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The Priest's Way To God

THE canonisation of Pope Pius X drew special attention to his teaching on the spiritual life of the priest. Not only did he write with the authority of the vicar of Christ, but it may be truly said that he taught nothing which he himself did not practise. An outline, then, of his spiritual teaching should be very much to our present purpose in these pages.

After his elevation to the Papacy, St. Pius soon announced to the world what he intended to do. His purpose he declared to be that expressed in the words of St. Paul: Instaurare omnia in Christo ut videlicet sit omnia, et in omnibus Christus

Cf. Ephes. I, 10 and Col. III. 11

: that is to re-establish all things in Christ, so that Christ might be all and in all. With this inspired purpose in mind, he appeals to the Episcopate to assist him by their personal holiness, their wisdom, their actions, striving to give God the glory due to him and having no other purpose than to form Christ in all souls. As a first step to this end he appeals to the bishops to spare no effort that Christ be formed in those priests who are destined for the work of forming him in others. And the words of the Holy Father are of tremendous significance for us priests: ‘How can they fulfil this function unless they themselves have first of all put on Christ—and that in such a way that they can say with St. Paul: “I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me . . . To me, to live is Christ.”

Gal. II, 20; Philipp. I, 21

‘ The general vocation to be filled with the fullness of Christ has a special application to the priest; for he must be another Christ, not merely by showing the power of Christ, but by imitating his deeds so that he may be his living image. This is a high ideal, but it is the ideal which must be that of every true priest. And the Holy Father, pursuing his purpose of re-establishing all things in Christ, goes on to discuss the formation of priests upon whom the whole work depends.

Reminding the priest of his obligation to teach and to bear fruit, St. Pius reminds him that in all his work nothing is more effective than charity. It is a fallacy to hope to lead souls to God by bitter zeal. It is true, the Pope says, that St. Paul exhorts St. Timothy to ‘reprove, entreat, rebuke,’ but he adds ‘in all patience.’

2 Tim. IV, 2

Indeed we would draw attention to a further addition, for the full text reads ‘in all patience and doctrine.’ The Pope puts before us the example of Christ himself who could say: ‘Come to me all you that labour and are burdened, and I will refresh you’

Matt. XI, 28

and in those who labour and are burdened he sees a reference to those in sin and in error. Christ’s wonderful meekness, mildness, sympathy and kindness should be an example for us priests. And there follows in the original Encyclical (E Supremi, October 4th, 1903) a moving appeal for charity in all the works of the apostolate. The prophet Isaias is quoted as giving us a portrait of the heart of Christ in the words: ‘He shall not cry out nor have respect to person . . . the bruised reed he shall not break and smoking flax he shall not quench.’

Isaias XLII, 2

Our charity must be patient and kind, even to those who are our opponents or our enemies. Like St. Paul we must bless when we are reviled, we must be patient when we are persecuted, we must pray when we are blasphemed. For, as the holy heart of the Pope inspires him to say, ‘they are not as evil as they seem to be.’ They may have been led astray by bad habits, or the example and the advice of others; their own prejudices and shame may have driven them to the wrong side; but their wills are not as evil as their behaviour might indicate. To the darkness of their souls the flame of charity can bring light and peace; and although it may take time to bear fruit, charity is never fatigued, never gives up. In any case, God has promised his rewards not for the fruit of our labours but for the good will that animates them.

The Holy Father, then, is insistent on the lesson taught us by the Good Shepherd: ‘Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart.’

Matt. XI, 29

St. Pius himself was a model of meekness, and the mildness of saintly men in dealing with sinners is a commonplace in Christian history. The saints, and above all our Divine Saviour, are our safest guides. We shall do well to model our ministry on his and theirs. ‘This man receiveth sinners’: that was the impression made by our Lord on the Jews of his day. His methods and those of his saints are the best and will do far more good in the long run than anything approaching harshness. We must, indeed, ‘reprove, entreat and rebuke’ when occasion demands, but even when we do so, if our people see in us something of the gentleness and kindness of the Sacred Heart, they will listen much more readily to our warnings. The priest, like Christ, must be zealous for the honour of his Father’s house; but, again like Christ, he must also be ‘the friend of publicans and sinners.’

