Towards a Holier Priesthood

Source: District of Asia

Following is a conference given by Cardinal Merry Del Val at Gregorian University (Rome), 1921. He gives a simple but very profound commentary on the encyclical of St. Pius X, Haerent Animo (1908). This encyclical was written to the priests on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of St. Pius X’s ordination to the priesthood. 

Your good Rector has suggested that I address you this morning, and I am very glad to do so; but I do not think that I can say what you have not heard before, nor can I say in a better way what others have said before me. Moreover, he suggested that I take as my inspiration the famous exhortation of Pius X to his clergy, written some thirteen years ago.

This exhortation is a wonderful proof of His Holiness' great love for his priests, and he intended that it should he a constant guide, a Vade mecum, for them. It was my privilege to be at his side at that time, and I watched him write almost every word of it. He worked at it for three weeks, and amidst his almost crushing occupations he yet found time to read portions of it to me every morning as he was writing it. His purpose was to raise the standards of the Catholic priesthood. Although most of you are not yet ordained, but yet since you hope to be priests, I shall speak to you as priests: and surely it is not too soon to enter into the spirit of the priesthood.

If I may be permitted a personal reminiscence, let me tell you of a good Irish priest that took trouble over me when I was a boy, talked to me, taught me my Catechism, and so forth. I still have the letters that he wrote, and when writing he always used the words “we priests.” “We priests” should do this, “we priests” should do the other things; “we priests” should avoid this, “we priests” should avoid the other thing. I was but a boy of ten at the time, but he knew that I would like and hoped to be a priest, and his words always rang in my ears.

The Holy Father compiled those pages with tender love. And if every priest and cleric had that treatise in his hands, and, in the busy life which affords little opportunity for other studies, would peruse a little of it from day to day, he would serve God as he ought. What is the purpose which His Holiness had in mind and which underlies the whole work? I take it that it was this: that we who are set apart for the service of God are bound to foster the spiritual life and to be guided in all our thoughts, in all our words and in all our actions by considerations of a supernatural character. In the natural order of things, all advantages and attractions end with this world; whereas our life with God remains and is immortal. Everybody is rushing after material advantages as if this world were the end of everything. We breathe in this atmosphere and we must acknowledge that priests are apt to fall down to that level, and instead of raising souls up, they themselves are dragged down to the level of those whom they pretend and desire to elevate. Nothing could be more opposed to God's interests.

This is what Pius X was aiming at: to help us to attain that high standard of spiritual life which ought to be found in a priest. St. Paul calls it a holy priesthood, and he calls us “partakers of a heavenly vocation.” “Holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly vocation, consider the apostle and high priest of our confession, Jesus” (Heb.). St. John Chrysostom calls it the “vestment of Christ.” In the Old Law, in the beginning, the first born of every family was set apart for the priesthood; later, the priests were chosen from the tribe of Levi alone. Certainly the priesthood of the Old Law was a great and holy dignity, but it does not compare at all with the New. Yet people who do not look at it from the supernatural standpoint consider it a respectable profession, useful for the people, and think that it should be maintained for the benefit of the commonweal. We cannot afford to take this idea of the Holy Priesthood. We should never lose sight of the fact that we are endowed with an awful power, a power that brings down from heaven the spotless Lamb of God, and by which the precious Blood of our Lord floods the earth from pole to pole, bringing life, joy and happiness to the world. This sublime privilege should he constantly before our eyes, a privilege that has not been granted to the angels, and before which our Blessed Lady herself, the Mother of God, stands in holy awe. And that other power, the power over the Mystical Body of Christ, the power of breaking the bonds of Satan and raising up souls from the mire of sin and making them as pure almost as the angels of heaven. Oh, how every dignity of this world vanishes and becomes small and even despicable in the sight of the priesthood of God! Oh, the iniquity of forgetting our powers and responsibilities and of not accepting the duties that are laid upon us!

