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The Priest's Way To God

IF our lives as priests are not so holy as they should be, it is very often because the ideal which animates them is not sufficiently high. Sacerdos, alter Christus. That, perhaps, is the most pregnant expression of what our ideal should be. The character impressed on our souls in ordination makes us ‘other Christs,’ participators in the priesthood of Christ. And if we are to be true to our vocation, our minds and hearts must be filled with the spirit which was his.

What was the spirit of our great High Priest? It consisted in a complete dedication of himself to the Father and the Father’s will. It found its most perfect expression on Calvary where he gave himself to suffering and death for his Father’s sake, but it filled his soul from the beginning. In life and in death he gave himself entirely to his Father.

In life and in death he gave himself unreservedly also to mankind. There is no contradiction here, for Christ’s giving of himself to men finds both its basis and its measure in his total dedication to the Father.

Here, as always, he is our model. We too, to the extent that we belong to God, can give ourselves fruitfully to men. To belong to God is, then, the fundamental ideal at which we must aim. Our work for souls will be Christlike—and therefore fruitful—only if it rests on that foundation.

That then is the proper order: dedication of ourselves to God and, arising from that, a giving of ourselves to souls. Christ himself put the same truth in different words when he told us that, if we wish to bear fruit, we must abide in him. At the last supper, when he ordained his first priests, he gave them an address which we may fairly describe as an ordination sermon. And it is surely significant that his whole emphasis in that discourse is on the importance of abiding in him, of union with him. To their work for souls, he makes, apart from the general precept of charity, hardly any reference at all.

A Christlike dedication of ourselves to God and to souls for God’s sake, is therefore the very definition of a priestly life. This means self-sacrifice on a heroic scale; we cannot at the same time give ourselves to God and souls, and keep ourselves for ourselves. That is neither new nor surprising. The way of Christ was the way of the cross, and if we are to be other Christs, it must likewise be ours.

Perfection in this offering of ourselves is the work of a lifetime, but even though we only succeed in recognizing and regretting our lack of generosity, there is still great hope for us. When, however, we are satisfied with our offering, then there is danger of stagnation and decay. Perhaps the comment of a very wise spiritual writer on self-sacrifice in general may help us to realize in what direction our efforts should tend. Father John Grou S.J., the author of A Manual for Interior Souls, writes as follows: ‘The first fruit of our devotion to God 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.’ A little self-examination, a little sincerity, will soon show us how true this is of much of our spiritual life. Consciously or unconsciously, it is ourselves we are seeking; our search for God is subordinated to our self-seeking. This defect can be removed partly by our own efforts with the help of ordinary grace; its complete removal requires the operation of God’s special purifications. But the first step for us is to recognize the ill. We may perhaps be helped to realize how far we fall short by Father Grou’s exhortation, for he continues: ‘Let us now give ourselves to God 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 exaltation—even our spiritual exaltation—all views, considerations and reflections connected with self. Let us once and for all lose sight of ourselves, and give up our being to God alone.’

The Interior of Jesus and Mary

This is a high ideal, but not too high for one who is rightly called alter Christus.

There are, however, many considerations which may help us to adopt this high ideal and to live up to it. One such consideration is the fact that our Lord, in calling us to the holiness of the priesthood, has already merited for us, at the cost of his precious Blood, all the graces and helps that are necessary for us to achieve it. If we are content to adopt and to follow an ideal lower than one which corresponds to his intentions we are frustrating him, we are nullifying his efforts, we are bringing to naught plans which he had so much at heart that he suffered and died for their achievement.

Perhaps, however, we are not exactly content with our low standards of aim and of achievement, but we see no possibility of doing any better. The fundamental source of this error—for it is an error and a very serious one—is our lack of true theological hope and a corresponding tendency to base our hopes on ourselves rather than on God. Even the apostles were not immune from this error. Time and time again our Lord reproached them with their lack of faith and confidence in him. Modicae fidei, quare dubitasti?’ To us as to them our Lord addresses his assurances: ‘With men, it is impossible; but not with God. For all things are possible with God.’

Mark X, 27

‘All things are possible to him that believeth.’

Mark IX, 22

And St. Paul assures us: ‘I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me.’

