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The Priest's Way To God

IF there is any one virtue which must be especially characteristic of the priest, it is the virtue of charity. This is true not merely because charity is the queen of virtues and the bond of perfection, but also because of the very nature of the priesthood. A priest is ordained for others. He is dedicated to God and to souls. He is no longer his own; he belongs first to God and then to souls, especially those souls committed to his care. He is the shepherd who, not being a mere hireling, must lay down his life for his flock if that be necessary. He may not be asked to lay down his life literally for his sheep, but he is asked to lay it down by living for them. To repeat that rather inelegant summary, a priest must not merely ‘deliver the goods,’ for he is another Christ and Christ delivered himself.

This vocation to deliver himself gives us some measure of the degree of charity required in the priest. Charity, of course, is a single virtue; by it we love God, and by the same virtue we love our neighbour. And St. John is quite drastic in his censure of those who claim that they can love God without loving their neighbour. The love of God is, of course, fundamental, but if it is sincere it must lead to a love for souls, and it is of this fraternal charity in the priest that we wish to speak here. And it is so important that we must commence by letting the Holy Spirit himself speak of it through St. Paul, in words that are so well known as to be easily overlooked. ‘Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil: rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth: beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never falleth away.’

1 Cor. XIII, 4–8

No priest can doubt that these words have a very special meaning for him; it is enough to recall the words that are spoken to him on the morning of his ordination: ‘Ministros Ecclesiae suae fide et opere debere esse perfectos, seu geminae dilectionis, Dei scilicet et proximi, virtute fundatos.’ And again: ‘Accipe vestem sacerdotalem, per quam caritas intelligitur; potens enim Deus ut augeat tibi caritatem et opus perfectum.’ These words exhort the priest to the perfection of charity towards his neighbour as well as towards God, and they promise him that God is powerful enough to overcome his human limitations and weakness and to bring him to the perfection which he requires. With this assurance we need not be afraid to examine what should be our charity as priests.

Charity, of course, has its foundation in the interior, but perhaps it is better to begin by considering its exterior manifestation in speech. And it is hardly an unfair test to estimate a priest’s charity by his speech with and about his fellow-priests. How do we stand up to this test? That is a question which each of us must answer for himself, but it may be a guide to set the question in its context of the standard of charity in speech among our people. And in this matter an outside and somewhat critical view may be worth re- peating. More than one visitor to Ireland, while paying tribute to the superlative qualities of Irish Catholicism, has been disappointed at the way Irish Catholics speak of one another. This, no doubt, is in relation to what they expect in a fully Catholic country, but at any rate the picture as they see and depict it is hardly flattering. A tendency to speak ill of our neighbour and to regard it as harmless because what we say is true, a readiness to indulge in gossip which sometimes borders on serious calumny—these things appear to our critics as strangely out of tune with the vigorous Catholic life of our country.

It is not a complimentary picture and it may be a highly exaggerated one. Visitors may fail to get the ‘feel’ of a place and may see things out of all proportion. It would be imprudent unreservedly to accept such a verdict, but it might be equally imprudent to dismiss it as entirely baseless. No one is in a better position than the secular priest to pass judgement on the facts, and if our national standards in this matter are too low, he alone can do something about it.

But there is a further consideration. If our standards are too low, if the atmosphere is wrong, there is at least the danger that even we priests may ourselves have become infected. And this could mean that quite unconsciously we may have come to adopt too low a standard in the way we speak to and about our fellow-priests. There is a special danger in the field of wit and humour. The amusing remark can sometimes be caustic and the sally of wit may easily carry a barb. It is hard to lay down practical rules in this matter; the formal speech of the continent would be quite an affectation in an Irish presbytery and the absence of humour would make conversation unbearable. But there is a big difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. Christian charity will try rather to laugh with one’s neighbour than at him, and Christian perfection, even when not of a high degree, will refrain completely from laughing at him. If that standard appears too high, we can only say that our Lord insisted that what we do to our brother is done to him. To mock a fellow-priest is to mock at Christ, and no eutrapelia can justify that! Further, we might point out that humour of the dangerous kind often springs from motives that are far from Christian. To ‘take the other fellow down a peg,’ to enhance one’s own superiority, are not the promptings of Christian charity. We have it on the authority of the Holy Ghost that ‘if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man.’

