Crusade Meditations: June 2022

Weakness lies at the Heart of the Economy of Salvation

“When I am Weak, then am I strong!”

Saul (St. Paul) was a remarkable, but unexpected apostle of Jesus Christ. Even he referred to his vocation as an ‘abnormal birth’. Unlike the other disciples, Jesus appeared to him only after His Ascension into heaven. More disconcerting: he was an accomplice to the stoning of St. Stephen. Worse still, he persecuted the Church. Indeed, he set out for Damascus in order to imprison the followers of Jesus. As he approached the city gate, Jesus met him with a blinding flash and Saul fell to the ground. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul, stunned as he was, could only query, “Who are You, Lord?” The Lord answered: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting! Is it hard for you to kick against the goad?” (Acts 26:14). It was! Saul pleadingly responded: “What shall I do, Lord?” Jesus knew his man; He commanded him: “Arise, and go into the city, and there you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6).

Three days in blind darkness, neither eating nor drinking – like in a tomb – Saul prayed. Then Jesus sent His disciple, Ananias, to heal Saul’s blindness and to baptize him! Thus, the persecutor became a Christian. Jesus had reassured Ananias, “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My Name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for My Name” (Acts 9:15-16).

St. Paul, it seems, never overcame his own wonder at his vocation! “I am the least of the Apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor 15:9). He became the champion of the folly of the Cross: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). Divine grace was everything to him: “By the grace of God, I am what I am; and His grace in me has not been void, but I have labored more abundantly than all they: yet not I, but the grace of God within me” (1 Cor 15:10).

Among all his characteristics, that which may most endears St. Paul to our hearts are not his outstanding acts of heroism, but rather his weakness. He confesses:

…a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times, I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:6a 7b-10)

His weakness was not incidental; it is not a secondary trait; rather it lies at the heart of the History of Salvation: “God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). Indeed, God chose the path of weakness for Himself as the path of Redemption. In the Incarnation, Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave [the least and weakest!], coming in human likeness and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:1-2. 5-8).

For our salvation, Jesus had to “set aside” His divine power; He chose to embrace our weakness so as to redeem us by His death on the Cross. Accordingly, human weakness is not only humankind’s trademark but also the trademark of the entire economy of salvation. It follows that weakness is, yes, a trademark of the priesthood, but also of the hierarchy of the holy angels!

St. Paul cries out, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor 11:29). If Jesus had not prayed for Peter and the apostles, none of them could have remained standing. For man salvation is impossible, but not for God’s grace (cf. Mt 19:26). We want to stand alongside Christ in prayer for priests. Only when we stand together in faithful prayer and sacrifice, shall the priesthood stand firm and flourish in the Church.

The Place of the Priesthood in the Divine Hierarchy

We speak of the hierarchy in the Church; we also speak of the heavenly hierarchy of the angels. Let us ask, how do these two stand together or how are they related to one another? The answer may surprise us. Many clues lie hidden in St. John’s Book of Revelation. In the fifth chapter, he writes: “I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders, a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. He had seven horns and seven eyes; these are the (seven) spirits of God sent out into the whole world” (Rev 5:5). The seven horns and the seven eyes of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, symbolize His sevenfold power and knowledge. Behold, He entrusts these to the seven spirits! It is to them, to the holy angels, that Jesus entrusts a significant share in His mission throughout the Book of Revelation to lead and protect the Church – indeed, to instruct, to cleanse and purify her — on her journey to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and to the eternal glory in the Heavenly City! The angels are acting, ministering and helping everywhere in the Book of Revelation. One of them declares to St. John: “I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who bear witness to Jesus” (Rev 19:9).

Clearly, there is a correlation between the human ministries of the Church on earth and the angelic ministries. They carry out many of their ministries here on earth: while priests offer a liturgy here on earth, the angels celebrate simultaneously in heaven… so much so, that we intone together with the angels the Holy, Holy, Holy at Mass.

Here, in a few swift strokes, I wish to depict with the aid of St. Thomas Aquinas how these divergent hierarchies form one single hierarchy. In this great infrastructure, the hierarchy of the Pilgrim Church is the least and the weakest. How important and urgent, therefore, are our prayers for priests! In good times, this point is often missed, but in hard times such as ours, the spiritual needs of priests cry out for assistance.

