The Dignity of the Priesthood



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

TAN BOOKS AND PUBLISHERS, INC.  Published on the web with permission.

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

How our Lord clung to the Apostolic group! He had kept these men when the people were falling away; He gave them His confidence and made them share His life. They were His treasure on earth. How exigent He was for their affection; how concerned for their faith; how grateful for their loyalty! The Father had given Him these men to continue His mission on earth till the end of the world. He rested His cause upon them. He was with them the night before He died; He returned to them from the grave; He blessed them from Olivet. The heaven He loved was to be with the Father and with them.

   In the most solemn words He gave them His mission and promised to send them from the Father the Holy Spirit, Who had formed His Own human nature in the womb of His mother. He told them whatever He had heard of the Father and shared His Divine powers with them. They should be what He had been to men. They had His lot. He sent them into the world where the hardship would be great and He could not take them out of it. But with all His heart, He begged the Father to keep them from the evil of the world. He put them at a work which was far beyond human strength; but He allowed their claim for protection as workmen from the hazards of their work, and He was able to save them. Such is the apostolate. Of this ministry I received a share at my ordination. It is not merely an order or ministry I received to transmit grace to other men and leave me nothing but the burden of life-long service. Our Lord censured the religious leaders of His day, who heaped burdens on the backs of men without moving a hand to relieve them. In the presence of His Father and of His Apostles, He declared the night before He died His blessed purpose: . . . ut dilectio qua dilexisti me, in ipsis sit, et ego in ipsis. Together with the power to save and sanctify others, He gave me by "the hands of the priesthood" at my ordination, His blessed hand in pledge to safeguard and sanctify me in and by my office and to be with me all the days of my life. In the round of my ministry I shall find Christ and His Sacramental grace that I can never exhaust.

   To be holy I need not lay aside my cassock for a religious habit and retire from my parish to the walls of a cloister and the intimate brotherhood of devoted men under close rule. I already bear the robe that has covered a multitude of heroic souls beyond numbering of every race and tongue; I am exercising the apostolate which our Lord created for the men he loved most. But what I need is to understand myself better. The way of holiness for me is determined by the duties of my ministry. In this I have the will of God for me. I cannot come into intimate union with God unless I meet His will. The doing His will is not on a level with other practices of religion, but the test and measure of them all.

       To be acceptable to God, the number and type of my devotions, the scale of the virtues I should follow must be adjudged to the duties of my apostolate. My way of holiness must be apostolic. I am trained, not in a religious novitiate, but in an ecclesiastical seminary. There I am sanctified at my studies, as in the ministry I am sanctified at my labors for souls. I live not in a remote or cloistered monastery, but in a parish house open to the people. My prayer is not contemplative, a gazing as it were into Heaven whither Christ has withdrawn, a longing to be dissolved and to be with Him; but practical, the half hour in the early morning, when by meditative, loving faith I speak with Him as the companion of my way on earth, open to Him my soul in secret with the sorrows and burdens that come with my labor for Him, and feel in turn my heart warmed within me and my failing will aroused for resolute action. My recitation of the Divine Office is not spread over my day as in a monastery but fixed to the new quiet periods apart from bells and calls. But above all prayer, personal or official, there stands the altar; this explains me to myself, solves for me the enigma of life, puts the world under my feet, and makes me a radiant figure, even as Christ to men.

   My Mass is the Mass of an apostle. I go up to the altar of the parish church with my people in my breast and their sins and sorrows as a great cross upon my back. Christ has given me these souls to save. By sharing in His office and work, I must in His spirit hallow and dedicate myself upon the altar and service of the people, expecting little and giving my all. Such is my lot. But He does not leave me to myself. ". . . when morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore," and He said, "Come and dine." "Take ye and eat. This is My Body. . . . Drink ye all of this. For this is My Blood of the New Testament." Here is secret strength to calm my heart and brighten my face for the day. Now it is no longer men shifting upon my shoulders the crude cross of their troubles; nor yet Christ going before me in the lonely road of self-denial, but Christ in me to take the chief weight of His Cross upon His Own shoulders. Here I learn that a priest on the mission, wherever he is, need never be lonely; and, again, that it is not hardship that breaks the heart of a priest but lack of affection for Christ in the Mass. [Emphasis added.]

   My life is apostolic, "the mixed life" of prayer and action that our Lord led in the days of His ministry: hence, I must avoid both the ill-timed devotion that cries, "Lord, Lord!" while slighting the will of the Father, and the feverish activity from morning to night that seems for a time to work wonders, but turns out to be superficial and sterile, because done, not in union with Christ, but from an active temperament or self-interest. My way of holiness is apostolic. I must hold in reverence the high moral virtues of self-denial, humility, and poverty which characterize the religious state, for these our Lord urges upon all His followers. They free the heart from self-obsession, the uprising of self, which is the chief hindrance to Christ's mastery of the soul.

   Throughout my whole life I must be ever on the watch for new uprisings of deranged self-love in my heart and be ever putting them down with resolute energy. This self-discipline, a condition for the generous service of God, has, in the process of sanctification, a relative, not an absolute function such as that of faith, hope and love, which unite the soul directly with Him. The evangelical virtues are not then for their own sake or always to be pushed in practice to the limits. The measure of their use in any case is the will of God. Hence they must be adjusted to the duties of my state as means to the end of being a good priest at parish work; and there are in fact, as I notice, different standards of observance even among the religious orders. Nor is the most austere order necessarily the holiest, for holiness consists in making a practice of loving God for His own sake and the neighbor for God's sake.

