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.

Strangely terrifying

Strangely terrifying

Hours of driving is a daily requisite for a country priest. I usually fill in the time with rosaries, chaplets, and cultural ‘reading.’ By that I mean podcasts and audiobooks related to history, scripture, literature, theology, etc.

In the week after Easter though, priests — country or otherwise — are generally exhausted. The mental and emotional energy expended on the lows and highs of the Triduum leaves me, at least, resembling a zombie. That state doesn’t really lend itself to an appreciative hearing of Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper, or even Barbara Tuchman’s inestimable Guns of August.

As worthy as these audiobooks are, when I feel like a zombie, the best thing to hear on long country drives is, well, zombie lit. My sister recently recommended I read World War Z: An oral history of the Zombie Wars. I was dubious. “It’s nothing like the movie,” she promised, which was welcome news, but not nearly enough to recommend the book. However, she did at least persuade me to read a few reviews, which finally compelled me to download and hear the audiobook.

World War Z is surprisingly good. It doesn’t belong to the horror genre. It’s more of an alt-history book which explores, among other things, the limitations of liberal democracy, the dangers of the modern media cycle, the vulnerability of tech-dependency, and how the nations of the world — each with its unique national psyche — would react to global cataclysm. But in the midst of all that smart-sounding stuff, there remains a good dose of thrilling horror, because WWZ is brilliantly immersive. Its premise — a zombie apocalypse — is fantastic, but the narrative is not.

The following Youtube clip is something similar. Its premise is maybe not fantastic, but certainly improbable. A truly international crisis doesn’t develop in a matter of hours. It takes days, at least. The narrative, however, is ‘real’ enough that you are immersed into an alternate world very much like our own. You may not wish to invest a full hour, but I do recommend you watch the first 10 minutes, and then skip to 00:50 minutes. This will provide 20 minutes of fascinating and thought-provoking viewing. By the end of it your imagination will be running in decidedly non-fantastical directions.

In a word, this video is strangely terrifying:

Read this book, change your life

Read this book, change your life

What if I told you Amazon sells a book for $20 that can change your life?

I’m exaggerating somewhat, in that it’s how you read the book which can change your life. Also, there’s a good chance that you already own the book, so you can save yourself $20.

I’m talking about the Bible. But specifically, I’m talking about the Reader’s Gospels, which makes for a unique reading experience, and is excellent value:

Crossway’s Readers Gospels

The Reader’s Gospels, published by Crossway, is far and away the best edition of Sacred Scripture suited to spiritual reading. It employs the English Standard Version (ESV) translation, which is not my favourite, but on every other measure it is superior: the text spans the page in a single column paragraphed layout; the typeset is large (12pt) and easy to read; the paper is heavy. The book is hardcover, well bound, and includes a ribbon bookmark. And best of all, there are no chapter and verse numbers, no cross-references, and no footnotes — all of which conspire to distract from spiritual reading.

Not your typical edition of the Bible

If you still need persuading on the book’s production value, take a look at this blogger’s review, which is crazy on detail.

Many of the saints recommend a daily reading of the Holy Gospels:

If you spend just five minutes every day, reading the Holy Gospels, you will read each Gospel several times a year. You will become intimately familiar with the life of Christ — so much so, that you will spontaneously relate the events of your own life to details recorded in the Gospel. In a similar way, when friends share their problems, or perhaps seek your advice, you can relate their situations to incidents in the Lord’s life and teaching. You may not necessarily preach that at them (often inadvisable), but it will certainly help you to pray for them. Daily reading of scripture is a great way to foster supernatural outlook.

Our task on earth is to “incarnate the Gospel” — to enflesh, in our own lives, the life of Christ. But to do that we have to frequently and constantly return to the source. After the Mass and holy communion, I think there is nothing in the Christian life more important than regular reading of the Gospels. Crossway’s ESV Reader’s Gospels makes that task a joy. (This is not a paid endorsement by the way!)

By reading the Gospels for 5 minutes each day, you will get to know our Lord better. It’s inevitable and inescapable, and the answer to everything. For to know Christ is to love him, and to love him is to serve him.

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.

“Know the mind of the Church”

“Know the mind of the Church”

Today in Penola, a great priest was buried. A great Jesuit. A great man.