So urgent did Pius X consider the sanctification of the clergy that he returned to the subject in a special instruction, Haerenti Animo.

Aug. 4th 1908

He reminds us that our priesthood is given us not merely for ourselves but also for others. Priests are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We must preach not only by word but by example. Without holiness we are as useless as the savourless salt. To the question of this need and obligation of holiness in the priest, St. Pius frequently returns. He assumes the obligation and discusses the way it can be fulfilled in the Letter approving the Pia Unio Cum nobis.

Dec. 28th 1903

In his Letter to the Clergy, Haerenti Animo, he is more explicit. We exercise our priestly functions not in our own name, but in the name of Christ. And we are called by Christ to this work not as his servants but as his friends. True friendship results from a unity of wills: ‘Idem velle, idem nolle, ea demum firma amicitia est.’ We must therefore have the mind of Christ, and share in his dispositions, his outlook, his purpose. In fact we must go further, and here St. Pius sums up in a phrase the whole spiritual life of the priest: ‘Est igitur nobis persona Christi gerenda.’ We have to reproduce Christ in ourselves and in our lives. This is our vocation and this is our purpose.

Christ’s own dispositions, Christ’s own purpose, Christ’s own mind, are most perfectly expressed and summed up in his Sacrifice. We have to renew this Sacrifice every time we offer Mass and, as Pius tells us, we must try to conform our minds to his as he offered himself as an unspotted victim to God. If the former sacrifices of the Old Law, which were merely shadows of what was to come, demanded so much holiness in those who offered them, what obligations are ours, whose victim is Christ himself? Nothing short of a complete dedication of our whole being to God can correspond to the sacrifice we offer.

The standard St. Pius sets for us is high. He expects as great a difference between the life of a good Christian and that of a priest as between heaven and earth. But we must form a correct view of what is required of us: and here St. Pius corrects an error that is not unknown even in our own times. ‘Some,’ he writes, ‘feel that a priest’s perfection is to be found in his spending himself completely in the service of others; they would not have him worry too much about those virtues which are sometimes called “passive”; all his energy and purpose should be concentrated on the “active” virtues.’ This view the Holy Pontiff brands as absolutely fallacious, and makes his own the teaching of his predecessor, Leo XIII: ‘Christ is the Master and Exemplar of all holiness, all true holiness must be modelled on him.’ Nothing has changed the example he gave us of meekness, humility of heart and obedience even unto death. Self-abnegation is still the foundation of sanctity, and is the source of much of a priest’s fruitfulness: To be swayed by ambition, by honours, by success, by pleasure, is to depart from the rule laid down by our Lord: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself.’

Matt. XVI, 24

The Pope, of course, does not mean that we can neglect the duties of our ministry. We have been hired by the Master to work in the vineyard. We must be about our Father’s business. But we must remember that, especially in the ministry, we are nothing of ourselves. We have been chosen as God’s instruments but not because of our merits. For St. Paul reminds us: ‘The foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen that he may confound the strong; and the base things of the world, and things that are contemptible hath God chosen, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nought the things that are.’

1 Cor. I, 27–28

Having quoted this text, Pius proceeds to lay down doctrine of capital importance for every priest. Here we render rather freely: ‘There is only one thing which unites man to God, only one thing which makes him pleasing to God and keeps him from being an unworthy minister of his mercy, and that is holiness of life and of manners. If this—which is the super-eminent knowledge of Jesus Christ—is lacking in the priest, everything is lacking. For without this holiness, even that extensive knowledge of doctrine (which we are trying to promote in the clergy), even the greatest dexterity and skill in dealing with souls, while it may produce some good for the Church or for particular souls, quite often is a deplorable cause of harm . . . Holiness, and holiness only, makes us what our divine vocation requires us to be, men walking in newness of life who, as St. Paul exhorts us,

2 Cor. VI, 5 et seq.

show ourselves to be ministers of God in labours, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity, in knowledge, in long-suffering, in sweetness, in the Holy Ghost, in charity unfeigned,—men whose whole tendency is to heavenly things and who strive in every way to lead others to God.’

