The Priesthood 3-1



Excerpts From RETREAT COMPANION FOR PRIESTS by Fr. Francis P. Havey, S.S.

Nihil Obstat: E. A. Cerny, S.S.
Censor Librorum
Imprimatur: +Francis P. Keough, D.D.
Archbishop of Baltimore, October 19, 1950

Published on the web with permission.


"For the zeal of thy house hath eaten me up."------Psalm 68: 10

The Two Types of Priests

   I. The Priest Who Lives to Self.-----He was a lad favored in person and mind, and soon drew notice in school and in his Catholic neighborhood. All felt there could be but one worthy destiny for him: he must be a priest.

   He is ready to go to college, for college promises a novel experience and local distinction. There he is held by the vivid life of the crowd; by the natural attractions of comradeship, games, books, etc. The life is not too hard for pliable youth. In fact, he is much sheltered from the keen competition of life. Young men of his age are toiling day by day [and a hundred ready to take their places] under sharp eyes which scrutinize their work. They wring an advance of a few dollars in wages by the labor of several years. No matter how hard his brothers have to toil to keep up with steam driven machinery; or no matter how anemic his sister may grow from the close air of the store or shop, he has to have what he asks for in the brief letters home, and dollars in his pocket during vacation for an outing with his friends. He accepts all this as a matter of course.

Meanwhile, nothing very definite is going on in his head concerning the priesthood. He accepts the priesthood as his destiny, and drifts into the seminary. There the requirements of the priesthood are pressed definitely upon his attention, the community life is lifted up to that range-----to test his soul and form his character. He is no longer at ease there and has ups and downs of feeling; he does not pray enough to get insight; he does not sound himself; his tastes are not clerical. He lets his confessor do the worrying-----no confessor has the full record of his life; he leaves it scattered here and there in this or that confessional. His heart, in fact, is not in the venture. It is now easier to go on than to go back. Still, he lives by his wits, respects the eye of his superior, has an instinct for danger, and has intellectual resources sufficient to pull himself together from time to time so as to create hopes, to pass inspection, which he does not fulfill. At last, he is passed into the priesthood, perhaps on a division of opinion in the faculty. He looks around and says to himself, "I can do as well as this or that priest." It's the minimum; that's his standard.

  The seminary was an austere experience and he is glad to be rid of it. He thinks the seminary a monastic survival, and he knows priests who contradict its standard by their lives, and yet flourish in the ministry. He will live henceforth on the book knowledge, on the natural habits of the supernatural discipline of the seminary. In fact, he enters the priesthood to get the most out of it for himself. Quaerunt ea quae sua sunt, non ea quae Jesu Christi. He puts no law upon himself for use of time, no order in his days. That would involve discipline, and he has had enough of that in the seminary. He lives at random, a scatter of whim and impulse, open to solicitation from all sides; no strong concentration on purpose in his shallow life; disorganized. He had not steady courage in the seminary to conquer loneliness and tedium, in order to live out his own life in his own room, and now he has none at all. His hat is on his head and he is off after meals. He cannot endure the closed door.

   The hope of a fine priestly life is then forfeited from the outset. Where is the denial of self for God? The fear of the world's seduction? The travail pangs of the new nature in Christ? The costly service to God? In his room he would find the retirement that introduces the soul to God; the time of silent reading or thought, the realization of his individual responsibility to God, the power to subdue the restless heart and to come to himself. He gets to live abroad with the arab-like crowd on the mere noise of the street, on the catchwords of the newspapers, the gossip of the district in a seat in some drug store, by impulse and impression, on the idle talk of the diocese; and because he wears a clerical suit and performs sacred functions he thinks that he is leading a priestly life!

    Soon he is sucked into the great vortex of the world. Cryptic messages come for him over the telephone. He is wanted here or there in house or clubroom, for an automobile party, to take a hand at cards, etc. He is out late at night, and then is feverish by day from loss of sleep and over-stimulation of smoke and drink and the excitement of the game. He limits his priestly duty to the minimum of direct orders. How little it sometimes is! How cheap in motive and meager in effort! The layman has the responsibility of his family and labor to steady him; the priest can keep up appearances with a few hours' labor on Saturday or Sunday. The selfishness of a single life. He means to fall in with the system and to keep diocesan law so as to give the "old man" no hold upon him, and he sets up this legal righteousness for a priestly heart towards Christ. A layman sprinkled with holy water would do as much; the priest a tailor can make. He says a hurried Mass, full of disordered phantoms, and it brings him no intimacy with Christ. He has nothing to ask; has no real taste for Christ as daily bread. He has a shallow facility in the pulpit which grieves the thoughtful, and leaves the people unimpressed. He is glad to find few penitents around his confessional, jogs their memories from instant to instant with the cheerful "what else?" and darts out himself at the first let up. He is not attuned to the discharge of the higher calls of duty which come to him from time to time. Here's a sudden sick call late at night. It is a hard case. Special grace now is needed. Prayers and self-denial win special graces. But Father is at prayer. He is reading Matins of the day in a morris chair with a cigar at hand for the break after Lauds.