James III, 2

Our speech with our neighbour, especially with our fellow-priests, is therefore a subject on which even the best of us would do well to examine ourselves.

But whatever about our speech, there is no doubt that a generous charity animates all our other relations with our fellow-priests. Charity, however, must extend beyond our fellow-priests; it has a special reference to our parishioners. Here, perhaps, we may find ourselves at fault. The demands of charity go much beyond the demands of justice, and we may be tempted sometimes to limit the service of our parishioners to what justice demands. To discuss details would be tedious and perhaps invidious, but one question at least which we might all put ourselves is this: Am I as approachable as I should be? The humblest or most sinful member of our flock should feel that he can come readily to us in his troubles or his needs, should feel quite sure of his welcome. If, through our fault, he feels otherwise, it is nothing short of a tragedy. Admittedly every priest must surround himself at times with a certain reserve. He has to find time for his prayers, his studies, and to provide for many other calls on his services. But he is also a disciple of a Master of whom it was stated as a characteristic trait: ‘This man receiveth sinners.’ Is the same thing characteristic of us? It should really be so, for we also must be good shepherds. If our Divine Master’s example impels us to seek out the lost sheep in kindness, how much more readily should we receive the same lost sheep when he seeks us out himself? To put it in a word, we must be Christlike, and the sinner was never afraid to approach our Saviour.

True fraternal charity goes, of course, far beyond the corporal works of mercy. There is—at least there should be—a certain supernatural ‘solidarity’ between the priest and those allotted to his care. They should always have a prominent place in his prayers. But if we are going to imitate our Lord fully we should go further. We might even take their sins on our own shoulders, at least to the extent of offering the sacrifice of the Mass to atone for them. There is here wide scope for charity and for imitation of our Saviour—who is the Saviour of his Body, who delivered himself for us, and who sanctified himself for us. We priests have to go and do likewise.

To attempt to enumerate the various ways of practising fraternal charity, or to catalogue the offences against it to which we are liable would serve little useful purpose. Far more important it is to probe the underlying causes of our failure. Failure in charity can generally be traced to two sources: lack of a true interior life and lack of humility. The truly humble man is not touchy or aggressive. Wounded vanity does not animate his remarks and his wit is free from self- seeking. His zeal has no bitterness and his corrections are marked by benignity. Knowing his own need of God and conscious of his lowly position in God’s sight, he gladly and cheerfully sees and seeks God in his neighbour. The ministry to him is not an exercise of power but of service. All this, however, is possible only where there is a true interior life.

This is really the root of the whole problem. It might, perhaps, be possible to build up all the externals of the active apostolate, with a minimum of interior charity, but unless that charity animates all else, ‘it profiteth us nothing.’ That, of course—if it were at all possible—would be an extreme case. Yet something of such an empty activity could develop in the life of a priest who neglects his interior life. It is possible to approach the work of the parish or the mission in a spirit somewhat akin to that in which a professional or business man approaches his daily duties. The organization of the parish or of the mission can be animated by the same natural zeal that inspires many secular undertakings. Even the work of saving souls can degenerate into something resembling the ideal of a teacher who merely sees his pupils as so many ciphers to be pushed through an examination. Typical of such teachers and such shepherds is concentration on the particular test envisaged, without paying much attention to how the results are achieved or what spirit animates the performances so crowned. Whatever may be said about such teaching, such preaching is certainly disastrous. It merely produces—or tries to produce—external results, generally of a negative type, while what God wants is our hearts and our love. The priest who justifies his existence by the fact that he ‘puts the fear of God into his parishioners’ is hardly the shepherd after God’s own heart. Such zeal is often false zeal and does not flow from true divine charity.

