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The Priest's Way To God

IF we were asked what is the most important thing, in practice, in a priest’s life, we should unhesitatingly say that it is his personal relationship with our Lord; and if we were asked what seems to be the most common short-coming in the spiritual life of priests, the answer would just as unhesitatingly be: the lack of personal intimacy with our Lord.

For priests engaged in the active apostolate, there is a danger of allowing preoccupation with their work in the Lord’s vineyard to lessen their personal intimacy with the Master of the vineyard himself. If the process goes far enough, a stage can even be reached when the active priest no longer thinks of such intimate union with our Lord as essential, or even primary, in his vocation, but regards it as something characteristic rather of the cloister.

This is a grave misunderstanding of the vocation of the priest in the world. If ever men were called to the active life, the Apostles were. Yet throughout our Lord’s address to them, his first priests, at the last supper the emphasis is always on love and union as a basis of their active apostolate, rather than on activity itself. They were to bear fruit, yes, but only on condition that they, the branches, remained united with him, the Vine. They would do great things for him, yes, but primarily and principally by abiding in him and in his love.

There was the same emphasis on love in the choosing of St. Peter as their head. We are all familiar with the words our Lord used to mark him out and give him supreme power of ruling the Church, but too many of us overlook the amazing significance of the threefold interrogation that preceded the threefold command to feed Christ’s flock. In St. John’s Gospel

XXI, 15

we read of our Lord’s insistent questioning of St. Peter: ‘Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these?’ The only qualification that our Lord asked St. Peter to manifest before making him head of the Church was outstanding love.

Again, the epistles of that other great Apostle, St. Paul, whose fiery spirit drove him all over the Roman world to preach Christ crucified, are overflowing with evidence that he was constantly and overpoweringly animated by love of Jesus, whom he had once persecuted. Certainly it was the charity of Christ that pressed him on to his supernal vocation.

It would be a tragic error both for ourselves and for our ministry if we failed to realize that what our Lord expected of the Apostles, his first priests, he expects also, with not a whit of difference, from every priest whom he has chosen.

The duty of the priest to seek perfection is clear from many Papal documents. It will be sufficient to cite Pope Pius XII in Menti Nostrae.

Sept. 23rd 1950; A.A.S. Oct. 2nd 1950

‘It must be recalled that even though the increasing needs of Christian society more urgently demand personal holiness in priests, they are already obliged by the very nature of the high ministry confided to them by God to work unceasingly for their own sanctification, always and everywhere.’

Moreover, the Holy Father makes it clear that, if this obligation is to be fulfilled, union with our Lord is of primary importance. ‘The first striving of a priest should be for the closest union with the Divine Redeemer by accepting humbly and entirely the Christian doctrine and by diligently applying it in every moment of his life, so that his faith illumines his conduct and his conduct is the reflection of his faith. Led by the light of this virtue, let him keep his eyes fixed on Christ. Let him follow closely his teaching, his actions and his example, convincing himself that it is not sufficient for him to accomplish the duties enjoined on the ordinary faithful . . . The priestly life, since it arises from Christ, should always and in everything be directed towards him.’

There is a possible impediment to our whole-hearted pursuit of personal union with our Lord which should be noted here. The danger is a subtle one, for it arises from a misapplication of that study of right and wrong, of the precise boundary between the forbidden and the permissible, which necessarily occupied much of our attention in our seminary days, and which our ministry in the confessional must necessarily keep prominent in our minds as priests. The danger lies in carrying over into our own spiritual lives, as a proper and sufficient guide for ourselves, a criterion which was never meant for the purpose and is sadly inadequate to fulfil it. The mentality of the judge, of the canonist, is essential in its sphere; but we need to remember what that sphere is, and what are its limits. Beyond them, certainly, lies the field of generosity, of high sanctity as against mere avoidance of the pit, of the pursuit of the better and the best rather than the merely good. The judge’s outlook, necessary as it is in much of our pastoral work, will not do when it is question of our own spiritual progress. It will at most tell us what we must do to serve without transgression; it will never show us how to serve as a lover serves. It will never lead us to that intimate union with our Lord which he expects of us.