   I am not indeed under such formal, institutional discipline in these virtues as are the religious priests who from time to time come to aid me in my labors, but my comparative freedom of close control under superiors or rule is not, as I am aware, a concession to my spirit of independence and self-will, but the necessary resource of a spiritual leader of men on the local field of action; and the money that is allotted to me is not the reward or compensation of my services, or a provision for easy living, but simply my maintenance, offered by the faithful that I may be detached from a home and secular labor to give myself, soul and body, to the parish altar and the need of their souls. My freedom, then, and my use of money are inherent in my apostolate. They are as a sacred trust and consecrated; in them I have God's will for my way of life. They must not lower my tone of character, nor need they lessen my opportunities for sterling humility of heart and general self-sacrifice. I must be humble enough to accept as from the Lord the local limits my bishop sets for my ministry and repress what The Imitation of Christ calls the imaginatio locorum-----the dangerous dream-world of pride or self-indulgence that lies in the brighter spots beyond; I must be humble enough to keep the oversights, the slights, the hurts to the high opinion I have of my priestly dignity, pastoral rights, or personal deserts from settling into a "complex" of hurt pride in my heart.

   The prelate who ordained me warned me to remember, not only the officium I had received, but the onus impositum, the life-long service I owe God and men. And in this service I grow holy. I learn apostolic humility not in a novitiate or from books or conventional practices, but by meeting with kindliness the many masters who come to my door to seek service of me.

   Our Lord gave me the form and method of this virtue, when, at the Last Supper, He went on His knees with basin and towel at the feet of His Apostles. I am master, indeed, but my people are not for me; I am for my people. I am among them as one who serves.

   Again, I take no vow of poverty. The form of my virtue is the apostolic disinterestedness that our Lord taught. He sent His disciples out on their trial mission without money; He told them to accept no money for their services. How then were they to live? They should appear before men in His name and men would receive and maintain them. They were not to make their way in the world by money. They were under a special providence. And St. Paul in the spirit of Christ has given me the casuistry for my perplexing practice. He took up collections, indeed, but he knew the function of money both for the apostle personally and for the cause of Christ. I must know "how to abound and how to be in need" according to my lot. I must not lose my head in a prosperous parish, nor my heart in a poor mission; I must not yield to the undisciplined promptings of my heart or unauthorized custom; I must keep my balance. I must not fall under bondage to money; nor must I let the business of "the plant" blur the likeness of Christ in me; I must be a priest always; my business is to save souls. The priest of the parish finds that his way of holiness is closely bound up with his ministrations to his people. His service is in fact not common labor but a form of charity, the love of the neighbor for God's sake.

  The service of the people of his parish entails hardship upon the diocesan priest; but he definitely included this in his oblation to God at his ordination. And after years of this ministry he is not unnerved, for he has found it not mere drudgery but a transforming experience. The faithful priest of the parish is not likely to show signs of strain as the years go on or to get depressed and restless, for he has a place of his own where he may express his noblest affections; hundreds of men, women, and children call him "Father" and count upon the goodness of Christ that God put in the depth of his heart at ordination, and he in turn is sustained by their gratitude. The ministry of begetting, forming, nourishing, and restoring Christ in souls affords magnificent fulfillment of the instinct of fatherhood that slumbers in the heart of a man. Self-sacrifice under these conditions only serves the more to bring out the latent Christ in him. Like the father of a family, he is sanctified, not by formal method or comprehensive schemes, but by the practice of patient goodness day by day.

   He gives, as St. Paul says, his soul to his own. He feels the domestic joy of the little group around his Baptismal font, the pang in the hearts of the stricken group beside the coffin at the last absolution. His children shine with the Baptismal beauty he gave them for he can say with the Apostle, "in Christ Jesus I begot you." He takes pride in the school that keeps them in the unfallen world. He steadies his growing boys through the strange trials of their youth and in encouraging and sustaining the wavering he finds a tonic for his own failing spirits. He is not a homeless man. The homes of the people grouped around his altar and school are open to him he is a principal figure in them, upholding them all, binding man to wife, child to parent in loyalty of soul. For the home of his own which he gave up, he has received a hundred-fold in this life. He knows the haunts of the poor and divines their wants and the sick are his intimate friends. But there is one fear in his breast that love cannot cast out-----the dread that, of all the souls in his care, even one, who could bless and love God forever, should become an outcast. His concern, his grief, for the wayward and fallen identifies him with Christ on the altar. His sorrow is a priestly communication of the passion of Christ. He feels the joy of spiritual fatherhood most of all when, in the name of Christ, he re-invests the prodigal son in his first robe and prepares him for the home-coming banquet. From time to time he summons religious from their retirement to help him in his labors; then, for a week or two, the routine of parish life is interrupted; all the faithful are at one great endeavor. The missionaries labor at the apostolic work of conversion and renew the spirit of the parish. But the pastor knows that in the plan of God the salvation of his people is vested in him. The transformation of the lives of the people rests with the sustained and profound influence of the parish priest. Their own priest answers to their needs all the year round. His threshold is worn by their feet. He is as the salt in their blood and the light in their eyes. Such a ministry, so full of goodness, is holiness most attractive. All in all, a fine parish priest is the best loved man the world knows.