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Caring for Priests
(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There are two sides to Father Gerald's apostolate to priests. One side is universal and reaches out to all bishops and priests in the Church; in fact not only the living but also the deceased. Its object is to solicit the divine mercy and obtain for priests the grace they need, among the living to become holy, and for the deceased a speedy release from purgatory. On this level, all the faithful are asked to cooperate. By their prayers and sacrifices they merit before God what the Lord promises to give those who ask in His name. And if anything can be asked for in the name of Christ, it is certainly the blessings of His goodness on those whom, from eternity, He has chosen to anoint with the powers of the priesthood.
The other side of the apostolate is more specific and restricted. Its scope is to help priests who have wandered from the path of virtue, whether of faith, hope or charity, and strive to bring them back, at least to God's friendship and, if possible, to the exercise of their priestly ministry.
Another name for this second side of the apostolate is "Caring for Priests". Its presence in the Church as an organized effort is relatively new, and in the United States may be said to have started with Father Gerald Fitzgerald when he established the Servants of the Paraclete.
Enough has been said so far to give some explanation of why such an apostolate should have waited until the mid-twentieth century. Of course some priests who had strayed from their calling had been the object of the Church's concern over the centuries; and there was never a time when she was not solicitous to help those who had difficulties living up to their priestly responsibilities. But the inroads of secularism in the Church's ranks, including the priesthood, had not been so widespread or at least there were not as many priests affected in former days as all the evidence points to being true today. Two world wars, with some thousands of priests, either conscripted or as chaplains, contribute to the weakening of priestly morale. Moreover, as was mentioned before, the affluence of certain cultures, as in Western Europe and America, further undermined the strength of the priestly vocation.
Whatever the reasons, and they are both numerous and complex, the net result has been too obvious to deny or even ignore. There have been many casualties, as we say, among priests; in some cases as many as half the ordination class in a large diocese. Clearly priests need to be helped, and helped urgently, if the work of the Church in countries like ours is to even survive let alone prosper and grow in serving the People of God.
It is to Father Gerald's credit that he had the vision and the courage to undertake what he did. It is impossible to overemphasize the magnitude of his pioneer efforts to rehabilitate priests, or the prophetic vision he must have had to foresee the needs of the Church into the twenty-first century. He died in 1969, less than four years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, and therefore when the full impact of the post-conciliar revolution had not yet been felt.
In order to better understand and appreciate his apostolate of caring for priests it seems wise to see it first from the perspective of the late Pope John XXIII, who personally evaluated Father Gerald's approach and methodology, and warmly praised it; and then in the words of Father Gerald himself, drawing on his numerous directives to those whom he associated with himself and inspired to vow themselves to serve Christ in His priests.
Pope John XXIII
It is surely a credit to the founder of Via Coeli that less than ten years after the Paracletes were formally approved as a religious congregation, Pope John XXIII issued a detailed personal letter "To Our Beloved Son, Gerald of the Holy Spirit," praising not so much him personally as the work he was doing for priests and the way he was doing it. "Our pastoral heart was greatly consoled," the Pope began, "when we learned of your commendable apostolate among the Lord's anointed who, while bearing 'the heat of the day and the burden' (Matthew 20:12), have fallen a prey to the insidious snares of evil that beset the paths of priests." Immediately, therefore, the Pope set the tone to his letter of commendation by focusing on the one phase of this apostolate that Father Gerald spent twenty years making clear: his work was centered on the spiritual evil to which some priests had fallen victim. His apostolate was not, as such, directed to the priest's physical, social or psychological disabilities, except as symptoms of the more radical sickness of soul.
The Pope went on. "Your work on their behalf," he compared, "is like that of the Good Samaritan, for you tend their wounds, nursing them back lovingly to spiritual health and clothing them again in the radiant vesture of sacerdotal fervor and grace." The comparison with the Good Samaritan of the Gospels was, in fact, one of Father Gerald's own favorite analogies for what he was doing for priests. Also, following Father Gerald almost verbatim, the Vicar of Christ emphasized that the priests were being tended in their wounds of spirit; that they were being nursed back to spiritual health, and that the evidence of their recovery would be to have them reclothed in God's supernatural grace and dedication to priestly piety.