Phil. IV, 13

So far from indicating an early limit to our hope of progress, our knowledge of our limitations is rather a first and almost an essential condition for our progress. For our hope is in God, especially in God’s mercy; and our holiness is to be the work of God. If we realize that, then we can say with St. Paul: ‘Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.’

2 Cor. XII, 9

His grace is sufficient for us, and power is perfected in infirmity. Our mistake lies in asking ourselves what we can do, instead of what God is willing to do. Once we are sure of our vocation to holiness, and for priests St. Pius X has left no room for doubt about that, the question of difficulty or impossibility does not arise; God’s grace is sufficient for the carrying out of his wishes, and he himself will provide for all things necessary.

There is another approach to the problem which should be of great help. Not only is it a fact that our holiness is to come from Christ, but it is to come from Christ already present within our souls. This doctrine of the divine indwelling is too often forgotten or overlooked. Yet there are few doctrines which offer such consolation or such encouragement to the priest in his pursuit of holiness. There is no need to prove to a priest that God is really present in the soul of the just man. The doctrine is obvious to anyone who reads St. Paul. It should be still more obvious to any priest who reflects on the theology of the sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist. If the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ under the form of food and drink signifies the effect of the Blessed Sacrament, what must be the intimate union with God which it produces? Too often we think of Holy Communion as a wonderful means of gaining a few minutes’ temporary intimacy with the human nature of Christ. We forget that its real purpose is to nourish our intimacy with the divine nature of the Son of God, to increase our share in that divine nature. The doctrine of God’s presence in our soul, connected as it is with the doctrines of the Blessed Trinity and of the Incarnation, is so rich and so many-sided that it can be viewed in various ways. Let us here consider it, as Fr. de Jaegher S.J. does in his book One with Jesus, as the presence of Christ in our souls and our identification with him. One fundamental effect of this point of view, and of the devotion to which it leads, is that we gradually cease to make ourselves the centre of our lives and that we more and more make Christ the centre. For Christ does not dwell in our souls in order that we should live our own life through him, for ourselves, so to speak, but rather that he may continue his life in us, through us, for the sake of the Father. We must not forget that the Persons of the Blessed Trinity are essentially related and referred to one another; each one is ad alium. For in the human life of the Son, as we insisted earlier in this chapter, he lived and worked propter patrem. It is easy then to see how fundamental in the life of Christ is this utter dedication of himself to the Father; his dedication of his life to the souls of men is secondary to that and is both animated and controlled by it.

This dedication to the Father must find its counterpart in the life of the priest, who is another Christ and who so often offers the sacrifice of Christ. Our appointment to apostolic activity and our zeal for souls does not excuse us or exempt us from it. In fact it would seem that precisely because of our duty to souls, our duty of dedication to God becomes still more urgent and important. It was not by preaching but by his Passion and Death that Christ redeemed men. It would be a great mistake to think that we priests are called only to continue his work of preaching. Far from that, it is true rather that he is called us to allow him to continue in us his life of devotion to the Father. It follows, therefore, that there can be no true partnership with him, no genuine intimacy with him in our souls, unless we wish, at least, to share this fundamental sentiment of his heart. Too often our zeal is concentrated on doing things for God. Obviously that is a holy and wholesome purpose, provided that it be properly animated by divine charity. But it can become so predominant in our lives that we forget two important truths. The first is that the only things that are properly done for God are those that are done by Christ—either in himself or through us. The second is that in our own lives the things that God does to and for us are far more important, even for God, than the things we do for him. The whole of the later stages of purification in the mystical life seem to be aimed at convincing the soul that it has nothing and can do nothing, that in fact God is its All. But even in the earlier stages, it is important to realize how primary a part is played in it all by God. And for a priest, whether in his private life or in his apostolic work, it is still more important to realize this fact. There is only one person who can love God adequately, who can adore God properly, who can serve God exactly as he should be served: and that is Christ. Our work as priests is to put on Christ, to form him in ourselves and in those committed to our care.