   Not having been trained to be a domestic man, his natural affections are atrophied and he has neglected to put on the tender, compassionate viscera Christi for the people. He has never been sick a day, has never felt the pinch of want and has no discerning eye or sympathetic instinct when he enters a home in distress. Here's a man who went out with a hoarse voice and dry skin in the morning to work. When he comes home at noon every bone is sore, his joints stiff, his head unsteady and he is parched with fever. It is no time to be sick, for he has nothing ahead; but he can do no more. So he flings himself on the bed. There is trouble to start with which medicine cannot reach; it is in his mind itself. He looks at his tired wife who must be his nurse, and at his frightened children who must have bread; he has no credit at the store, his place in the shop will be filled at once, and his dizzy brain takes fire at the prospect. His wife sends in alarm for the priest. Yes, it's double pneumonia. Father rightly takes no chances but gives the last Sacraments to the half-delirious man at once. "Now I will give you the last blessing." That means he won't come again. Four or five days later he surveys a cheap coffin and a group of a dozen round it before he recites the Libera. And thus closes for him a casual incident of his priesthood. Why should he take trouble and get vertigo with the sorrows of the people? He has nothing to spare; he has expensive personal habits, an insurance to carry, a vacation in prospect; and again, if he began to get involved with the problems of poverty, where would he end?

A parish of his own he thinks the cure-all of his life. And at last, he goes to the country as pastor. The loneliness frets him and he is off duty constantly. He starts nothing, for he is obsessed with the desire to get back into the city again. He has a sort of contempt for the people, for their absorption in their farms, their limited speech, their untrained manners. They seem to him to be living only a physical life and to be walking like the animals with their faces to the earth. He revolts at the thought of giving up for the sake of a few hundreds the life he can live but once. But no change comes as the years go by.

   Now he is settling into middle life; his look is altered. Getting old, yet laying up treasure on earth like men without faith, on the basis of a mean trade, setting a price upon his priesthood. He surrenders to the easy chair, which completes his moral and physical deterioration. The "nip and the nap" have blurred his once refined face, and his figure is overfull in the vestments of sacrifice. Still, the people do not seem to take disedification from the heft of a priest or to expect a procession of them to look like the aspirant figures that Fra Angelico loved to paint. "Fine big men, God bless them!" A glorification of the flesh before the Day of Judgment. "Were  there many priests at the celebration?" asked one priest of another. "Yes, " came the answer, "about thirty tons." Zeal is the chief virtue of the apostolate. Sloth is his besetting condition; his days pass in talk, smoke, newspapers, and days off.

   The autumn is not as the springtime of life. The good humor of youth is now gone, and he grows hard and sour. Money seems to take on a new reality-----the one thing necessary, and he preaches a hard gospel of giving, giving. He passes over the sporting news to study the stock markets. The people draw off from him and quail before the something in his tone and eye.

   Routine is wearing, public opinion exigent at home. He is glad from time to time to recover his freedom and be himself on vacation. He wants "time off" occasionally. He doffs his clerical garb, which is an angel guardian "to keep him in his ways," and to ward off evil from him. His priestly standard goes with his collar and the clerical suit. He "strikes" his colors. Now he is a layman in the layman's world of a great city hotel or summer resort; or, more critical still, he is in Europe, seeing the world. "Let no temptation take hold of you except such as is human," says the great Apostle. But this man exposes himself to danger. He is a priest, not a layman. The lack of the morning Mass leaves a void in his heart. The discipline of work and the steadying force of public opinion are lifted from him. The world without God obsesses him. Temptation strikes into his being as raw damp cold into delicate flesh in the autumn. Fundamental appetites, disciplined by abstention, stir, not with common inclination, but with the violence of hunger in a famished man. A demon fires passions which burn him through and through. His conscience gets involved. Before going home or coming to the altar, he seeks out a religious, or perhaps a young priest whom he leaves perplexed in conscience, shocked or scandalized.