Not satisfied with calling such priests "brother-pilgrims on the road of life," the Pope further declared that although "wounded in the fray, it is our duty to help them for they are our brothers, our sick brothers." Yet always the sickness of which the Pope speaks is neither physical nor emotional, but rather spiritual, in whose care the followers of Father Gerald were being so generously praised.
To further stress the spiritual nature of this sickness, the Holy Father explained what its symptoms in priests might be. "The Lord, once the cherished ideal of their lives, their loving companion in prayer, in preaching, in pastoral work for souls," had become less meaningful in their lives. Nevertheless, although they became estranged from Him, He did not abandon them. He is "still their Good Shepherd who will 'go after that which is lost until he find it' (Luke 15:4)."
Such compassion on the part of Christ is only to be expected. For if He will do this "for even one of the hundred sheep, how much more will He seek out the shepherd himself should he stray in the mountain mists!" No one should be surprised at this. "Did He not do so for His first shepherd, Peter, who was moved to tears by His Master's loving gaze? Had He not the same forgiving gaze for His other apostle, Judas, as He addressed him by the sweet and intimate terms of 'friend'? But, alas, the traitor's heart was too hard for tears. And as with the lost sheep, so with the strayed shepherd, the Good Shepherd will even ease the fatigue of a long and sore-footed journey back to the fold, by 'laying him on his shoulders, rejoicing' " (Luke 15:5).
These memories from the Gospel are recalled by the Pope to remove any vestige of doubt that Father Gerald's work was, indeed, an apostolate. It was nothing less than the supernatural rehabilitation of priestly souls.
The Pontiff goes on to compare what the followers of the Good Shepherd were doing in the footsteps of Father Gerald. "Through your charity, and zeal," he told them, "the shattered fragments of the vessels of clay are pieced together again, and lovingly fashioned into their pristine beauty as 'vessels of election to carry Christ's name before the Gentiles' " (Acts 9:15). In context, the Savior was referring to St. Paul as His "vessel of election." Yet the Pope applied the title to all priests, as the Founder of the Paracletes so often had done in picturing the ideal priest as an imitator of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Strayed shepherds, the Pope would say, are like shattered vessels of clay that need to be put together again to serve as instruments of divine grace to other people.
Here Pope John touched on a cardinal premise of Father Gerald's methodology. Priests, he would say, fall from grace when they become discouraged. "Through your apostolate," the Pope was telling him, "the despairing receive spiritual health and vigor in living and life-giving identification with Christ the Eternal Priest." By saying this, the Pope was approving with pontifical sanction the mainstay of Father Gerald's mission to priests. What they need, and without which they spiritually die, is "identification with Christ the Eternal Priest." As they identify themselves by faith with the Master, and seek to further identify themselves by sacrifice, they not only recover from despair but become more vigorous than ever for having experienced the mercy of the Lord.
At this point, the Holy Father bears on the two principal means that Father Gerald insisted were indispensable to bring the shepherds back to the fold, namely the Eucharist and prayer.
We read with particular pleasure, beloved son, that the central devotion in all houses of your Congregation is to our Eucharistic Lord. So, indeed, it should be. For the priest who has not the Blessed Sacrament in the center of his life cannot live his priesthood.
We exhort you, likewise, to stress in our name the absolute necessity of fidelity to prayer in the sacerdotal life, for therein alone lies the unfailing means of ensuring the protection of the Power of God against all the powers of darkness.
The Eucharist and prayer! Pope John XXIII could not have been more emphatic, more explicit, or more absolute. A priest's life is either centered on the Blessed Sacrament or he has lost his direction as a priest and, the Pope would add, "cannot live his priesthood." This being said, it follows that to revitalize a man's priesthood, he must be brought back to a deep faith in the Real Presence and a strong devotion to the living Christ in the Eucharist.
Everything that Father Gerald stood for, and fought for, and was criticized for, was expressed by the Pope in this encomium on the Eucharist as pivotal to healing priests who are spiritually ill and restoring them to health as channels of divine grace to the people.