St. Thomas Aquinas first raises the question, whether all the angels belong to a single hierarchy. He begins by defining the term hierarchy: “hierarchy” is a compound word, taken from two Greek words, which are very common in the Old Testament. The first word, “híerus” [ἱερεὺς], means a “sacred minister”; this word stood especially for the Levitical “priest” in the Old Testament, who were especially known for the animal sacrifices in the temple. The first use of “hierus” (priest), however, is linked to Melchizedek (Gen 14:18), the priest who offered bread and wine, thus prophetically anticipating Christ’s priesthood: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 109:4). Christ’s priesthood is, therefore, a new priesthood, the cornerstone of the eternal priesthood, entirely independent from the Levitical priesthood (cf. Heb 5:6. 10; 6:20; 7:11).  It is the keystone of the entire hierarchy of God in creation.

The second word, “archon” [ἄρχων], means a “leader” or a “prince”. Thomas explains: “Hierarchy means a sacred principality.” “Principality” simply means a state or kingdom with one head, under whom are organized in an orderly manner all the citizens with special attention being given to the officers in their various ranks. St. Thomas, then, draws a lapidary conclusion:

Therefore, because there is one God, the Prince [archon, leader] not only of all the angels but also of men and all creatures; so there is one hierarchy, not only of all the angels, but also of all rational creatures, who can be participators of sacred things. (Summa theol. I. Q. 108, art. 1c).

St. Paul affirms in the Letter to the Ephesians that the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (cf. Eph 1:4). His “plan for the fullness of times, was to recapitulate all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10). Thus, Christ is the Head of creation and the Church. The Father “seated [Him] at His right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, virtue, power and domination, and every name that is named not only in this age, but in the age to come” (Eph 1:20-21).

Hence, the hierarchy of the Church (bishop, priest and deacons) constitutes the lower ministerial ranks in Christ’s Holy Kingdom, while the angel choirs form the upper, heavenly ranks in the same divine hierarchy. Invisibly, above the Church on earth up to the very throne of God tower the nine choirs of Angels in three subdivisions.

  • Gathered immediately around God’s throne in a ring of perpetual adoration are the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones, the first recipients of God’s light and wisdom.
  • Spread out over the vast universe like so many architects and field officers are the Dominations, the Powers and the Principalities.
  • Clustered around our little world, the focal point of all God’s love and solicitude in creation, are the Virtues, Archangels and the innumerable angels of the 9th choir.

It suffices to recall: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?” (Heb 1:14)

Clearly, the weak point in the hierarchy of Christ’s Kingdom in heaven and on earth, is to be sought in the human dimension of sacred ministers down here upon the earth in the Church! St. Paul depicts our condition: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7).

In God’s paradoxical wisdom, though, He has anchored the redemptive and salvific power of Christ’s Paschal Mystery in the Seven Sacraments, appointed the priests and bishops as the sacred ministers on earth, not the angels from heaven. At the same time, Vatican II teaches:

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8)

Concomitantly, a major part of the angelic ministries are orchestrated around the Church’s liturgy on earth, for Christ assured St. Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). In brief, actual graces, inspirations, the lights of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, infused contemplation and the graces which dispose us to a worthy reception of the sacraments are largely benefits we receive from the holy angels. 

The fruitful preaching ministry of priests is, also largely dependent upon the hidden enlightening help of the angels.  St. Thomas even goes so far as to say – after ascertaining that the administration of the sacraments pertains the human ministers in the Church — that: “What men do in a less perfect manner, i.e. by sensible sacraments, which are proportionate to their nature, angels also do, as ministers of a higher degree, in a more perfect manner, i.e. invisibly—by purifying, enlightening, and perfecting” (Summa Theol. III.Q.64, art. 7).

The most effective means of salvation, to which we are all obliged in conscience, consists in our living out of our membership in the Catholic Church, whose sacraments together with the authentic proclamation of the Gospels is a superabundant source of salvation. How great this is! How fortunate we are!

Ah, but on the other hand, how challenging!!! For these mysteries have been entrusted to the weakest ministers in God’s glorious hierarchical Kingdom. The truth is, we get the priests we have merited through our prayers and sacrifices! In the Vietnam War the Vietcong targeted especially the officers and medics. The logic was impeccable: take out the leadership and the support, and the troops will be scattered and be ineffectual. Such too is the logic of the devil. Knowing this, “The Crusade for Priests” is like a spiritual Special Forces unit for the spiritual protection and strengthening of priests and consecrated souls. Prayers and sacrifices are our weapons! The holy angels – the Air Force which controls the skies — is their most willing collaborators!

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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