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The Priest's Way To God

IN the last chapter we referred to the need for familiar friendship with our Lord in the life of every priest, and we urged priests to pray earnestly to the Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit, that they might love our Lord as he deserves and desires to be loved. Before we discuss the unexpected aspects God’s answer to this prayer may have, let us emphasize the importance of realizing that all such pleading, to be efficacious, must be based on the merits of our Lord; it must be made in the name of Jesus Christ. Moreover, its object must be such that it can fittingly be asked for in his name; the request must be in accordance with the will of the Father if our Lord is to make it his own. Generally this is where our prayers are deficient: we ask amiss. Very often our prayers are really attempts to get our own will done rather than the will of the Father.

There is, however, no doubt that the particular request we are considering—that we may love our Lord as he deserves and desires to be loved—is in accordance with the will of the Father. Such a prayer, therefore, will certainly be answered. But, as we pointed out, the nature of the answer can be quite unexpected, and quite disconcerting. And we think it is here—in our reaction to the answer—that most of us fail, and fail more than once in our lives. That we do not understand the ways of God is perhaps excusable; but that we should insist on expecting him to do things our way is not quite so excusable.

A type of case one very often meets is that of priests or nuns who have so far been quite successful in the work allotted to them, or adopted by them. Their labours have borne great fruit; their work is appreciated; superiors are pleased, and open in their approval; and everything seems to be going as it should. But then something starts to go wrong. Their work is not so successful as before; their superiors no longer appreciate or approve of it, and perhaps changes are made that handicap their efforts; misunderstandings arise and lead to all sorts of disappointments. They turn to God and pray confidently and earnestly—and, instead of improving, things get worse and worse the more they pray! And the result is all the more startling, and we might say the more stupefying, if they have prayed for an increase in love of our Lord rather than for the success of their work.

Time and time again one meets such a pattern of events; and time and time again one cannot help being surprised at the slowness of the persons concerned to appreciate what is really happening. Even those who are quick to understand the Divine action in other souls can be quite obtuse when there is question of God’s work in their own souls. They say, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘We had hoped . . . ‘ Yes, but their hope was in plans which they themselves had made, and which they had hoped God was going to make come true, rather than in God’s plans, which are often so different from ours and are always better and deeper and more far-sighted. They feel they could understand God’s intervention if their lives had been fruitless and their work sterile—but why should he upset their successful ministry, their successful spiritual life? Yet that is precisely what our Lord has told us to expect: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he will take away: and every one that beareth fruit he will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit.’

John XV, 1–2

It is when we are being fruitful that he will interfere, in order that we may bring forth more fruit. Despite our Lord’s warning, we all tend to fail in our co-operation with the Divine action at this point, and too many of us can trace our complete falling off to a persistent refusal to recognize and accept such Divine pruning.

No one who has himself made such a mistake can fail to feel sympathy for others at such a crisis, but the fact must be faced that the way of Christ is the way of the Cross, and that this must be our path too if we are to follow him. It is not only to the Jews and the Greeks that the Cross is a stumbling-block and a folly: we ourselves are not altogether free from the feeling that it should not include us. If we analysed our reactions, we would often find that we tended to think that such a way was all right for our Lord, but that our way should be different. Yet our Lord warned us that if we are to be his disciples we must deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow him. And we who are his priests, who stand daily at his altar, offering his sacrifice and identifying ourselves with him, must surely expect to be led along the road of contradiction that is the Way of the Cross.

Judged by human standards, our Lord’s ministry was extraordinarily unsuccessful! When one considers the divine powers at his command, the unlimited choice he had of places, methods and instruments for his apostolate, one cannot help noting how meagre seemed the results: a handful of disciples around his Cross, most of his followers terror-stricken fugitives, and even after the crowning triumph of his resurrection, not two hundred to meet together for the coming of the Holy Spirit! Given his opportunities, we would certainly have done things differently! And, if the truth must be told, we still tend to do things differently. We must remember, however, that it was not by his ministry, principally or primarily, that our Lord redeemed the world, but by his Passion and Death. It was the Cross of Christ that gave us life, rather than his apostolate. And the same pattern must characterize our priesthood, which is a participation in his.