The way to correct our failings in this matter and to advance in true charity is through familiar intercourse with our Saviour by reading, by reflection and by prayer. Indeed we should also find a place for our Lady in these meetings, for no one has so faithfully imitated the charity of the heart of Jesus as she has. It is impossible for us to be in frequent contact with Jesus or with his Mother and at the same time not to improve in fraternal charity. The gentleness of Jesus, his kindness, his thoughtfulness, his compassion for the unfortunate, his sympathy for sinners stand out from the story of his life and of his death. Sympathy with sinners is a form of charity that calls for a special place in our lives. It was this sympathetic compassion for the sinner that brought Jesus on earth and led him to his death on the Cross, and we who are ‘other Christs’ must share in this spirit of sympathy and compassion. It is noticeable that the holiest men are the most compassionate and benign in their dealings with sinners. Those of us who wish to join them in their imitation of Christ must seek it where they found it, in union with him. Of all men it is only Christ who could really claim that sin was an offence against himself; yet he is the most forgiving and compassionate of all. We sometimes would give the impression in our dealings with sinners that we ourselves, rather than God, are the persons offended. We have to learn of him who is meek and humble of heart and who suffered and died for those who offended him.

In the matter of fraternal charity we are too prone to overlook the significance of the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. As Christians, we are no longer our own, we belong to the Body of Christ. As members of that Body we have to live according to the law of all such organic life, which is that each cell, each member, each organ, lives for the good of the whole body and not merely for itself. In any other organism the members are animated and ruled by whatever principle of life is common to the whole body. Each member, normally, has no individual choice. Willy-nilly, it submits. In the Mystical Body of Christ things are not the same. The spirit which gives the whole Body unity is the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Ghost. He takes possession of each of us in baptism when we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. But he does not destroy our freedom of choice. In each of our actions we have complete liberty—either to act under his leadership or to follow our own will. To the extent that we subject ourselves to him, we are the sons of God and living healthy members of the Body of Christ. Charity is poured forth in our hearts by this same Spirit, and unless we give that charity free play in our lives, we constrain the Spirit of God and resist his work in our souls.

Because, then, we are members of the Body of Christ, we must live not for ourselves but for the whole Body. This is true even of ordinary Christians, it is still more true of us who are priests. And because our fellowmen are members of the same Body, either actually or potentially, we must love and serve Christ in them. To resist the inspirations of fraternal charity is to offend Christ in our own souls, for it is he who wishes to serve his members through us, and also to neglect him in our neighbour, for it is he who wishes to be served in our neighbours. A spirit of faith and a deep appreciation of the nature of the Christian life are needed for a life of true fraternal charity. But that is what our Lord would have us achieve. One has only to read his last address to his disciples to realize what our lives as priests should be.

St. John the Evangelist was ordained a priest at the last supper and he commences his record of this last festival with the account of our Lord’s washing the feet of his disciples. He prefaces the account with the significant words: ‘Jesus . . . having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end’

John XIII, 1

and he records our Lord’s commentary at the end of this touching ceremony: ‘Know you what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord. And you say well: for so I am. If I then being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.’

John XIII, 13–15

And soon we read the record of the new commandment: ‘A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.’

John XIII, 34–35

Our Saviour then goes on to expound the mysterious unity which makes us branches of the Vine which is himself, and he adds: ‘As the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love . . . This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.’

John XV, 9–12

Here we have our Lord’s teaching for us priests. He has given us an example; we are to do as he has done to us. We are to love one another as he has loved us. What has he done to us? How has he loved us? The answer is found in the sacred mysteries we celebrate every morning at the altar and which the Church, in giving us the power to celebrate, enjoined on us to imitate. Christ became a victim for us and for all who sin against him. He expects us to do as he did. That is the measure of charity which Christ demands of his priests.

It is literally a tremendous obligation, and one which it would be utterly impossible to fulfil without his special grace. But the very sacrament which gives us his sacrifice to offer and to imitate also gives us himself and his Holy Spirit that we may find in him the strength to do as he does. For us priests the Mass is a well of doctrine, an unending source of light, a spring of strength and a centre for our whole life. We cannot ponder over its meaning and its mysteries too much. But we must approach its consideration in a spirit of good will, for we must be prepared to go and do likewise. This will be possible only if we keep up all the exercises by which an interior life is sustained: reading, reflection and prayer. Without these our charity will grow cold. Human motives will replace it as the mainspring of our work, and without charity all that we do, all that we are, is nothing. It is of the utmost importance then that we devote ourselves to an interior life of union with our Lord, that we allow him to live his life in us and to serve himself in his members.

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