There are indications that the importance of this personal union with our Lord needs special emphasis at the present time. There is in these days an extraordinary wealth of warnings and exhortations on this very point. Some are associated with private revelations, which must of course receive much sifting and testing; but the general reaction of the Church discens as well as docens seems to point to a special activity of the Holy Spirit in his desire to rekindle in men’s hearts, and especially in priests’ hearts, the fire of the love of God in and through Christ. Many of those whose work brings them into contact with a representative section of souls serving God notice an unusual willingness on God’s part to pour out special graces of prayer and wisdom on everyone who comes, as one might say, even half-way to meet him. Again, in his providential action towards many whose zeal has borne much fruit in external works, but who—though ‘good’—are far from understanding that their primary vocation is to love him, we notice what might almost be called a certain ruthlessness, as if he were bent on upsetting their successes and their talents. (An important feature of God’s action in drawing souls to himself may be involved here; we shall consider the point later on).

The nature of the personal relationship our Lord expects of us is very clearly brought out in the devotion to the Sacred Heart, as explained in the writings of St. Margaret Mary, and especially as explained by Pope Pius XI in the Encyclical Miserentissimus Deus of 1928. The Lessons of the second Nocturn from Saturday to Thursday of the Sacred Heart octave consist of passages dealing with the Sacred Heart devotion taken from this Encyclical. The Latin of all but one of the passages we shall quote below will be found there.

We are chary, and rightly so, of private revelations as such, but the revelations claimed by St. Margaret Mary are put on a different footing by the unusual reference made to them by Pius XI. The devotion to the Sacred Heart, in any case, rests of course on the solidest of theological foundations, and is independent of the genuineness or otherwise of those revelations. However, the use Pius XI made of quotations from the Saint at least makes it clear that the sentiments attributed to our Lord in these passages may be taken as truly representing his attitude. Let us consider, then, what the Holy Father has written.

‘When Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, while emphasising the immensity of his love, he sorrowfully complained of the many insults committed against him by the ingratitude of men, in words that should be indelibly graven upon the hearts of the devout: “Behold” he said, “this heart that has so loved men and loaded them with benefits, but in return for its infinite love, far from finding any gratitude, has met only with neglect, indifference and insult, and these sometimes from souls that owe me a special duty of love.”‘ A sentence of special importance for our present purpose is one in which it is emphasised that our Lord complains because his desires for our love are unrequited, rather than because his sovereign right to our service and obedience is neglected: ‘Our Lord revealed to that most pure disciple of his Sacred Heart, St. Margaret Mary, that, not so much in view of his rights over mankind, as by reason of his great love for us, he ardently desired that men should pay him this tribute of devotion.’

The frequent insistence, in the revelations described by St. Margaret Mary, on making reparation for the insults and outrages to which our Lord is subjected, may perhaps raise in our minds the question whether there is any conflict here with the doctrine of the present impassibility of Christ. If we have any uneasiness on the point—and it seems that some priests have—it should be put at rest once and for all, for it could hold us back from entering whole-heartedly into the full spirit of devotion to the Sacred Heart in particular, and in general into that whole field of heart-to-heart, friend-to-friend relationship with our Lord of which the Sacred Heart devotion is an outstanding expression. Here again Pius XI gives us safe and satisfying guidance.

‘But how can it be said that Christ reigns blessed in heaven if he can be consoled by such acts of reparation? We might answer in the words of St. Augustine: “A loving soul will understand what I say.”

In Joan. 24, 4

Everyone that is truly inflamed with the love of God turns his mind to the past, and sees him in the midst of most grievous torments, “for us men and for our salvation,” afflicted by sorrow and anguish, weighed down with ignominy, “bruised for our sins,” healing us by his stripes. He will meditate with the greater truth if he considers that the sins and iniquities of men, at whatsoever time committed, were the cause for which the Son of God was given up to death, and would of themselves even now cause the death of Christ, and a death accompanied by the same pains and anguish, since every sin can be regarded as in some manner renewing the Passion of our Lord, “crucifying again to themselves the Son of God, and making him a mockery.”

Heb. VI, 6

If then in foreseeing the sins of the future the soul of Jesus became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that he already felt some comfort when he foresaw our reparation, when “there appeared to him an angel from heaven,”

Luke XXII, 43

bearing consolation to his heart overcome with sorrow and anguish. Hence, even now, in a mysterious but true manner, we may, and should, comfort the Sacred Heart, continually wounded by the sins of ungrateful men: for Christ—as we also read in the Sacred Liturgy—complains by the mouth of the psalmist that he is abandoned by his friends: “My heart hath expected reproach and misery. And I looked for one who would grieve together with me, but there was none; and for one that would comfort me, and I found none.”’