No one can or dare question the fact that every secular priest is called to active labour in Christ’s vineyard. Like the Apostles, he has to minister to souls, baptizing them, instructing them and giving them the Sacraments of life. But every priest has other obligations as well, and no priest has any obligation to labour outside the limits laid down for him by lawful authority. Divine Providence may often limit a priest’s activity in various ways. Illness, the orders of superiors, unsuitable circumstances are the usual ways; but God has also permitted in our time the revival, in the form of imprisonment, persecution or political pressure, the special difficulties that beset the first Apostles.

If, in one way or another, we be limited in our active apostolate, it is important to remember that other methods are at our disposal. If we go on to say that there are not only other methods but even better methods, we hope we will not be taken as being prejudiced by our own vocation in a contemplative order.

The role of contemplative orders in the work of the apostolate was underlined by Pope Pius XI when he exhorted Ordinaries in the mission field to consider the advantage of setting up monasteries of men who by their prayers and penances would water the soil of the Master’s vineyard and ensure that the crop, otherwise scanty, would be made full and fruitful. We refer here to this teaching, not because we want to glorify the contemplative orders, but because we think that it implies a principle that affects every priest. For, as we understand it, the value and fruitfulness of a life of prayer and abnegation are not confined to the contemplative orders but should be shared by every priest. And, speaking salva meliore judicio, we feel that this was the mind of our Lord.

The text wherein our Lord replied to the disciples’ comment on the readiness of the harvest for reapers, by urging them to pray to the Master of the harvest that he should send workers into the field, is often quoted in this regard; but even more important and more significant is our Lord’s insistence, in his address at the last supper to his newly-ordained Apostles, on the absolute need for ‘abiding’ in him. We have quoted above the opening words of that section of our Lord’s address. He returns to his teaching and says: ‘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

One may conclude that as long as we ‘abide in him,’ by that very fact we are doing all that is required to make our lives fruitful. It is true that no priest charged with the care of souls can claim that this principle allows him to neglect the active ministry and fulfil his obligations by prayer and private devotion. This is not ‘abiding in Christ,’ for we cannot abide in him if we are not doing the will of his Father. When the will of the Father, shown to us by our duty, demands active work, we cannot abide in Christ without doing active work. But the important point is that even in this activity the principle of fruitfulness is our union with Christ, not the intrinsic human ingenuity or efficiency of our works.

Once we realize that union with Christ is a sufficient source of fruitfulness, we should be prepared to accept cheerfully all providential interference with the apparent fruitfulness of our ministry. We say ‘apparent,’ because, as we conceive it, a priest is often ‘bearing fruit’ somewhere far removed from the place where he is, by his patient acceptance of the will of God, even when that will of God allows the immediate results of his work to diminish. And we cannot help feeling that this sort of apostolic action is more than usually common today, since such a tremendous part of the vineyard—Russia, for instance—is outside the scope of a direct apostolate. But leaving aside these personal views, we do think that every priest is called to share in our Lord’s life of self-sacrifice. Our Lord sanctified himself for us. Did he not say to his Father: ‘As thou hast sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for them do I sanctify myself: that they also may be sanctified in truth.’

John XVII, 18–19

Our Lord, in fact, indicates the resemblance between his own mission and that of the Apostles. His words are all the more significant in as much as they were preceded by a warning of the persecutions and the contradictions that the Apostles would undergo: ‘These things I have told you, that when the hour shall come you may remember that I told you of them.’

John XVI, 4

It is true that not all of us are called to undergo persecution. But is it not true that all of us are called to undergo sanctification? And sanctification means pruning. The very word that expresses the principal function of our priesthood ‘sacrifice’—has an implication of being made holy. Even in our work for souls, this sacrifice takes primacy of place; but in our spiritual life it must be predominant.

