are not common. That does not mean that the active life has nothing to do with contemplation, or that the ascetical life does not imply an interior life of union with God. Actually, as far as priests are concerned, our own opinion is that their lives should, par excellence, be a combination of both the active and the contemplative lives; that for them those states of prayer which some writers call mystical, but which are by no means extraordinary, are quite attainable. That, perhaps, is a matter of opinion. But we think there can be no two opinions on this point, namely, that every priest, called by his priesthood to the active life of the apostolate, is by the very same priesthood still more urgently called to an interior life of union and intimate friendship with our Lord. If our Lord’s words at the last supper mean anything, surely they mean that.

If a priest finds that mental prayer seems an imposition, if he finds that his spiritual life is one of mediocrity, if he finds that his words have no unction and his words but little fruit, perhaps it is because of his failure to realize this aspect of his vocation. On the other hand, our Lord himself assured some of his chosen souls that no other means are required to restore the mediocre and the tepid—even the sinful and the fallen—to their full fervour, than a confident appeal to his mercy and a loving intimacy with his Divine heart. He is our Saviour, we are his chosen friends, and his gifts are without repentance.

There is, then, no priest who cannot hope to give our Lord that love which he asks for and which he has merited. We have only to ask the Father for it in the name of his Son, our Redeemer, and we shall infallibly obtain it if we do not ask amiss. We have but to remind the Father of his Son’s love for him and his merits which he has applied to us; to insist that what the Father does to us is done to his Son. And if more be needed, we have only to set before him the vocation which his Son has given to us to be his friends and the longing of that Son’s heart for our love. And if that is not enough, let us go to Mary; let us tell her that we have no wine; that her Son has invited us to the wedding feast and we have no gift for him; that he has pleaded for our love and we have but cold, dry hearts to give him. Surely she will have compassion on her Divine Son if, per impossibile, she has not compassion on us. Here above all our poverty of spirit is our claim and our title to the riches of the kingdom of heaven. The Love of God for God, the Divine Spirit himself, is ours for the asking. Nothing is needed but our humble desire and our willingness to become what our Lord wants us to be: men after his own heart. This vocation makes no extraordinary demands on us for extreme penances or intense suffering. What our Lord looks for is that we love him in the ordinary things of our life; that we perform them in union with him, or rather, that we allow him to perform them in union with us. We priests should never let ourselves be persuaded that Jesus looks only to the cloister for love and reparation, expecting from us merely the service of our ministry. Far from it! Our ministry is only pleasing to him if it is the result of our love. We priests, let it be again repeated, are chosen to be his friends par excellence. It is true that most priests have a special group of souls committed to their care. Too often we overlook our duty of prayer and mediation even in their regard.

But our charge goes further than any particular group. As priests we stand between God and all men. Our prayers and our penances are made on their behalf. But very often the work of our ministry is fruitless in regard to the group of souls committed to our charge. Then our only hope of fruitfulness is in our union with God. Where a priest does his work in union with Christ, abiding in him by lovingly doing his will, he will always bring forth fruit even though he may never see it in this life. Somewhere grace is brought down by his efforts. When we remember the wide tracts of the earth’s surface where it is almost impossible for a priest to penetrate, we can realize how important this type of apostolic action may be today; and we may be consoled for the apparent waste of our efforts in tilling barren soil by the thought that if we do it in and with Christ, abiding in him, somewhere else all unknown to us, souls are being brought to the love of God. That is by no means the least important aspect of our vocation to abide in the Vine, by love and confidence. But this abiding in Christ is by far the most important aspect of our vocation as priests.

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