On the Catholic Priesthood
Priest and People
When we behold some masterpiece of painting, like the "Transfiguration" of Raphael, the "Last Judgment" of Michael Angelo, or the "Immaculate Conception" of Murillo; when we behold some masterpiece of sculpture, like the "David," the "Moses," the "Apollo Belvidere," or the "Laocoon Group" in the Vatican; when we stand before some masterpiece of architecture, like the "Cologne Cathedral," or "St. Peter's" in Rome; when we read the literary masterpieces left us by Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton; or when we listen to the enrapturing music of Mozart, Beethoven or Gounod, we instinctively pay homage to the men whose genius conceived and executed them. We look upon those men as almost more than human. They seem to have shared in a marvelous degree the creative power of God. And so they did. And we do right to pay them honor.
And yet, my dear brethren, the work of the humblest priest is higher, and holier, far more God-like than those works of merely human genius which the world is so ready to applaud.
You call the priest your spiritual father. And such he is in tact. For under God he is the author of your spiritual life. Through his ministrations you receive grace, the principle of supernatural life; and through his ministrations that supernatural life is nourished and perfected. Through the sacraments and the sacrifice of the Mass he infuses grace into your souls. Now grace is the gift of God the Holy Ghost; and where the Holy Ghost acts, there he is present. He unites Himself to your souls in such a way that you become like unto God. The union between your souls and God the Holy Ghost is the closest possible short of personal, hypostatic. You do not cease to be creatures, distinct from God, but you become partakers in the very nature and life of God. You are as it were recreated, born again to a new and higher life. Your souls are beautiful with the beauty of God, knowing with His wisdom, strong with His strength.—Cardinal Manning, "Internal Mission of the Holy Ghost."
Humanly speaking, when the priest dies, his name dies with him. His image survives in no visible form. Yes! But if you could only look upon the souls of them to whom he has ministered you would there behold his image reproduced. In the kingdom of souls his name never dies, and his children are ten thousand. He works not on canvas, nor in marble, but on human souls. Having before his eyes Jesus Christ, the model of human perfection, he strives to form your character after that great original. Day by day, year after year, laboriously and patiently, tenderly and lovingly, sometimes in tears, he labors to form in you a copy of the God-man. And while he works, God works with him, inspiring his thoughts, inflaming his heart, guiding his hand.
And what a work he produces! Not a painting that must fade and molder; not a marble form or granite structure that must crumble into dust; but a living image of God, destined to live forever. As long as God lives, that work shall live—a monument to the faith and hope and love of the priest.
The priest is not content to make you worthy members of civil society. He does that. He inculcates the natural virtues of industry, honesty, sobriety, patience, love of country, reverence for infancy and old age, respect for and obedience to lawful authority. His special work, however, is to make you worthy citizens of heaven. He knows that you are children of God, brethren of Christ, and that you are destined to occupy thrones in heaven. And so he labors to prepare you for your glorious destiny.
What a noble work is this! And how insignificant and transitory appear all the works of merely human genius! The work of the priest, like the souls of men on which he works, is immortal—enduring for all time and eternity.
Such is the work accomplished by the humblest priest —work done by your priests, for you and for your children. The priest is indeed your spiritual father. Yes; and you are his spiritual children. His children? Then be his children! Cherish for him all those sentiments which good children cherish for their earthly father.
The priest is of necessity a public man. In every community he is a conspicuous character, whether he will or not. He stands always in the glare of the searchlight of public opinion. All eyes are directed upon him. And those eyes are not all charitable eyes.
The young, who have never yet attempted any difficult work; the negatively good, who have never tried and therefore never failed, may sometimes think him lacking in zeal because he does not accomplish impossible things. The old are not apt to judge a priest harshly. I do not recollect ever hearing an old person criticize a priest severely. The old know from experience the weakness of their own nature, and the weakness of human nature in general, too well, to be uncharitable in judging any priest. On the other hand they are liable to think him too ambitious, too zealous, and instead of encouraging him, they almost discourage him by counseling what they call prudence, but what in reality is only timidity.
The willfully wicked, they who do not even try to lead virtuous lives, watch him with the eyes of a serpent, color his every act and move with the malice of their own hearts, and take a fiendish delight in detecting the least sin or mistake. If his conduct is above reproach, they impugn his motives. He is vain, lacks character, or he is too positive and conceited. If perchance he really does fall into sin, they raise a hue and cry over him as vultures circle screeching over the hero who falls wounded on the battlefield. Let the priest fall once, his whole life they conclude has been a sham, and he only a hypocrite! One priest falls, then all priests are hypocrites, all religion a mockery!
