According to St. Pius X, our sanctity depends in large measure on the holiness of our priests. This Holy Thursday then is an appropriate time to reflect on our priests, the imperative that the Eucharist be the source, center and summit of their and our lives, and our duty as laity to treasure, encourage and support them.
We begin by recalling how eloquently St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Doctor of our Church, wrote of what it is to be a priest:
“We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring Him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently…I know God’s greatness and man’s weakness but also his potential. The priest is the defender of Truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ’s priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God’s image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes.”
In 1962 the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen advised his fellow priests that they “become significant to their fellow men not by being ‘a regular guy’ but by being ‘another Christ’.” He foresaw the failings of his brother priests, as “a want of lively faith in the Divine Presence.” He was just as astute to recognize “the sanctity of the priesthood starts there too.” He warned prophetically that “every worldly priest hinders the growth of the Church; every saintly priest promotes it.” He prayed that God would make each of His priests “alter Christus”. That too should be our prayer.
The perspectives of St. Gregory and St. Pius X and the observations of Archbishop Sheen remain as valid and essential for us and our priests today as when they first shared them. Zeal for the salvation of souls cannot be replaced with a misguided emphasis on community organizing and social justice issues. The Fathers of Vatican Council II made this clear when they wrote in Gaudium et Spes that “Christ did not bequeath to the Church a mission in the political, economic or social order: the purpose he assigned to it was a religious one.” The physical well-being of people (a notable goal and obligation for all) must of necessity be secondary to their eternal salvation.
No one expresses this vital truth more clearly than St. John Chrysostom:
“Zeal for the salvation of souls is of so great a merit before God, that to give up all our goods to the poor, or to spend our whole life in the exercises of all sorts of austerities cannot equal the merit of it. There is no service more agreeable to God than this one. To employ one's life in this blessed labor is more pleasing to the Divine Majesty than to suffer martyrdom. Would you not feel happy if you could spend large sums of money in corporal works of mercy? But know that he who labors for the salvation of souls does far more; nay, the zeal of souls is of far greater merit before God…than the working of miracles.”
Our priests are under enormous pastoral and administrative burdens and are, have been and will continue to be viciously and relentlessly subjected to spiritual attack by the Evil One who knows full well that without priests there will be no Eucharist. We can not allow that to happen.
They, like each of us, are human and prone to sin. Sadly, some of our priests have grievously sinned and exposed a foul stench within their midst. Fortunately, the majority of our priests have not succumbed to such filth. But our priests can faithfully fulfill their role as “another Christ” only with the grace of God – abundant grace flowing to all priests for whom the Eucharist is the source, center and summit of their priestly lives, who treasure offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass daily, who spend time before the Blessed Sacrament each day, and who have developed a deep and trusting relationship with and devotion to our Blessed Mother.
They need our prayers, our support and encouragement. Never a day should pass by without each of us getting on our knees, thanking God for the faithful priests he has sent and will be sending to help us on our path to personal sanctification and eternal salvation and asking Him to provide them with all they need to be faithful to their vocation and successful against the attacks of the Evil One. Regularly lift these heroic men up in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, fast on their behalf, offer a Novena to St. John Vianney and a daily rosary for their sanctification, regularly go to confession to them, and let them know that you appreciate them even when the Truth they share may cause you to take a closer look at yourself, your relationship with God and your fidelity to the teachings of His Church.
If we do all that, in God’s perfect timing, each of us will be able to say about all our priests, the same thing one lawyer reportedly said when, after returning from seeing St. John Vianney in Ars, someone asked him what he had seen there: “I saw God in a man.”
It's past time to treasure our priests
(Adapted from an article written in 2009 during the Year for the Priests)