The need for holy priests

The need for holy priests

Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate presents the interior life — one’s personal relationship with the Lord, nourished by daily prayer — as the foundation of a life of work and service.

It’s a very good book, suitable for Catholics in all states of life. It was, apparently, a book which Pope St Pius X dipped into so often, that it had a permanent place on his bedside table.

I don’t read it as frequently as that, but there is a quote from the book which I meditate on every year during my annual retreat:

“If the priest is a saint, the people will be fervent; if the priest is fervent, the people will be pious; if the priest is pious, the people will at least be decent; if the priest is only decent, the people will be godless.”

I think this observation works very well as a general principle. (We only have to look around to see the adverse impact of criminally indecent priests.) Good Shepherd Sunday is an occasion to pray not just for more priests, but for holy priests. We all need holy priests — me included — who are truly consecrated to Christ; struggling to conform themselves, every day, to the Good Shepherd.

Of course, ultimately we all look to Christ. When the Church’s ministers let us down — and sadly that’s inevitable — we have to look to the tabernacle. We remember that he’s really here, really present, no matter what. But it’s no accident that the Lord did not only give himself to us in the Eucharist. He also founded the Church.

“I will not leave you orphans,” he promised, and he hasn’t. He consecrated the Apostles; he filled them with the Holy Spirit. And he gives us priests, in every generation: spiritual fathers.

There are two traditional, and very beautiful, ways to pray for priests:

Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross can be, but needn’t be, a 30 minute exercise. It can be as simple as looking at each station, and reading the name of the station. However you do it, offering the Stations of the Cross on behalf of a priest is a very noble prayer.

It is every priest’s task to follow the path of Christ; to walk the way of the cross. When we pray the Stations on behalf of a particular priest — or seminarian — we imitate the role of Simon of Cyrene: we help this alter Christus to carry his cross. And just as Simon derived many graces from his work of service, so will we.

Prayer at the time of the priest’s communion

I like this custom very much. I wish I had known about it before I was ordained. It complements the custom of the priest praying for each person as he ministers communion to them.

The time of the priest’s communion, which is normally when one is preparing for one’s own communion, is also a great moment to pray for that priest. The traditional prayers vary, but they generally share two common intentions:

  • That the Lord might find a place of shelter and rest in the heart of this priest.
  • That the Lord will make this priest a man of prayer and an untiring labourer.

The first intention is something we should all pray for ourselves. During the Lord’s public ministry, he would exhaust himself preaching, teaching and healing. On at least one occasion, his attempts at a spiritual retreat were thwarted by the unflagging demands of the crowds which followed him. (Matthew 14)

At Bethany, however, in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Jesus found rest and recreation. Our own hearts should be like another Bethany — a place where our Lord can rest, confident of our love and attention. Perhaps at other times, our prayer is populated by petitions, but at communion why not allow the Lord to rest in our love?

As for the second intention, it seems to me that priests are tempted in two directions: excessive prayer and excessive work. Monks and social workers are both important. But diocesan priests, at least, should not be monks, and nor should we be social workers. We need to navigate a middle way, the golden mean, of contemplative prayer and active apostolate.

Pray for priests. Pray for seminarians. That they may always pursue the challenge, and never tire of the interior struggle, to be holy.

How Jesus treats his friends

How Jesus treats his friends

Saint John’s account of the resurrection of Lazarus famously contains the shortest verse in the entire Bible: “Jesus wept.”

As well as being the shortest verse, I think it’s one of the most powerful. It’s indicative of the Lord’s love for his friends. Their sorrow is his sorrow. It’s indicative of his love for us. Our sorrow is his sorrow.

But the raising of Lazarus also shows us how Jesus treats his friends:

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill he stayed where he was for two more days before saying to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judaea.’” (Jn 11:5-7)

Jesus could have travelled to Bethany immediately, and healed his friend before Lazarus died. He could have spared Martha and Mary their sorrow and grief. But instead, he permits all three of his friends to suffer, so that “the Son of God will be glorified.” (Jn 11:4)

This is how Jesus treats his friends. It’s how he treats you and me. He could prevent our suffering, but instead he permits it. He invites us to share in his cross, all for the glory of God.