They will not or cannot practice virtue themselves; hence they rejoice in the fall of the innocent. The occasional lapse of the virtuous is to them a justification of their own habitual and wilful wickedness.
My dear brethren, can you imagine an occasion of more rejoicing among the devils in hell than the fall of a priest? No! Then what should you do? What should you be in regard to your priests, your spiritual fathers? Support them, encourage them, sympathize with them, shield them.
Suppose they do err! Is that an excuse for deserting them, for betraying them? No! That is the plea of every traitor who ever betrayed his country or his fellow-man. Benedict Arnold tried to excuse his treason by alleging the faults and mistakes of his superiors, by saying that men of less deserts than he—which is true—had been promoted over his head. Has the world accepted his excuse? No! Neither will it accept yours for betraying your God given leaders, your spiritual fathers.
Suppose the priest does err! Is that an excuse for your publishing his sin? Do not imitate Cham, the wicked son of Noah, who, when he saw his father intoxicated and lying naked in his tent, laughed in derision and published his shame to his brethren. Beware of following his example, lest the curse that fell on him and his posterity may fall on you and yours. Rather imitate the example of Sem and Japhet. When they heard of their father's sin and shame, they took up a cloak, and, walking backwards lest they might see, covered him. Do you in like manner, and I am sure that God who rewarded them and theirs will bless you and yours. 'Gen. 9:21-27.)
What kind of a Catholic do you most admire? What kind of a Catholic do Protestants most admire? Is it the Catholic who is always criticizing church and sisters and priests? No! The Catholic whom you admire, the Catholic whom all men admire, is the man who, when he hears his church, the sisters or the priests reviled, throws off his coat and is ready to fight!
Pray for your priests, all of them. Do not be like the little academy girl I heard about the other day. She had finished her evening prayers and was about to climb into bed when her mother said:
"Mary you forgot to say a prayer for Father L ."
"Father L ?Why, he doesn't need my prayers."
"Why not?" asked the mother.
"Because he is so good."
"How about Father Mc?"
The little girl looked at
her mother with her innocent eyes and in all charity said: "I don't
know, mama. Maybe I'd better say a prayer for him." The mother suggested
that she had better pray for both. And so do I.
Father Mc. and Father L. both need your prayers. Father L has a long road to travel before he reaches the point where I now stand. He will doubtless find ahead of him many a piece of rough road, many a quagmire, many a steep hill. Many a time his feet will bleed as he bears his cross up his hill of Calvary. He will see the bloodstained print of the Savior's feet who walked that path before him. Still he needs our prayers.
In your charity you may sometimes fancy that the priest does not need your prayers. He does need them, and he counts on them. You cannot know how much he leans on you for support. In almost every man's life there come now and then periods of depression. Overwork and worry, especially if there be added some great misfortune or sorrow, drag his soul down to the verge of despair. Strange as it may seem, buoyant, happy, sanguine natures are most prone to these seasons of melancholy. And they are truly awful. The past seems an utter failure. The present is overcast with the blackest clouds of gloom. The future is terrifying in its forebodings of disaster. * If you saw your father walking on the edge of a precipice, where a single false step would hurl him to destruction, how you would tremble for his safety! How you would pray God to keep him from harm!
For aught you know, my dear children, your spiritual father may at times be, figuratively speaking, in just that position, where a sudden gust of temptation would cause him to fall. When a feeling of loneliness and discouragement makes him almost ready to hurl himself from the height.
And it may be, that at such a time, you think of him and without ever dreaming that he needs your prayers, you pray for him, and your prayer is his salvation.
Second the efforts of your pastor. He is working for you. Encourage him. Speak kindly of him. Do not keep all your eulogies for his funeral day. Do not be like the friends of a certain poet. During life he could hardly get enough to eat. When he died they erected a costly monument over his grave. Which caused some wit of the day to say of him:
"He asked for bread; they gave him a stone."
On a certain occasion when the Israelite were engaged in battle with their enemies, Moses knelt on the mountain top and prayed for them. As long as he kept his hands upraised the people were successful. When his hands fell from weariness, the people were pressed back in defeat. Then two of his attendants ran to his side and held up his hands. The people in the plain rallied again and swept the enemy from the field. (Gen. 17:9-13.
So will it be with you. When the hands of the priest at the altar fall from discouragement or lack of support you will be defeated by your spiritual enemies. If you hold up his hands by your sympathy, your encouragement, your co-operation, you will be victorious.