For many years, Fr Paul Gardiner SJ was Postulator for the Cause of Mother Mary Mackillop’s canonisation. It takes a small army to have someone canonised, but Fr Paul was field marshal. Apart from that, Fr Paul was a remarkable polymath, so typical of the Jesuit tradition. Here’s just two anecdotes to illustrate that point:

  • One of my parishioners in Casterton, who knew Fr Paul well, would sometimes challenge Fr Paul to name the winner of the Melbourne Cup in a given year. Fr Paul got it right every time. He could also name the jockey, and the horse which came second. Every time.
  • A priest friend related his surprise at Fr Paul’s request for a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Until he heard his explanation: “I’ve just finished the Latin and ancient Greek translations, and I’d like to compare them with the English original.”

    Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis

A generation of Melbourne seminarians met Fr Paul in their first year pilgrimage to Penola, in honour of St Mary of the Cross. I made that pilgrimage in 2005. On that occasion, our half hour appointment with Fr Paul actually took two hours. I always suspected our experience was not unique, and at his Funeral Vigil last night, I learned that Fr Paul was renowned for his expansiveness. But he spoke with such wisdom, and with such personal interest in his listeners, that nobody much minded.

“Know the mind the of the Church,” Fr Paul instructed us fresh-faced seminarians in 2005. “Make time for study every day, so that you learn the mind of the Church. You never will, because the mind of the Church is as broad as the mind of God. But try. And more importantly gentlemen, think with the mind of the Church.” I’ve never forgotten that advice. It’s permanently associated in my mind with James Joyce’s famous aphorism, “Catholic means, here comes everybody.”

In the years since, I’ve had the good fortune to see much more of him. He was a frequent visitor to Warrnambool, when I lived there as a seminarian, and later when I ministered there as a deacon. When he was visiting parishioners, they were always kind enough to invite me to lunch. As a priest in Casterton, I’ve exploited the fact that Penola is only 45 minutes away, and often made a pilgrimage — always to seek St Mary’s intercession, and occasionally to see Fr Paul.

At the time of St Mary’s canonisation, Fr Paul wrote a brilliant short essay, relating not only the significance of the canonisation to him personally, but the significance of saints generally. I think it’s as enlightening to the non-believer as it is edifying to the believer. My life with Mary: from historic figure to living presence.

There are two iconic photos of Fr Paul, which he would always describe with the same captions. The first photo was taken at the beatification in Randwick I think. Pope John Paul II delivered some advice to Fr Paul, which was indelibly etched in his memory:

“We need another miracle!”

The second photo was taken by Fr Paul’s great nephew, Tom Moloney, the day before the canonisation:

“We made it!”

Fr Paul speaks about that second photograph in an interview broadcast on ABC on the occasion of his diamond jubilee. It’s worth tuning in, to relive the moment Australia had its first canonised saint, and also to hear a wise and holy priest describe the Catholic priesthood: Fr Paul Gardiner celebrates 60 years as a priest.

May he rest in peace.

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!”

Good news about fasting

Good news about fasting

Lent has begun, and if you’re reading this on Ash Wednesday, you’re fasting, and you’re probably hungry right now.

Roman Catholics are obliged to fast — one normal meal and two small snacks — on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But Maronite Catholics observe a much stricter Lent:

In regards to the Lenten penitential practices of the Maronites residing in Australia, and in accordance with the guidelines released by His Beatitude and Eminence Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, we recommend the following practices to the faithful of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia:

Fasting from midnight to midday on all weekdays: no food or drink is to be consumed, with the exception of water;

I haven’t looked it up, but it’s a fair bet that the other Catholic rites are also more disciplined than us Latins.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping Roman Catholics from observing voluntary fasts in Lent. I know plenty of people who have decided to fast on every Friday in Lent, and some who will fast on Wednesdays too. (Wednesday being the day that Judas conspired against our Lord.)

The idea of fasting is noble and even inspiring, but the experience of fasting is hard. So let me give you some encouragement.

Here’s Fr Mike Schmitz, who in eight minutes gives four spiritual reasons for fasting:

I especially like his point about us becoming co-redeemers with Christ. But when your stomach is really growling, and you’re struggling to reach spiritual heights, how about a good dose of material self-interest? Here’s a longer video — 1 hour — but a very interesting one, on the health benefits of fasting:


So research shows fasting improves our resistance to stress, reduces blood pressure, reduces blood sugar, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces the incidence of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and improves cognitive ability. Maybe this detracts a bit from what Fr Mike says about sacrifice. But on the other hand, it says something about God’s design, I think, that good spiritual practices do so much good for the body too.

Incidentally, this latter video launched a craze in Britain for intermittent fasting, especially in the form of the 5:2 diet. I take fad diets with a grain of salt. But don’t take nutritional advice from a priest; this is just a post of encouragement from a presently quite hungry blogger!

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