   Life is long enough and hard enough to try a man to the depths. This priest has lived to himself. But to build upon selfishness which seeks instead of generosity which gives, is a false foundation. Every priestly life built upon self must break down. To be happy, a man must have a noble work and serious affections. This man has trifled with the most sacred things in life. He pledged his heart to Christ and assumed responsibility for hundreds of souls. For this he gave up a layman's lot in life. He has no family to enspirit him; no secular business to absorb him. He must love Christ or be anathema. He falls into dark, lonesome moods, and shows by cynical half-words and mutterings that he feels as if he had been tricked by the enthusiasm of youth into a poor enterprise; and comes at last to the horrible realization that his life has been a failure. He suffers gusts of envy at the bright homes of the laymen  which he passes. After having put his hand to the plow, he is looking back, torn by remorse at the realization of what he is by an indelible seal of Christ and what he would be by taste and unspoken preference for lands and wife and children! He is tired at heart of his priesthood; lonesome as a man in a home for the aged, with no one to live for, and no one who cares for him.

   Now chronic sickness comes to search his heart and his reins. "Out of hearts thoughts are revealed." The shadows lengthen; the chill night is closing in. From his sick bed he looks out upon his life. In the silent watches a desolate autumn tinges his mind; the luster is gone from his days, his powers wasted; hopes fallen thick as dead leaves; regrets moan in the unsounded depths of his heart, words cannot frame them; all things seem to be leaving him; a chill strikes into his being, through and through. There is a void in his heart. His chief malady is there. Though a consecrated man, he has not Christ with him.

   At last [how long it seems to the people!], he is dying of Bright's disease in a hospital or a health resort, with the scant, hurried Sacramental ministrations, which he gave his people, a lonely passing followed by a cold, official funeral.

   This man had gifts and training and opportunity, God knows. Christ stinted no power, and men needed him so much. But, though the need was urgent. he never used one third of his native powers, and less still of the magnificent endowment from Christ. The love of Christ should have brought to bloom every power he had, and should have made him a tree of life to men. And what is his fate? A wretched dead stick. What must Christ say as he comes reaching out his hand to seek fruit of him? "May no man hereafter eat fruit of thee forever."


    II. The Priest Who Lives to Christ.-----His name was in the Baptismal register of Old St. Mary's. The priest who Baptized the child, noting the reverent faith in the father and the decency of the little group around the Baptismal font, expressed a good wish for the boy, which was caught up by the parents as a prophecy of special grace. Quis, putas, puer iste erit?

   He lived in the unfallen world of the Catholic home and the parochial school, and showed in eye and brow and gentle manner the bloom of grace in frail flesh. He caught from his father faithfulness to duty, and his mother's tone and manner brought God within speaking distance. The Blessed Virgin who has the mastery of hearts drew him with her chaste eyes, and the perfume of her garments, and her sweet hymns. The priest opened the gate of the sanctuary to him. "How lovely are Thy Tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts!" Though he does not know the words, he has said in his heart: Dominus pars haereditatis meae.

    The pastor, as time went by, divined the lad's bent. Some priests decline the responsibility of directing a boy to the priesthood and leave the issue to chance or a passing missionary. The local interests of Christ are with us, and the replacing of ourselves at the altar is a chief interest of Christ. There is a line of vocations in a parish, the priest dies or is changed, and lo! the vocations stop, though the parish, the schools, the families are the same. This pastor takes a sound interest in the boy, because he believes there is "stuff" in him. He professes no occult phrenology, but he has confidence in the lad's firm chin and candid eyes. Experts of long experience look for straightness, sincerity, soundness in a boy. This one is bright, and above all, he is sensible and steadfastly religious. The pastor believes the strongest resources a diocese can have is an abundant supply of vocations; for from the many, a body of real leaders may be chosen by the authorities [more select than the lawyers or physicians of the commonwealth]. The priesthood must keep the prestige of leadership. He requires him to come to weekly confession, teaches him the use of aspirations [to test his religious mind], and to wake up in the morning with "all for Jesus" on his lips. Devotions will come easy to a boy. It is self-denial that matters, solid virtue of duty, obedience and respect for authority at home. There is the first novitiate. If he cannot stand discipline there, he cannot stand it in the priesthood.

