Crusade Meditations: Summer 2019
The Value of Prayer and Sacrifice for Priests
In this issue of the Crusade for Priests, we are reproducing a talk by the Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon, SJ, on praying for priests. In the current crisis in the Church surrounding the inexcusable scandals and cover-ups in the priesthood, and most especially among the hierarchy, we want to encourage our members not to lose heart or abandon ship, but to redouble our efforts in prayer and sacrifice for priests and priestly vocations. Why?
We know that as the priesthood goes, so goes the Church. But priests are not born out of thin air, they are born into a society, into a culture, and in our own times, a highly sexualized culture. Believe it or not, there have been arguably worse times in the Church and in the priesthood and hierarchy, and the Church has come through these times, especially through the reforming movements of great Saints, such as St. Benedict, St. Theotonius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, to name just a few. Therefore, in order to help priests to live their sublime vocation and the purity of heart necessary for their calling to be another “Christ on earth”, we want to strive to live our own call to holiness, as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, which includes praying and supporting our spiritual leaders and all in need. So please read, meditate on and take to heart the following talk of the Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon, SJ:
I would like to address myself to the subject of the value of prayer and sacrifice for priests. If there was ever a need to pray and sacrifice for priests, for their preservation and sanctity, it is today. It is not exaggerated to say that the Catholic priesthood in countries like our own is going through the most difficult ordeal in the Church’s history. That is no exaggeration. We have lost well over ten thousand priests in the United States since the close of the Vatican Council. Vocations to the priesthood in our country have dropped almost seventyfive percent since the Council. Countless seminaries have closed, there is confusion in many Catholic circles as to what the priesthood is. As a result, we can safely say that the welfare of the Church in our country and in many other so-called, developed countries is at stake. Having taught priests over 30 years, having lived with priests and having labored for them, loved them and suffered with them, no words I can use would be too strong to state that the Catholic priesthood needs prayer and sacrifice as never before since Calvary.
I would like to ask a series of questions to spark an answer that should be a prayerful reflection on our own responsibility. First and briefly: why the priesthood? In a single sentence, the most important reason why we need the priesthood is because without the priesthood there cannot be the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there would be no sacrifice of the Mass, no Holy Communion, no Real Presence of Jesus Christ on earth in the Church to continue His work of salvation in the world. As I sometimes ponder the great cathedrals of the Church in France, Germany or Italy, I say to myself: the only reason that generations were sometimes spent in building these tributes to the faith is because every Catholic church from the smallest chapel to the cathedral of Notre Dame or St. Peter’s in Rome is literally a house of God, of Jesus Christ. The Son of God who became the son of Mary really dwells in them. But without the priesthood, Jesus Christ would not be on earth. That is our Catholic faith
I would like to ask a series of questions to spark an answer that should be a prayerful reflection on our own responsibility. First and briefly: why the priesthood? In a single sentence, the most important reason why we need the priesthood is because without the priesthood there cannot be the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there would be no sacrifice of the Mass, no Holy Communion, no Real Presence of Jesus Christ on earth in the Church to continue His work of salvation in the world. As I sometimes ponder the great cathedrals of the Church in France, Germany or Italy, I say to myself: the only reason that generations were sometimes spent in building these tributes to the faith is because every Catholic church from the smallest chapel to the cathedral of Notre Dame or St. Peter’s in Rome is literally a house of God, of Jesus Christ. The Son of God who became the son of Mary really dwells in them. But without the priesthood, Jesus Christ would not be on earth. That is our Catholic faith.
Why do priests need special graces from God? They need special graces because they have extraordinary responsibilities before God. They are to be more than ordinarily holy, more generous, more zealous, more patient. In a word, those who are responsible for Christ’s presence on earth are to be, of all people, most Christ-like. They are to be patterns of what Christ wants all of us to be. Count all the grave crises in the Church over the centuries. Every single one of them, somehow at heart, was due to the fact that priests had failed the people of God.
As long as I live, I will never forget the retreat the late Fr. Daniel Lord gave us scholastics before our ordination. He recalled the episode of a conversation that Pope Pius XII had with Fr. Edmond Walsh, then of Georgetown, who had just returned from a mission in Russia, where millions were starving because of the treachery of their Communist overlords. After the famine had abated, Fr. Walsh was told to meet with the Holy Father. Late into the night Pope and Jesuit were in conversation over the conditions of the Church in that day. And the Pope asked Fr. Walsh, “Who do you think cause the greatest trials in the Church? The persecutors, the Neros and Attilas, the Communists?” The Pope answered his own question. “No, it is unfaithful priests.” It is no exaggeration to say that as the priesthood goes, so goes the Church.