This is a reminder to us, to rectify out intentions and purify our motives. The glory of God should come before everything else — even our own needs. When we do this, when we desire God’s glory before everything else, we’ll be happy like the saints are happy.

Consider St Mary MacKillop’s memory of her illicit excommunication:

“I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget.”

That sort of joy in the midst of suffering is only possible when a person sincerely desires God’s glory before everything else. It’s the secret of the saints, and it’s the call of every disciple.

Please God, whenever suffering or grief visits us, we embrace our cross with serenity and joy. Please God, we can imitate the saints, and in our affliction turn to the Lord — who could have delivered us, but did not — with hope and faith.

Omnia in gloriam dei facite. Do everything for the glory of God.

The devil is real

The devil is real

Pope Francis preaches about the devil a lot. Much more than the average priest. Or this average priest, anyway.

Unfortunately, the press gives minimal coverage to such remarks, and every year, I suspect, belief in the devil diminishes among Catholics. That’s why, this first Sunday of Lent, I’ve distributed in my parishes a one page sampler of the Holy Father’s warnings about the devil.

There is a distinct theme in the Holy Father’s remarks. In typical Ignatian fashion, he focuses on how the devil subverts our relationships. To cite a few examples:

“The Adversary wants to keep us separated from God . . . and therefore sows the seeds of pessimism and bitterness in our hearts.”

“The devil attacks the family so much. That demon hates the family and seeks to destroy it.”

“The devil plants evil where there is good, trying to divide people, families, and nations.”

“Behind every rumour there is jealousy and envy. And gossip divides the community, destroys the community. Rumours are a diabolical weapon.”

Theorists speculate (who could really know?) that only God has unique access to our interior life: to our thoughts and emotions and sensations. Demons and angels more closely resemble humans, in that they receive insight into our interior life only through our external behaviour: actions, speech, body language. In that case, it makes sense that the devil would target our relationships with God and with fellow creatures. He can observe our behaviour and then exploit weak spots and defects.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines conversations between an old devil, and a young devil who is learning the craft of tempting souls. Lewis is at his best, I think, when he describes how our relationships — even loving relationships — are subverted by misunderstanding and psychological games. Everyone should read the book; I also recommend the radio play (starring Andy Serkis).

In Hebrew etymology, “Satan” describes an accuser or adversary. The Septuagint rendering of Satan is διάβολος — diabolos or devil which describes a slanderer. It’s no coincidence that Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as another παράκλητος (Jn 14:16, 26) — “paracletus” in the Latin Vulgate; in English: “Paraclete” (Douay-Rheims); “Comforter” (KJV); “Counsellor” (RSV).

Where the devil accuses us before God, and even slanders us, the Holy Spirit and Jesus himself will defend us, and advocate on our behalf. I think this happens in this life and at the judgement. Whenever I minister to a person who is close to death, I warn them of the devil’s tactics. The saints tell us that in our final hours, the devil stops at nothing to damn us, even revealing himself and communicating directly.

“The devil will insist that you don’t deserve heaven,” I advise. “He will recount your sins and defects, and insist you deserve hell.”

At this point most people agree that it’s probably true. (Except, in my experience, Mediterraneans. Italians and Maltese are fired up at my suggestion, and ready to do battle!) My advice to everyone — Mediterraneans included — is that the devil is correct. None of us earn Heaven. All of us deserve Hell. “But Jesus wants you in Heaven. He has prepared a place for you in his Father’s house. He has earned your place in Heaven. Hold on to that conviction, implore divine mercy, and call on the name of Jesus if the devil preys on you.”

I don’t know how useful that advice is. I have no doubt that the prayers I pray and the sacraments I minister — confession, anointing, Viaticum — are very useful. The devil is real, and we have cause to fear him. But, as the Holy Father reminds us, “God is stronger! Do you believe this? God is stronger!”

To the one in ten

To the one in ten

In 2011, the total number of people at Mass in Australia on a typical weekend was about about 12.5 per cent, or one-eighth, of the total number of Catholics.