    He is surprised that his secret desire is known; he is almost afraid to think that he may be a priest. His passions begin to stir, and he is gripped by the struggle of life. It is a painful experience, but he has a faithful friend in the confessional to give him light and courage. He goes to college on the economies of a humble household.

   In the seminary his worst sins reveal no deep-seated tendency, nor have they left coarse stigmata upon him. He is morally sound in the fear of God. He feels awe and unworthiness at the threshold of the seminary. His general confession strips his soul naked-----a hoarse voice of self-accusation, the short breathing and broken sentences of one who is judging himself before the seat of Christ. When he finishes, the judgment day has nothing further to reveal. Such as the evil was, it was the act of a quick imagination and easy compliance of a boy. There is a vital reaction of his whole being. He retracts it with the strong mind and full heart of a man. Penance, if it cannot bring back the blessed condition of innocence, brings back all virtue to the soul.

   Love is greater than any lost privilege. St. Augustine calls Mary Magdalen "the archvirgin" for her wonderful love of Christ. He realizes the interest of Christ in him and his being is stirred. In his life Christ has intervened: "I would have you do something great for me. It will be at a cost." You could not easily imagine him a clerk in a store or a workman in a shop. All his days are passed in the presence of Christ in the plain room with the blessed Figure hanging on the wall. In his books he studies Him, in the chapel he holds communion with Him. The graded ordinations develop the Christ in him as the negative of a photograph grows clearer with each solution. In vacation time his old companions look with latent reverence upon his clean-cut figure in clerical dress, and everyone has a good word for him. At last he is ordained. He appears among men, a shining figure laden with promise of blessings as a fruit tree in the spring.

   As a curate he has reverence for age, obeys as a matter of course, and is glad to get advice how to be a good priest. "Let me do the running around for you, Father; you have the books, the problems and the responsibility. I'll take the last Mass on Sunday; I don't mind fasting." The people like to see him pass their streets. The children cross the road to greet him. The group grows from year to year round his confessional. The sick brighten up at his approach. "O Father, how much better I feel when you call!" He is not feverish to be off duty. His heart is in his work.

   Now he has a parish of his own, and he is more a priest than ever. It is a personal call of Christ. His soul enlarges to bear alone the responsibility for a whole district in trust for Christ. He enters into a new order of things. Life grows more real, more earnest and unselfish, more Christ-like, that men may live of him as he of Christ. His passion is not to illustrate himself by a memorial in stone, but to infuse a Catholic soul into his people, to lengthen the periods of bright innocence in his children, to steady the youth in their fiery trials, to keep the vision of faith in the eyes of the burden-bearers, and to console the aged. He goes around doing good. But the good is done at his own cost.

   At last he gets a chill in confession or on sick call. He takes to bed. Now there is concern on the part of the curates; they haunt the threshold of his room. The bishop is anxious. The doctor comes. It is pneumonia. But his face and eyes are clear, his heart stout, his nerves true. He is a very sick man, but "I'll bring him through." Without in the parish, the news saddens homes. The women are before the Blessed Sacrament, the little children throng before the Lady-altar to raise their white hands in prayer, that their father who Baptized and confessed them and reached them Holy Communion may be spared. He recovers, not so much through the medicine as through the mighty prayers of an earnest people. But he is not quite himself; his lungs are softened. Time passes and he is at work again. Another chill. Now he will die. He knows it. He feels the responsum mortis. See the failing sunlight playing athwart his room; before it rises again he will be with God. The statue of the Blessed Mother is beside his bed, the Crucifix before his eyes. There is a look of peace. The great change has come; the grey shadow is on his face. The clock is ticking on the mantel, the clang of trolleys re-echoes in the room, the thud of many feet on the sidewalk. He is in his agony. Suddenly his face lights up; "Come, Lord Jesus!" and he is gone. His bed is become like an altar for his curates and attendants.

   The newspapers announce his death. It is not difficult to get priests to preach over him; it is the opportunity of a lifetime. Men are glad to watch beside his body at night. There is a heart-void as they look towards his confessional. Some come with a dollar: "Father, say a Mass for my intention." No one needs to ask what it is. At a hundred priests' tables his death is spoken of in softened tones; there is no talk of his place or successor. You feel when you come from the depot on the morning of the funeral that a whole people is desolate. There is look of unearthly peace on his white face. He had only one life: he made it  go as far as possible. "It is finished." Heads are bowed low as the worn body is borne down , the aisle to some quiet spot of earth.