All our efforts, then, should be aimed at allowing Christ to live in us and to share all our actions. All virtue, all perfection, all achievement should be sought principally as a means to this end. May we in passing here note a view of the spiritual life that is only too common among religious and which seems to be shared by many priests. It was very well put by one nun who said to the writer that they were taught that the important thing was to collect virtues; when you had a complete collection, like a lot of little parcels properly tied up and arranged, then possibly God might take some more personal interest in you and you might dare to hope for some slight degree of personal contact with him. Obviously from one point of view the doctrine is sound. But considered as a comprehensive view of even the approach to the spiritual life it is so utterly inadequate as to be a grotesque—one might almost say—perversion of the truth. The spiritual life begins in Baptism, with the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the soul and the incorporation of the soul in Christ. What can be more intimate than that? All that follows is a mere flowering of that divine seed, divinely sown. Christ is the beginning and the end. It is he to whom we owe our spiritual life and its development. It is upon him that we must rely, not on our own efforts or achievements.

However, in this matter it is not easy to write in general terms. We are not correcting ideas that are completely erroneous, we are merely indicating their inadequacy. It is not so much a question of truth or error as one of proper perspective. We have, of course, a part to play ourselves, an essential one. But the part played by Christ is far more important, and too much forgotten. For us priests anyhow, who can exercise our priestly functions only by the power of God, there is less excuse for overlooking the importance of Christ in our own spiritual lives, or in the service of the Father. If we could fashion an ideal and form a purpose of giving ourselves completely to him in every action, that he might use us to live his life of love and service of the Father, our whole lives would be changed and enriched. For we must remember, when we give ourselves to Christ, he also gives himself to us, and his merits are ours. This is one point where the limitations of the self-centred soul become evident. When such a person realizes that he has sinned, he immediately becomes discouraged, for he feels that his only hope of recovery and of progress lies in his being able to make personal satisfaction for his failings. Whereas the Christ-centred soul immediately seizes on the merits of Christ and offers them to the Father to propitiate him and to atone for its sins, and then goes on with its hope in God undiminished and unaffected. It is true he tries to make up to Christ by additional love and humility in the future. But his hope is not dependent on his efforts to make reparation. So too with difficulties. The self-dependent soul is discouraged by difficulties, and sets its course or lowers its purpose to avoid them. The Christ-centred soul merely makes certain that the way which these difficulties beset is really, the way Christ wishes it to proceed. Once reassured on this point, it gaily goes ahead, quite confident in the power and the will of Christ to deal with these difficulties. But these are only examples. The whole life and outlook of a soul centred on Christ differ toto coelo from those of the soul centred on itself.

It is true that the perfection of this Christocentric outlook belongs to the more mature stages of the spiritual life. But from the very beginning the life of the Christian must in its essentials be centred on Christ. This is still more true of the life of a priest. Notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, it is equally true of the work of the priest, for Christ insists not only that we shall bear fruit if we abide in him, but also that if we do not abide in him, we shall not bear fruit. That is why we are so insistent on the need for an interior life in the priest called to apostolic labours. There is no other way in which he can achieve success in the apostolate. That is why, too, we put before priests devotion to Christ living in their own souls, as an ideal. It will not only promote their personal progress but it will also fertilize their work for souls.

One practice that may help us to develop an appreciation of Christ’s presence within us is the habit of a daily visit, if one may so call it, to Christ present in our souls. And perhaps this ‘visit’ would be all the more successful if it were made not in the church, but somewhere in private. By a ‘visit,’ we merely mean a turning of our attention to Christ represented as present within us, and a short converse with him, something after the manner of our thanksgiving after Holy Communion. We should be careful, in our converse with him, to stress our need for his co-operation in all our actions, and our willingness to be guided by him in all things. We should of course earnestly ask him to make us conformable to himself, to animate us with his views, and to unite us every day more closely to himself. But it would be fatal to think that this is a devotion that is limited to a particular practice or set of practices. It is essentially a devotion that must gradually occupy our whole lives, so that we come to live and act with Christ, for Christ and through Christ. One consoling thought in this regard is that our Lord is intensely eager to produce this union of heart and mind, of life and activity. All we have to do is to cease interfering with his efforts. And after our Lord, no one is more interested or more anxious about it than our Lady. If we approach her for her Son’s sake she will certainly work wonders to transform our souls. But we must not forget our Father who is in heaven; for his whole Providence is intent on uniting us to his Son, so that abandonment to his will is the key-note of this devotion, as it was the key-note of the life of Christ.

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