The Holy Father then proceeds to point out that the first essential step to acquire this holiness is to pray and to pray earnestly. So close is the connection between holiness and the practice of prayer that the former cannot exist without the latter. Our Lord’s own example preaches this doctrine eloquently. He spent whole nights in prayer. He frequently prayed in the Temple and even in the agonies of death he prayed with a loud cry and with tears to the Father. ‘This then we can hold as certain and unquestionable,’ says St. Pius, ‘that a priest, in order to be what his office demands, must be devoted (eximie deditum) to the practice of prayer.’ To this prayer must be added the practice of reflection and meditation. ‘No priest can neglect this without grave carelessness and considerable harm to his own soul.’ It is an essential foundation for the sustaining of our supernatural outlook and purpose. And a priest must develop a facility in remembering and in striving after heavenly things, for he must frequently speak and treat of the next world. He must then so arrange his life above all merely human things, that whatever he does in his sacred ministry he should do according to God, inspired and guided by faith. This necessary habit of mind and almost natural partnership with God depends greatly on daily meditation. Those who neglect this daily exercise show a sad example of its importance. For they have lost that sensus Christi, and are wrapped up in terrestrial affairs, performing their sacred functions carelessly, coldly and perhaps unworthily. And the Holy Father speaks of the deadly blindness of those who are so foolish as to think that time given to prayer and meditation is time wasted. Such neglect and contempt of prayer leads to pride and contumaciousness and to very many other troubles which St. Pius prefers not to mention. He then discusses the need for regular spiritual reading, for proper examination of conscience, and for general fervour in prayer and the practice of virtue. And again he repeats the fundamental principle—that the motive for all our efforts is the example of Christ. ‘For if the priest is called another Christ, and is indeed so by communication in Christ’s power, is it not essential that he should also be called another Christ, and be so in fact by imitating the deeds of Christ? Therefore let our principal preoccupation be the consideration of the life of Jesus Christ.’

Texts from the writings of St. Pius could be multiplied but there is no need to quote more. His life itself was a sermon. He only preached what he himself practised. For him, to be a priest was to be a victim, to be at everyone’s disposal. He once said that ‘to be a priest is to be bound to fatigue—the two are synonymous.’

If we may return to something of which we have spoken already: his insistence on charity is of great practical importance. Two places there are in which a priest’s charity should never fail him. One is the pulpit and the other is the confessional. It is true, of course, that in the pulpit abuses must sometimes be denounced and shortcomings criticized. But there is always the danger that such criticism should come to occupy a disproportionate place in our preaching. We are sent primarily to preach the Gospel, the word of God. Only in a secondary way are we called upon to speak of the failings of men. Any inversion of that order can only do more harm than good. If our preaching is positive, if Sunday after Sunday we speak to our people of the great central truths of Christianity, that will give them a basis for leading a full Christian life. And it will achieve far more than anything else. And even when we have to criticize, we can do it in a Christlike way, in a way which makes it clear that we love the sinner while we hate the sin. ‘If you want to draw love out, you must pour love in.’ So spoke St. John of the Cross, and it might not be the worst of mottoes for the priest in the pulpit.

There is no need to emphasize to any priest how important it is always to be kind in the confessional.

Nor is there any need to tell him that it is sometimes difficult. Here, as always, Christ is our model. His gentleness was never more apparent than with the repentant sinner; and in the welcome of the father to the prodigal son, we can catch some glimpse of what Christ wants us to be when we take his place in the confessional. It may not be easy but it will be abundantly fruitful.

But all that, like everything else worth while in a priest’s life, is impossible, unless we are living an interior life of union with Christ. Prayer, reflection and reading are essential foundations. No priest dare neglect them. He who does, even on the plea of devoting more time to the apostolate, is fooling himself and separating himself from God. St. Pius has warned us and has shown us the way.








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