So, too, the Pontiff's insistence on prayer. He placed his finger on what Father Gerald in season and out of season kept saying was the single greatest cause of defection among the clergy and of unworthy priests in the Church: their neglect of prayer. Consequently, there is only one known remedy when they become supernaturally ill or diseased. They must return to the practice of what they had neglected, otherwise there is no cure for their malady. Why not? Because without prayer they will not obtain the grace they need to recuperate; since their basic trouble is not in the order of nature but in the order of grace. Only grace, to be gained by prayer, can cope with a problem which is beyond human solution. Here, if anywhere, it is literally true that what is impossible with man is possible with God, provided man has the humility to call upon God.
Not surprisingly, the Pope enjoins the practice of prayer among priests not only as an effective means of recovering spiritual health. He also promises those who pray the help from God to ward off the snares of the evil spirit, who is especially active in trying to seduce priests. Prayer, therefore, is both healing of the past and protective for the future.
Nothing was dearer to the heart of the Paraclete founder than to make sure that guest-priests who were restored to spiritual health would remain strong when they returned to the world. He was encouraged beyond words to have the Vicar of Christ tell him in our name to stress the absolute necessity of continued loyalty to prayer for priests to maintain themselves in the sacerdotal life.
The Practice of Father Gerald
There is no simple way of either analyzing Father Gerald's method of dealing with the problems of priests or of classifying the means that he used. The reason is not because he was not systematic, since he could be very precise and organized, but because his approach was mainly spiritual and supernatural and therefore not easily reducible to familiar of even scientific terms.
At the masthead of his apostolate to priests was the
name of the
Father Gerald assumed as beyond doubt that a priest's main purpose for existence, as a priest, was to lead people to heaven. If in the process of exercising his ministry, he had gone astray, or got "wounded in the fray," the only sensible thing is to find out what is wrong with him as a priest and treat his disordered condition accordingly. It would be unwise, to say the least, to treat him as just another individual and deal with his difficulties apart from that which by the sacrament of orders he really is. A priest is not simply another man, like everyone else. He is the anointed of the Lord and empowered to bring Christ Himself down to earth and enabled to reconcile sinners with an offended God. If he is in trouble, those who want to help him should not use only or even mainly such means as common sense indicates are useful for other people.
All the while, of course, Father Gerald recognized that a priest can get sick and physically or emotionally disabled like anyone else. But then he distinguished his apostolate from the humanitarian work of doctors or psychologists. By all means let physicians and therapists do what they can to assist priests on the purely human side of their disability; but concentrate in the apostolate on treating their souls, where the Spirit of God is active and where the healing powers of grace are to be sought through prayer and the sacraments instituted by Christ.
Love the Sinner. In dealing with priests who have gone astray, the first law of the apostolate in their favor is to love them. This is not easy. They can be "malevolent" and even "wicked". Yet if we wish to help them, "We must manifest towards them a great consideration. We must love them for what they could be, even if we cannot love them for what they are, for the possibility of good that resides in them." (D-180).
What makes this difficult is not only the natural reluctance to show affection for selfish and unaffectionate people. It is also the problem of carefully distinguishing the sinner from his sin. The love that needs to be shown must be carefully balanced. "In our sympathy for the sinner," we must also "get across to the individual sinner our horror of sin. We must not minimize sin, that is not true pity," and it is not true love.
If a man, above all a Priest of God, has not a horror of sin, he is in danger of hell file. Let us pray for the grace that is so precious, especially to a priest, a horror of even venial sin. Therefore, while we must have a constant sympathy for the casualties of God's officers, yet we must not fail to ask God that in our ready sympathy for the casualties we should aid them in such a way as to help God to bring home to the soul the salvific sense they can be forgiven as was Peter when he realized that he had denied the Son of God.
