The Priesthood: A Life of Love and Humble Service
The priesthood is the gift of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the fruit of His love flowing from His pierced side on the Cross. This year, the feast of the Sacred Heart coincides with the traditional feast of the Most Precious Blood. This coincidence leads us to reflect even more on the love of Christ, who poured out His Heart’s Blood upon the Cross as our High Priest, so that He might remain among us today through both the Eucharist – the Sacrament of His Body and Blood – and the priesthood, His living presence among us.
As Christians, we are called to walk in the love of Christ, to lose ourselves and give ourselves totally out of love as He did on the Cross. “For God is love” and our ultimate calling is to be “like God”, to enter into full communion of love with Him. “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God… If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:7, 12). Like all Christians, and even more, the priest is called to walk in love, to make of his life a total gift of self to Christ. Married persons empty themselves and give themselves to Christ by serving and sacrificing themselves for one another and for their children, for God’s sake. The priest, on the other hand, is called to empty himself and pour out his heart’s blood, so to speak, for the Church, for the flock entrusted to him. “As Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her” (Eph 5:25b-26a), so also must the priest love the Church and sacrifice himself with Christ in order to serve the Church and lead her to Jesus as a “spotless Bride” (cf. 2 Cor 11:2).
Service and sacrifice are therefore inscribed in the very vocation of the priest. “The fundamental criterion of greatness and primacy according to God is not dominion, but service.... The Son of man came to serve. He defined His mission under the category of service, understood not in generic terms but in the concrete sense of the Cross, of the total giving of His life as ‘ransom’ and redemption for many, and He indicates this as a condition for following Him. This message applies to the Apostles, it applies to the entire Church, above all it applies to those who have the task of guiding the People of God,” the Bishops and priests (Benedict XVI, Homily, Nov. 20, 2010).
We see this life of self-giving exemplified thousands of times throughout history in the lives of faithful priests. St. Isaac Jogues, to name one instance, was with a group of new Huron Indian converts and two lay religious brothers of his Order when they were ambushed by a group of Iroquois Indians. Capture meant certain torture and eventually death. When the others were captured, Fr. Isaac was hidden in the tall grass, unseen and unheard. He was also exceptionally strong physically, and could have easily outrun his would-be captors. But he thought of the weak faith of his new converts and the need of the lay religious brothers for the grace of the Sacraments; he thought of the Iroquois themselves, and their lack of Christian example and instruction. So he rose from the grass and walked into captivity, where immediately years of torture and humiliation began. They stripped him, burned him with torches and embers, tore out his fingernails and chewed upon his fingers and flesh. But even so, he was always taking every opportunity to encourage those who suffered along with him, to bless and console them, and to administer the Sacraments as much as possible, at the cost of great personal sacrifice.
And though he had the opportunity many times thereafter to escape, he considered his ministry as a priest even in those extreme circumstances, more important than his own life. At one point some Dutch pilgrims who were on friendly terms with the Iroquois convinced him to save his own life and escape, as the other Catholics had already died, and so he succeeded in fleeing to France. But after a short time he requested to return to the North American missions, where he poured himself out for the conversion of the Indians until the ultimate drop, finally receiving the crown of martyrdom.
We think of other saintly priests as well, such as St. Charles Borromeo, who wore himself out in the service of souls and died at the early age of 46, or St. Padre Pio, who bore the stigmata of Christ for fifty years and underwent so many attacks from the evil one for the sake of souls. In our own time, we remember Blessed John Paul II, who embraced the whole world with his broad heart. His love for every soul was experienced personally by millions, Christians and non-Christians alike, especially by the youth for whom he made special efforts to bring to Christ. He suffered with those who were denied their basic human rights and did his best—and by God’s grace, with great success—to defend them and improve their situation on an international level. Even when he was suffering greatly from Parkinson’s disease, he remained faithful to his ministry and duties as chief shepherd of the Church, giving his all for the flock.
These are heroic examples of great priests internationally known and recognized, and solemnly proclaimed Saints by the Church. But all of us know personally good and humble priests who spend their days serving others, administering the Sacraments, visiting the sick, counseling, meeting all the needs of the parish, both spiritual and material. We take it simply for granted that these priests are there for us, they exist to serve us. How many sacrifices does the priest make on our behalf, and we don’t even notice because he is always so joyful and happy to be there? He is there for us as Christ among us, with the self-sacrificing love of Christ shining through him into our hearts. Like the sun which warms us every day and so often we forget to say, “Thank you, Lord!”, so also we simply expect the priest to be there for us when we need him, without ever thinking to thank him, or to thank God who has given him to us.