How are we to provide for this supernatural habit of mind whether in success or in failure? There the Holy Father tells us what has been said again and again but never too often. He tells us that above all other things stands prayer. He traces out what form our prayers should take. I am not speaking of vocal prayer, keep this before your mind. It is necessary, we all know; but I am speaking of the spirit that must animate our prayers, and without which our prayers become mere lip-worship. St. Paul says that we must pray always. It is evident that he does not refer to vocal prayer. We cannot always be saying our beads. “Cum potes,” says St. Augustine, “ore lauda, cum non potes corde lauda, corde benedic, corde in aram conscientiae victimas sacras impone.” Praise with thy lips when able to do so, but if unable—and therefore more frequently and constantly—praise and bless Him with thy heart and place sacred holocausts upon the altar of thy heart. These holocausts are the restrictions that we have to place upon ourselves almost hourly in order to preserve us from sin and as a safeguard of our sacred office. And this constitutes an habitual prayer. We cannot afford to indulge unrestrictedly in the freedom allowed to those who are not consecrated to God. We are in the world, but not of the world. Hence we have to give up many things, legitimate in themselves and which others can enjoy. We cannot live as seculars. This is undoubtedly a sacrifice for human nature and a prayer because it is a sacrifice. We must guard our hearts, our thoughts, our affections, that they may never be aught else but the thoughts, the affections of a priest. However much we happen to be engrossed in outward things, absorbed in the work we have in hand, however numerous and varied the duties that we are obliged to attend to, when our time is not our own and countless calls are distracting our attention in behalf of others, and are preventing us from granting a thought to ourselves,—yes even then our habit of prayer should be such that there be ever within our hearts a hidden corner, a guarded sanctuary where we can always seek refuge, where we can always find God. and where God can find us. If this spirit of prayer is ours, we shall never cease to enjoy the presence of God. Not we, but He will be doing our work. We shall be powerful “in opere et sermone.” This supernatural view and this spirit of prayer will permeate our work in the ministry and render it really fruitful: fruitful in the sight of God. St. Augustine also says: “In innocentia operum tuorum prepara animam tuam ad laudandum Deum tota die. Quidquid egeris, bene age, et laudasti Deum.” If we do everything from the supernatural standpoint we really make God our companion and thus we cannot lose contact with him. God does not ask of us our words but our hearts.

Many think that sanctity consists in accomplishing things which attract the eyes of men. These things are necessary and oftentimes good for the Church, but this is not sanctity. Sanctity must be within us. How many humble priests there are in distant missions who are considered as inferiors, but who are higher in the sight of God in sanctity than those who seem to be on the pinnacle. God does not measure things from the human standard, and if we have the supernatural point of view we will never be discouraged. If we make sacrifices joyfully, and not in a half-hearted way, even the greatest trial will be a pleasure. This is the supernatural standpoint, and if we take it we will not be crushed by humiliations and mortifications.

And again—I will be frank with you, for we can speak of such things here among ourselves—superiors are not infallible; they are human and sometimes make mistakes. They may even commit injustices, though always, I hope, unwittingly. But if they do seem hard to get along with, let us suffer it willingly from the hand of God and see God in them and in the trials He sends us. That is the supernatural view.

We must carry the light of Jesus Christ to our fellow countrymen. The supernatural light seems to be carried away by the world, but that light will never be carried away. I urge you, therefore, to take this point of view that you may live on supernatural principles not theoretically but practically. Then your life will be happy, useful and prosperous. God does not ask you to be great if He does not give you the opportunity or the ability. If you are always governed by supernatural principles, every word you speak and every gesture you make will have weight and will lead to God.

Each and every one of you should have a copy of this famous exhortation, and each and every one of you should read a page or two of it every day. Make it your Vade mecum and it will accompany you through life and admonish you as a voice behind your back. It is the voice of one who was always an exemplary priest even amidst trials and contradictions. It is the voice of one whom-no matter what defects or mistakes his adversaries may have sought to find in him or his actions—everybody admitted to have been above all a true priest. And if we can meet with the same eulogy, we shall have run a good race, and we will have been good and faithful servants. Let us be priests, really good and earnest priests, for one good priest alone can save a nation. And then, too, we will receive the crown of glory which our Lord promises to all those who are good and faithful to Him. Amen.