This parish will participate in another church census later this month or in early November. But let’s assume the number has dropped a little bit more, so that about 10 per cent of Catholics attend Sunday Mass.

That makes everyone sitting in this church like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel. “Eucharistia” is the Greek word for thanksgiving. You and I are literally here to approach Jesus and thank him.

Our Lord is entitled to ask, “The other nine, where are they?” But that’s his prerogative, not ours. The Church has never changed its teaching on the Sunday obligation, but through no fault of their own, many Catholics don’t know that. So I won’t condemn those who aren’t here. But I do want to thank, on our Lord’s behalf, you who are here.

The Lord loves you so much. He is interested in every detail of your life. He longs for communion with you — where he dwells in you, and you dwell in him. And you’ve responded with generosity. It would be easier to stay home on a Sunday morning. Linger over a leisurely breakfast. Or sleep in. But here you are at Mass. You’ve made God’s day.

Our attendance at Mass doesn’t make us righteous. None of us have earned our way into Heaven. You and I are like the Samaritan. We are not entitled citizens. We’re foreigners. But in his mercy, our Lord may look at us and say, “Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.”

A good aspiration for us to keep — a helpful phrase which we can repeat throughout the day — is: “I am a sinner, madly in love with God.”

How to forgive

How to forgive

“The Holy Spirit always encourages. Never discourages.” That’s a golden rule in discernment of spirits, and it’s not a bad rule in life.

People of the Holy Spirit — people who model themselves on Jesus — choose words and actions which encourage.

Today’s Gospel is a great example of that. The Lord is halfway through his public ministry. The apostles have been living with him, learning from him, for more than a year. They’ve watched Jesus perform miracles. They’ve learned how to pray and minister so that miracles happen through them too. They don’t tire of learning more. Of becoming better disciples. So they say to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” Change us.

St Luke doesn’t give much detail about our Lord’s reply. But I imagine him smiling. “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed . . .” In other words: “You don’t need to change. You’ve already got the means. Your faith is small, but God does the rest.” The Lord encourages the apostles, and he encourages us too, because we’re in exactly the same boat.

The context of today’s Gospel is important. The apostles have just been challenged by a doctrine which challenges us too. “If your brother wrongs you seven times a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I am sorry,’ you must forgive him.”

To forgive as Jesus forgives. Easier said than done! But only two things are needed. The first is willingness. The second is faith. How much faith is needed? Faith the size of a mustard seed. God does the rest.

When we find it hard to forgive, seek out the Holy Spirit! Ask for divine help. I propose five steps to forgiveness, which are in fact similar to the steps in the sacrament of reconciliation. And why not, if we are to model our behaviour on God’s?

One:

Pray with someone else. Our Lord tells us: “When two or more are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” So find someone you trust to pray with you.

And — this is important — we need to pray out loud. Why? The spoken word has power. The spoken word can change reality in ways that silent thinking does not.

Two:

Begin my praising God, and thanking God. Invoke the power of the Holy Spirit.

Three:

Pray for forgiveness. Make an act of contrition, just as we do at the start of every Mass. None of us can give what we have not received. So to forgive others, first we have to be forgiven.

Four:

Situate yourselves at the foot of the cross. Place the person who has hurt you there, beside the priests and scribes and soldiers at Calvary. (You and I stand in that company too.)

Contemplate our Lord’s prayer from the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Isn’t that a powerful prayer? It’s powerful in what it says. And it’s powerful in what it does not say. How often, in the Gospels, does Jesus directly forgive others? “Go. Your sins are forgiven.” But he doesn’t do that at Calvary. Why?

We can’t speculate on our Lord’s inner thoughts and then declare them gospel truths. But we can imagine. Remember, Jesus is all things to all people.

I’ve heard a story told of a young Christian woman, a university student, who was violently attacked by thugs in a park. For days after, she was in a coma. For weeks after, she was told by others, “You have to forgive your attackers. Until you forgive, you won’t heal.” But she couldn’t forgive. Her assailants were never identified, let alone arrested. The injustice was too great. She tried, but she could not forgive.