Ps. LXVIII, 21

The Holy Father goes on to speak of Christ’s sufferings in his Mystical Body, and reminds us that ‘Jesus Christ himself taught the same truth when to Saul, “as yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples,” he said: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” By these words he clearly meant that persecutions directed against the Church are a grievous attack upon her Divine Head. Christ, then, as he still suffers in his mystical body, rightly desires to have us as his companions in the work of expiation.’

It is perhaps possible to learn, in this matter, even from the enemy. We cite an example from our own experience. It is a horrible example, but its very horror may serve to impress on us how real and actual are the issues involved in our discussion. A most unfortunate woman, who had once communicated at a ‘black mass,’ stated that she had to do what the devil urged her to do. This was to take the Sacred Host and desecrate it. Her life had been a most unhappy one, and she expressed great hatred of God for having allowed all that had happened to her. We asked her what satisfaction she could get from her actions, since Christ was now incapable of suffering, and in the Host she could only harm the species. Her answer came with readiness and complete sureness: ‘Oh, I can still hurt him in Gethsemani!’

We have dealt with a number of possible misunderstandings or difficulties which might impede us in responding to that yearning our Lord has for our friendship, for our personal love. Yet, when all these have been set aside, it still remains true that many of us who sincerely want to make that response are quite discouraged by our lack of success. The lesson we have to learn is that we cannot set our own hearts on fire: this is a grace that God must give. Like the host of the wedding feast in the Gospel, God provides the wedding garment.

Our part is to ask, and the Mother of Fair Love is our obvious helper here. Let us draw her attention to our lack of wine; let us offer her the weak water of our desire and dispositions, and beg her—for her Son’s sake—to get it changed into the wine of Divine Love. The answer will be, as it was at Cana: ‘Whatever he shall say to you, that do ye.’ Wherever his will is done, wherever his will is submitted to, there he is at work setting us on fire with the Flame of Divine Love; for God’s whole plan in governing the world is to bring us to love his Son.

Our prayer must be sincere and humble—and insistent. We all know the example given by our Lord of the man who knocked up his neighbour at midnight for bread, and was heard not exactly for his reverence but for his importunity. We are familiar with the parable, but do we realize the full significance of the lesson our Lord draws from it? He tells us that if we ask and seek and knock we shall receive and find and be welcomed; and then he adds the golden words: ‘If you then, being evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him ?’

Cf. Luke XI, 9–13

This is the very Spirit we need, for it is in and by the Holy Ghost—who is Divine Love—that we are to love Jesus. This prayer should be daily on our lips: ‘Father, for the sake of thy Son and because of his merits, give me thy Holy Spirit, so that I may love thy Son Jesus as he desires and deserves to be loved.’ Such a prayer must be heard. It is based and centred on the Son, on his desires and his merits; and it asks for something which God clearly wills, and which he can give. We will certainly be answered.

But the answer may surprise us. Our Lord warned that his Father is a good husbandman and prunes the branches of his vine. We may find that things start to go wrong with us. It may be that our health suffers, and our abilities are impaired; that our friends seem to change, and our Superiors to misjudge us; that our plans go awry, our successes turn to failures. And we are in despair. We had hoped, yes, but we had hoped in our work, in our service, in our justice. And these things are being taken from us.

If we ‘but knew the gift of God,’ we would sing an exultant Te Deum! God is forcing us to make two changes. Previously we were intent on doing things for God; now we realize that God wants to do things to us, and we must learn that his work in our souls is infinitely more important than any work of ours for him. Previously we hoped in our work, and offered him our service; now we must hope in his mercy, and learn to offer him our love. For he means to call us, like his first priests, ‘not servants, but friends.’

If, then, he is leading us into the desert, it is to espouse us to himself in faith and, above all, in love. ‘My son, give me thy heart!’ If we are patient—for patience has indeed a perfect work—and abandon ourselves to his will in loving confidence, we shall soon find that our heart is all we have left to offer him: that love is the only gift we have for him. And at last we shall give him that gift, the only one he craves. We shall have learnt at last to understand the story of Job.

And then God will restore to us our power of serving him, but it will be a different service and a far more fruitful service. We shall be indeed ‘other Christs,’ and our ministering will in truth be ‘through him, and with him, and in him.’ We shall have found ‘the one thing necessary,’ ‘the better part, which shall not be taken away.’

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