Let me illustrate what I mean, and if you feel that you cannot accept it, then find another place to serve God, for you cannot help the apostolate which God has placed on my shoulders. Peter denied the Master and went out weeping. Suppose John had gone and minimized the offense. Undoubtedly John did go to him and say something like this: "Go back, Peter, He has forgiven you, I know!" but he didn't say: "It doesn't matter everybody does it!" It is Catholic philosophy that the whole world may better perish than one mortal sin be committed, and Jesus Christ taught us that the greatest sin is the sin of scandal: "If any man gives scandal to one of these little ones, it were better for him not to have been born." (J-7, p. 152).
What the founder of the Paracletes was saying is that in dealing with priests who have compromised, the love shown them must be genuine and self-sacrificing. But it must be a love based on the truth. Sin is sin and no amount of sympathy for the sinner should obscure the fact that losing the state of grace is the worst evil in the world.
In order to motivate his men to show a compassion for stray shepherds, Father Gerald encouraged them to meditate on the compassionate Sorrowful Mother and reflect on "how tenderly the Mother of God bends over the souls of Christians who are in mortal sin." The Pieta, after all, represents not only the scene on Calvary when the dead Christ was taken down from the Cross but the situation today whenever a Christian, and especially a priest, is estranged from God. "So our Blessed Mother, the mother of all mothers, bends over the souls in the church that are the living image of her dead Son, and works and labors and prays unceasingly, making with her Divine Son unceasing representation before the throne of God, that her first-born Son might not have died in vain for these other Christs." (D-299).
This is the model of loving kindness that "these other Christs" should be shown, no matter how badly they have injured the Christ who ordained them.
Overcome Discouragement. Experience shows that for those who have deeply sinned and find themselves steeped in some vice, the hardest thing to do is cope with discouragement. There is an inner monitor that tells such people they have done wrong and, as in the case of priests, they often detest themselves to the point of despair. The case of Judas is a sad example for all times. They must therefore be reminded of God's loving forgiveness.
Speaking to the Paracletes, Father Gerald told them they have the unique privilege "of extending the invitation of love to those who have betrayed Our Lord."
Our vocation is equivalent as if Our Lord had said to John or Peter: Judas is in despair. Go tell him that my Heart is still waiting for him. Give him the message of my love. Tell him he has already acknowledged his sin. All he needs to do now is to say: My Jesus forgive me. That is our work that Christ has given us to do, to bring the unfathomable riches of His Divine mercy to the attention of shepherds who have failed and who are potentially the objects of the fertile ground for the seeds of despair. (C-89, 90).
It is impossible to exaggerate the value of this approach. Yet to continue doing it day after day will require above ordinary strength and motivation. Hence the need to call on supernatural reserves.
Pray for that most valuable grace for the Paraclete specifically in his vocation that when you see a priest despondent, beaten down, you will see in him Jesus Christ and that you will be constrained by the Holy Spirit, by the charity of God to go to help him. By encouragement, by a smile, by a little conversation, by watching, if necessary, by his bedside, whatever he requires, give it to him, in nomine Domini. Let us step up to a priest quietly and without ostentation but effectively, even as St. Camillus de Lellis bent over his poor wretched fever victims and whispered: "Lord Jesus, what can I do for you?'
Bend over these priests, humbly, eagerly, patiently and lift the cross. Try to lift it at least. The figure is very perfect because Simon of Cyrene only helped Our Lord to carry the Cross; he didn't carry it entirely. He helped Our Lord to carry it, and all we can do for any of our fellow beings, is help them. A priest is another Christ. These priests are going by, weak, at times beaten down. They have to be helped. We can't take the cross away from them but we can help them carry it. (C-55, 56).
To keep this inspiration alive in their minds, Father Gerald gave the Paracletes the following as a "guiding principle or maxim: Every priest is my brother. Let us deal as patiently, as tenderly, as consistently in perseverance with a priest as if he were our own brother. After all every priest is our brother because we are of the Blood of Jesus Christ. We have been dominated by the infusion of the Precious Blood." (C-60).
Even naturally, people respond to kindness; but since the discouragement of priests is deeper than mere nature, it takes grace to help them conquer their despondency. This grace can be merited by the prayer and gentle patience of those who take care of them.