Until she contemplated our Lord’s prayer from the cross. “Father, forgive them . . .” Maybe, at that place, in that hour, Jesus felt what she felt. He couldn’t say, “I forgive you.” So instead, he prayed to the Father.

That insight may or may not be an historical fact. Regardless, it brought spiritual healing. So, in the same way, we pray to the Father too. Repeat the words of Jesus, directed now at the people who’ve hurt you. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Five:

Think of the person who hurt you, and what that person did. Feel the pain. Forgiveness takes a deeper hold when we forgive from the place of pain. Once you’re in touch with the pain, say: “In the name of Jesus, I forgive so-and-so for such-and-such.” Be specific, and pray it out loud.

The person praying with you may be able to give words to your pain. For example: “I forgive so-and-so for humiliating me and rejecting me and making me feel worthless.”

That’s it. Two things are needed to love as Jesus loves. The first is willingness. The second is faith. The tiniest faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed.

And let’s not be too proud of ourselves for adopting a supernatural outlook. After all, “we are merely servants; we have done no more than our duty.”

Sources

I adapted the five steps from Neal Lozano’s Unbound: a practical guide to deliverance. It’s a good book. I recommend it.

Judgement Day: the narrow door

Judgement Day: the narrow door

During World Youth Day, I was interested (but not surprised) to learn that pilgrims wanted to know more about heaven and hell.

As chaplain, I’d spend each day with a different group — exploring Krakow, attending events, finding food, waiting in queue. (There were a lot of queues!) In conversation, I kept to ‘secular subjects.’ I’d start conversations about school, or politics, or the footy, or travel, or whatever.

Conversation turned to the supernatural or spiritual only when a pilgrim raised those subjects. And then the audience would grow. Suddenly there were three people in the conversation, or four, or six, or more. It became informal catechesis — pilgrims would ask questions, and I’d do my best to give the Catholic answers. And then the discussion always — always — moved to heaven and hell.

So I can imagine that the question Jesus fields in today’s Gospel — “Sir, will there be only a few saved?” — was probably asked of him many times.

Our Lord replies in typical fashion. He doesn’t give a direct answer. He doesn’t say, “Only a few will be saved,” as the Pharisees taught. He doesn’t say, “Most or all will be saved,” as the modern world teaches.

Instead, he moves the focus away from general statistics and towards the individual. He looks his interlocutor in the eye: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door.”

I wish I’d thought of this gospel in Poland, when I fielded similar questions. I did, at least, apply its principles. What Jesus wants is clear:

  • he wants us to be responsible for our choices;
  • he wants to lead us to heaven;
  • but he needs us to follow his lead.

We have to do our part. It’s not enough to have a superficial knowledge of Christ. We have to have a living, lasting, growing friendship with him. Friendship always involves effort and self-sacrifice, time and energy.

We don’t earn our way into heaven. Even the greatest saints are in heaven because of God’s mercy, not because of justice. But imagine what it must be like at the moment of judgement, standing before Jesus. There we are: our sins exposed by the light of truth; our lukewarm love ice cold in comparison to the burning fire of divine love.

It must take a lot of humility to stand there and seek the Lord’s mercy. It must require profound intimacy with Jesus; a sincere confidence that his love is greater than our sin. Standing there before him must demand a self-forgetful love — I think I could stand it only for his sake, not my own.

It would be easier, less painful, more self-satisfying, to turn away, to demand his departure. To condemn ourselves to hell. This is why Jesus insists we strive in this life to enter through the narrow door.

So let’s ask ourselves: what more can I do to know Jesus? To love him? To serve him?

How is my prayer life? Daily prayer and frequent confession are essential aspects of the Christian life.

How do I relate to my neighbours? We love God only as much as we love the person we like least.

How do I mould my character? Habitual acts of self-denial foster self-discipline and freedom of the heart.

But of course, our Lord doesn’t ask us to navigate the narrow door all by ourselves. He constantly helps and strengthens us, especially through holy communion and the other sacraments.

He loves us so much. Let’s try our best to enter the narrow door.

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