We go on. In our day, more than in any other, there are pressures on all those who wish to remain faithful to Christ, such pressures as were never experienced before. Now, such pressures are experienced by priests with a violence and a virulence such as no one else but a priest can understand. One saint after another has declared that the devil’s principal target on earth is the Catholic priest. This affirmation stands up to demonic reasoning. For, if the devil can deceive and delude a Catholic priest and draw him away from Christ, what happens? What happens is what we see happening in our world today. Priests are subject, first and mainly, to extraordinary temptations from the devil, and secondarily also from the world.
I never dreamed that I would be told this, but I was. Six months after being on the faculty of a State university, one of my fellow faculty members told me, “John, you are the first priest that this university has ever had”. I happened to be the first Catholic priest hired by a State university to teach Catholicism and paid to do so by the State. “John,” he said, “we wanted to test you, especially in your chastity. You didn’t know this, but women students on campus found out you are genuine.”
Priests need – Lord, how much they need! – special graces from God. We ask, why pray then for priests? We should pray for priests and bishops because this has been the practice of the Church since Apostolic times. It’s a matter of revealed truth. It is a divine mandate. Whatever we find in the Scriptures of the Apostolic age, we believe has been revealed by God. In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told Herod had James the Apostle beheaded. He then put Peter in prison. Then, says St. Luke, “All the time Peter was under guard, the Church prayed for him unremittingly.” I like that adverb, unremittingly. As a priest, may I beg you to pray unremittingly for Christ’s unworthy servants whom He ordained as priests? In one of the seven letters that St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote on his way to martyrdom in Rome, dated 107 A.D., the future martyr begged the people, “Pray for me who stands in need of your charity, who stands before the mercy seat of God.”
Why, then, pray for priests? Because through prayer we gain graces for them which otherwise they would not obtain. If we all need the help of one another (and we do, in order to receive the graces we need), how much more should we pray for priests from whom we have received Jesus Christ in the Eucharist – and by whom we have been so often absolved from our sins. I don’t want to even think of the state of soul I would be in except for the absolutions that over the years I have received from priests. As fellow members of the Mystical Body, priests need, they desperately need, our help and in no way more urgently than to obtain through the prayers we offer for them the graces from God of which, in my judgment, no one stands in greater need than do priests.
Why sacrifice for priests? Our prayer for priests should be joined with sacrifice. In other words, our prayer should be united with the practice of patience, selfless charity and mortification. Why? Because the most effective prayer is the prayer that costs – costly prayer, otherwise known as sacrificial prayer. How powerfully before the throne of God are the sufferings of the sick, the lonely, the abandoned, the poor, the crushed offered up to God for priests.
After all, that is what a priest’s life is supposed to be, a life of sacrifice. By now I have told hundreds of priests, “Fathers, you are not only to offer the Mass, you are to live the Mass.” But if priests are to be truly priestly, they need, and how they need! to have the faithful offer their own trials and temptations to obtain from the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, the light and strength that the priesthood demands.
What grace does a priest need most? There is no doubt in my mind that the one grace that the priest needs most is the grace to embrace the Cross. His union with Christ Crucified is the priest’s key to an effective priesthood. His power as a priest comes from the Cross, as he identifies himself with the Crucified Lord. What are we saying? We are saying that a priest must be willing and able to have happen to him what happened to his Master in Palestine. As I’ve told so many priests and by now have so often told myself, I am only as much a priest and genuinely priestly as I am ready and willing, like Jesus Christ, to suffer for souls.
Can we be more specific? Yes, the principal cross which priests experience today is the suffering they feel with the situation in the Church today. As one priest put it, and I quote, “The cross is the present, the ‘now’ experience and not some imagined and future pain.” That is why making the Way of the Cross – and I am now recommending the Stations of the Cross – I consider a most effective way of praying for priests. To make the Way of the Cross, uniting oneself with Jesus Christ, who no longer suffers in His physical body, but is suffering in His Mystical Body, which is the Church.
I would recommend that all the faithful daily offer at least one prayer for all the priests in the Church and especially for those who have done the most for them in their lives. I try to remember at Mass every day the priest who baptized me, the priest who heard my first Confession, who gave me my First Holy Communion, the bishop who ordained me, the bishop who confirmed me. I recommend, therefore, that all the faithful daily, in a special and concrete way, pray for priests. I further strongly recommend that all the faithful offer up each day some sacrifice. I am tempted to say some little sacrifice. But, NO! I suggest it be the most difficult sacrifice of the day for priests. I further recommend that when we hear about a priest who has been unfaithful to his high calling, that our first and immediate reaction should be to pray for him. I finally recommend we do everything in our power to extend and propagate the apostolate of prayer and sacrifice for priests.
Needless to say, the Church of the future will not only survive, but please God in our own country, will thrive. But that will occur only where and insofar as the priests have not only been faithful to their vocation, but have lived their priesthood in a living martyrdom in union with the first martyr, Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, no mere recommendation or exhortation as far as I can see, it is imperative: Pray and sacrifice for priests!
Article of the Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon, SJ used with permission from www.therealpresence.org. © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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