As priests we offer to God the sacrifice of Christ in which he is the principal Offerer and Victim. But we cannot be sincere in our offering unless we also offer ourselves with him as victim. We know that he offers us with himself. Pius XII makes that clear in the Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ. And Pius XI, in his Encyclical on reparation, reminds even the laity that their offering of Mass is not as it should be unless their offering of themselves and their ordering of their lives correspond in some degree to the offering and life of Christ. If this be true of all Christians, how much more clearly does it apply to us priests? There was no more ardent apostle than St. Paul, yet few have understood the mystery of the Cross, and the need for sharing in it, as he did.

Even if we were to allow our horizon to be limited by the fruitfulness of our ministry for souls, we should still be ready to renounce the satisfaction of seeing the fruit our works produce, content to know by faith that union with Christ in prayer and patience must give fruitfulness to our ministry. But we have no right to limit our horizon to such fruitfulness. The glory of God is the primary purpose of creation, and if God demands—we do not say that he does—that our lives be sacrificed with no other result but a direct glorification of himself, then we should be satisfied and fee that we have fulfilled the purpose for which we were created. God, however, has placed his glory in our fruitfulness, and we need never worry about our fruitfulness if we leave ourselves in his hands. There is no way in which we can make our lives more fruitful for God than by co-operating with his work for our sanctification.

To mention St. John of the Cross to a secular priest usually means raised eyebrows, more than mild surprise, and a general reaction of rejection. Yet the pattern traced out by St. John for the purification of the soul has its counterpart in the spiritual life of every soul that reaches the Beatific Vision. We do not say that all undergo the process to the same degree that the Saint paints in his dramatic picture of the Dark Night. Yet we have our Lord’s warning to us that we must purify ourselves if we are to follow him, and we have his promise that the Father will purify us if we are to bring forth more fruit. This applies to the life of every priest. Most of us, however, greet the first touches of the divine pruning-knife with keen resentment and a lack of patience that is really quite out of harmony with the offering that we should make of ourselves each morning at Mass.

It is here—from our Mass—that our life of devotion to God might well, we think, take its daily starting point, as from a primary focus; and the Offertory of the Mass in particular is a most appropriate place for renewing our willing gift of ourselves to God and our cheerful acceptance of all that he deigns to do with us. That addition of a drop of water to the wine in the chalice, and the prayer that accompanies this ceremony, express very suitably these dispositions. It is also very suggestive that the bread and wine, after having been offered to God, are placed on the altar—a way of placing them in his hands—with the gesture of the sign of the Cross. That gesture which we make daily, first with the bread and then with the wine, should increase daily in its significance for us both as a reminder of the sacrifice that is about to take place and as an expression of our attitude before God—of our union with Christ, the Victim, and our acceptance of the Cross with him.

Then we bow down, and instead—as of old—expecting fire to come down from heaven to consume our sacrifice, we pray, with all the authority of the Church to justify us, that the Holy Ghost will come to bless our sacrifice. Now is the time to remember that our God is a consuming fire! And the fire of the Love of God which is the Holy Spirit will certainly come to sanctify us—if we do not grieve him by resisting him. But if we are going to co-operate with him we must remember the cross-marked path of our High Priest. We should be mindful, too, of the history of Job, a figure from the Old Testament too often overlooked in our time. His story is of the utmost significance for us priests, for what happened to him is going to happen to us also in some form or other. We must never forget that sanctification is not so much a question of the development and perfecting of ourselves, as of the denying of self and our replacement by Christ. We must diminish and he must increase.

Unless continual reflection on the life, the teaching and the example of our Lord has prepared us, we shall not be ready to fulfil our priestly vocation of being made men after the heart of our Lord. We must prepare ourselves to share not only his Priesthood but also his Victimhood. We have, in some way or other at least, to share in his death and resurrection. Too often our Lord has to delay his sanctifying work in our souls because of—one might say—our unbelief. And the loss of the ‘more fruit’ that he intended us to bring forth is not the least of the sad results of our resistance to his purifying work.

Our Lady knows the mind and the heart of Christ. Let us ask her to instruct us, to prepare us, to mould us, and to conform us to the heart of her Son, so that we may not be found unready or unwilling when he comes to ask us to ascend higher, to become more intimate with him.

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