In order to live this life of humble service and sacrifice, the priest must be strong in faith and deeply united to Christ, who gives meaning and strength to his life. It “requires an ever stronger will to imitate the lifestyle of the Son of God.... This means following Him in His donation of humble and total love to the Church, His Bride, on the Cross. ...This requires ever more profound and solid roots in Christ. An intimate relationship with Him...is the primary requirement to ensure that [the priest’s] service remains serene and joyful, and can produce the fruits the Lord expects from [him]” (Benedict XVI, Homily, Nov. 20, 2010). Unlike married persons, who receive much consolation, strength and support from their spouse, the priest can turn only to Christ in order to find the strength to bear the many hardships which his vocation entails. In the midst of all the demands upon him—in the administering of the Sacraments, in counseling and consoling others, and in all his administrative tasks—it is essential that he find time to cultivate and deepen his union with Jesus through prayer, reading the Bible, meditation, etc. In this way, even the duties that he performs will be interiorized, so that he can find Christ in all his joys and sorrows, struggles and temptations.
St. Charles Borromeo, the great reformer of the clergy of the late 16th Century, once wrote to priests,
You are a pastor? Do not omit the care you should take of yourself; do not pour out yourself so liberally that you have nothing left for yourself, since just as you have to think about the souls of those others, for whose sake you are there, so also you should not forget your own soul…. Whenever you are dispensing the Sacraments, think upon what you are doing. If you are celebrating the Mass, think upon what you are offering; whenever you are praying the Psalms in the choir, think upon what you are saying and to whom; if you are guiding souls, think upon the Blood with which they have been washed. (Milan, 1599. Office of Readings for Nov. 4th)
It is important for the laity to realize the great need of the priest for a deep interior life. He is not a “social worker”, always at the demand of the faithful, living a life of pure “activism”. Nor should we unconsciously treat the priest as “my” servant, as if he were there just to fulfill my needs. He is first of all a man of God—he belongs to God and bears the mission from God to save souls and lead them to Christ. The priest is a man of faith, whose faith must be rock solid in order to support, enrich and carry the faith of his flock. But he is also a man, with all his human limitations. The supernatural divine life of faith does not come “naturally” to him, just as it is not natural for any of us. Faith must be nourished and cultivated through prayer and meditation. It must be defended and fought for, by the grace of God, against the constant pull of the world, the devil and our own disordered inclinations arising from original and personal sin. It is in this light that we must see our priest. We respect and love him for his life of service, for his light and strength of faith. But we also sympathize with him and pray for him in his struggles and difficulties, in the many temptations and the special attacks of the evil one upon Christ’s chosen ones.
Priests are not angels, and it is for good reason. As Blessed John Henry Newman writes, “Had angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you” (“Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel”, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3). But since they are not angels, priests also need our prayers, sacrifices and support to sustain them in their “angelic” vocation. “O that God would grant the clergy to feel their weakness as sinful men, and the people to sympathize with them and love them and pray for their increase in all good gifts of grace” (Blessed J.H. Newman, Sermon, March 22, 1829).
Even with their human faults, priests in their ministry give glory to God. Venerable Fr. Solanus Casey once wrote to his brother who was having trouble with a hospital chaplain, “God could have established His Church under supervision of angels that have no faults or weaknesses. But who can doubt that as it stands today, consisting of and under the supervision of poor sinners, successors to the ‘poor fishermen of Galilee’, the Church is a more outstanding miracle than any other way?” If we should see faults in a priest or Bishop, we should avoid talking about it, but pray even more for him and offer sacrifices for him. Once when someone complained to a holy woman about a priest, she simply answered, “And have you prayed for him yet? How much? What have you offered for him?” We too should do the same and encourage others as well to avoid baring the faults of priests. We must pray, and pray much for them.
In our Crusade for Priests, we want to pray and sacrifice so that our priests may become good, better and holy ministers of Christ. But beyond our prayers, we also want to support them with our words and actions, to show them our gratitude and respect, and to help them as far as we can. If possible, it would be a great service to the Church if we could free them from some of their administrative duties and concerns, so that they may find more time to be nourished by Christ and His word. We must realize that a vibrant spiritual life is absolutely essential for the faithful fulfillment of their ministry. Therefore, we should be very conscious of the time we demand from priests, sometimes unnecessarily, and realize that their time is precious. For they need much more time for prayer than the laity. Let us ask the Blessed Mother Mary to show us the way, and ask the angels to accompany us and help us as we continue to pray and fight for the souls of priests. And how grateful Jesus will be if we give ourselves whole-heartedly to this service of His ministers! May God reward you for all you do in the service of priests.
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