Thursday, August 21, 2014

Closing - Pius X and the Reform of the Clergy

On the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, Pope Pius X sat down and wrote a letter to all the priests of the world.  The original is in his own hand and it was published as the Apostolic Exhortation Haerent Animo on August 4, 1908.  For the rest of his pontificate, this saintly Pope was wont to give copies of it to Bishops, urging them to make it the pastoral plan for their dioceses.

He begins, in his own words by opening his heart to all priests: “it is a father's loving heart which beats anxiously as he looks upon an ailing child.”

The child is ailing, he suggests, because he no longer seeks after holiness.  He doesn’t pray much.  He doesn’t sit down, shut up and meditate much.  And he rarely goes to confession.

Sound familiar?  To be honest, if the priest you are thinking about is about my age or a little older, he is very probably subject to this disease, a disease more deadly than Ebola, for it eats something more than flesh…it eats the marrow of the very soul of the Priest.

But wait a minute Jim, my brother priest might well say at this point.  Stop all this pious mumbo-jumbo:

My prayer is my work.  I’m out there running three parishes, keeping the food pantry stocked, visiting people in three hospitals and going to a ton of meetings.  And who do you think would do that if I sat fingering my beads all day?  I’m a parish priest, and a parish priest gets it in gear and goes out there and gets it done, unlike Seminary rectors or USCCB bureaucrats!

And another thing, this obsession with sin  is just not good for a resurrected people.  If you liturgists would just bring back General Absolution, so many more people would come.  Plus, we wouldn’t have to sit in that that little box all day listening to the neuroses of… And as far as me going to confession…I don’t have the time.  And I’m too busy to commit mortal sin!

My dear brother, I might respond.  Some things never change.  A hundred years ago, when a parish priest was elected Pope, Joseph Sarto established three big priorities: fostering the teaching of the Catechism, promoting First Communion for children and getting the clergy to pray and go to confession. 

Why? Because a lot of priests had stopped praying and going to confession.

“There are some who think,” the saintly Pope wrote in his own hand, “and even declare openly, that the true measure of the merits of a priest is his dedication to the service of others; consequently, with an almost complete disregard for the cultivation of the virtues which lead to the personal sanctification of the priest, they assert that all his energies and fervor should be directed to the development and practice of what they call the active virtues. One can only be astonished by this gravely erroneous and pernicious teaching…

There is, indeed, only one thing that unites man to God, one thing that makes him pleasing to God and a not unworthy dispenser of his mercy; and that one thing is holiness of life and conduct. If this holiness, which is the true supereminent knowledge of Jesus Christ, is wanting in the priest, then everything is wanting. Without this, even the resources of profound learning, or exceptional competence in practical affairs, though they may bring some benefit to the Church or to individuals, are not infrequently the cause of deplorable damage to them.

Pope Pius X then goes on to discuss the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney, as the outstanding exemplar of Priestly life.  Was Vianney the brightest in his class?  Hardly.  He flunked the Latin exam four times!  Was he the finest writer of sermons.  No.  Most of his sermons were read from a collection of sermons he received in seminary.  Was he the best administrator or organizer of new initiatives?  Very little there.

But he was holy.  He was known to be a man of prayer, unswerving charity and sacrifice.  He knew he was little and God was big, that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy.  And that is what is really important in the life of the parish priest.

Pope John Paul II, in an ad limina visit with the Bishops of the Northwestern part of the United States perfectly expressed this messed up sense of priorities among parish priests when he said:

...Prayer for the needs of the Church and the individual faithful is so important that serious thought should be given to reorganizing priestly and parish life to ensure that priests have time to devote to this essential task, individually and in common. Liturgical and personal prayer, not the tasks of management, must define the rhythms of a priests life, even in the busiest of parishes.

Now when we believe that, we will have begun to experience the reform of the priesthood and the rebirth of the Church in our day which we all so desperately need.


And then there’s confession.  “Some,” Pope Pius write, “Some of those who find recollection of the heart a burden, or entirely neglect it, do not seek to disguise the impoverishment of soul which results from their attitude, but they try to excuse themselves on the pretext that they are completely occupied by the activity of their ministry, to the manifold benefit of others.”  Which is why he warns that we should observe the counsel of Saint Bernard, who wrote:

“As a searching investigator of the integrity of your own conduct, submit your life to a daily examination. Consider carefully what progress you have made or what ground you have lost . . . Strive to know yourself. . . Place all your faults before your eyes. Come face to face with yourself, as though you were another person, and then weep for your faults.”

The Pope goes on:

It cannot be denied, and it is bitterly to be deplored, that not infrequently one finds priests who use the thunders of their eloquence to frighten others from sin, but seem to have no such fear for themselves and become hardened in their faults; a priest who exhorts and arouses others to wash away without delay the stains from their souls by due religious acts, is himself so sluggish in doing this that he delays even for months; he who knows how to pour the health-giving oil and wine into the wounds of others is himself content to lie wounded by the wayside, and lacks the prudence to call for the saving hand of a brother which is almost within his grasp. In the past and even today, in different places, what great evils have resulted from this, bringing dishonor to God and the Church, injuring the Christian flock and disgracing the priesthood!

Corruptio optimi pessima. "Sublime is the dignity of the priest, but great is his fall, if he is guilty of sin; let us rejoice for the high honor, but let us fear for them lest they fall; great is the joy that they have scaled the heights, but it is insignificant compared with the sorrow of their fall from on high."

Woe then to the priest who so far forgets himself that he abandons the practice of prayer, rejects the nourishment of spiritual reading and never turns his attention inwards upon himself to hear the accusing voice of conscience.

There’s not a lot which people expect from their priests.  But prayer and penance are at the top of the list.  And if I abandon those, I become a hypocrite, the opposite of the good pastor of the Canterbury tales:

To lead folk into Heaven by means of gentleness
By good example was his business.

I think there never was a better priest.
He had no thirst for pomp or ceremony,
Nor spiced his conscience and morality,
But Christ's own law, and His apostles' twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself.


I began this retreat with a reflection on orientation, because facing Christ is the only true way to heaven.  This last talk, like the closing doxology of the Roman Canon itself, intensifies that reflection.  

For when we face Christ and abandon ourselves to him, we are caught up in the divine life, drawn into the mysteries of the Most Blessed Trinity and, as a consequence, utterly transformed.

Per ipsum, for he is the only way to the Heaven

Cum ipso, for we have been ordained to offer sacrifice and sacrament in union with him

In ipso, for a lifetime of priestly ministry so conforms us to the Lord, that we are able to reflect him to others, we in him, he in us, until the lines are not only indistinguishable but not even very important any more.

Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri Omnipotente, omnis honor et gloria, per saecula saeculorum.  Amen.