Father Gerald confessed that he had to pray "for the grace to be patient with those who fall over and over again." In order to motivate himself, he would argue this way: "God has been reasonable with me in my own unreasonableness. Shall I not therefore be patient with my fellow creature, and I shall do it to repay God for His patience with me." (C-62).
What is often most trying in working with priests in trouble is their inveterate tendency to discouragement. "This is one of the heaviest hidden crosses here at Via Coeli." Christ knew that the vast majority of mankind would have to lift themselves up over and over again from physical weakness, from spiritual weakness. It is hard to begin again. It is hard for men. There is a terrible down-draft that brings discouragement upon the soul. What's the use. I fail, I have failed. I can't go on through this all again. "All of this the Savior foresaw, the terrible temptations not to rise again." That is why "Our dear Lord, with the generous complete dedication of Himself to teach us in every way, to show us how to redeem ourselves, permitted Himself to sink down exhausted" once, twice and three times under the Cross, "and then to get up and go on." (C-62).
Those who deal with priests must themselves be thus highly inspired, so they can pass on the inspiration to those whose faith alone will enable them, perhaps in spite of repeated failures "to get up and go on."
Restore Union with God. In all this effort at rehabilitation one point must be kept in mind, and it is crucial to the whole apostolate. Since the basic problem with priests who defect or go astray is failure in the interior life, this must be restored at all costs.
By way of prelude, a priest should become convinced that he has been specially, indeed distinctively called by God.
He has invited us from among all the thousands of mankind. He has called upon priests to help Him in the salvation of our fellow men. 0 Lord what a privilege. Thou who art God hast invited me a little creature to come and help You to save the world. Why? That is veiled in the mysterious depths of Thy predilection and of Thy love for when God calls a man to a special service, He does so out of love. (C-89).
How is it that men who have been thus dearly loved should ever turn their backs on the Lord who called them and "give up" their priesthood for a mess of pottage? The reason is not so much a reason as a fact of sacred history. They let go of the interior life. Already in the Old Testament, Yahweh said to one of the patriarchs, "Walk before me and be perfect."
God says to His priests in the greater intimacy of the New Testament: the greater intimacy between God and man that had its source in the Infinite Love of God and was activated in the Incarnation. Not "walk before Me" but "0 My priests, walk with Me." Nay live in Me and let Me live in you.
One of the great sources, one of the great occasions for the defection of priests is in their infidelities, from their infidelities to Christ and the Church, it is that they have failed to attain to this interior union with God at least as an abiding, habitual grace. They have no interior life, and therefore, the interior faculties of their soul, their intellect and will and memory, do not find in Christ the great consolation that awaits the soul that cultivates an interior life. (D-142).
Here we touch on one of the unique features of the apostolate to priests. Like everyone else, a priest must find satisfaction in his way of life. He must enjoy dealing with souls, and preaching to the people, and catechizing children, and offering Mass, and attending the sick, and counseling the faithful, and administering the sacraments. Naturally he will find his life burdensome and many of the demands of his priestly vocation exacting. Human nature can become oppressed, or bored, or simply fatigued with the effort and routine. Add to this the simple fact that a priest is vowed to celibacy, and to strive after sanctity, and it is not surprising that he needs to be sustained from within if he wants to persevere in his priesthood and even grow in his chosen calling.
Father Gerald keeps coming back to this truth with a frequency that might seem excessive, except that he realized as few others how fundamental it is to any lasting apostolate among priests. What exactly does he mean? He means that just as the basic need in a priest's life is to give himself entirely to God, so the only effective way of converting him -- if he has fallen into habits of sin -- is through the patient ministry of other priests whose lives are an inspiration for him to follow.
Thus every problem in a priest's life can be reduced to this: "After having accepted God's choice by entering into the obligations of the priesthood," he then chooses "something else in preference to God. Therefore our basic and psychological problem is to persuade priests to come back to their first choice; to choose God and God alone, to choose God supremely by a sovereign love, like St. Thomas Aquinas," who when asked, "what dost thou ask?", answered, "only thyself, Lord." (C-91).
Given the weakness of human nature, however, priests will scarcely make this kind of re-dedication unless they see others, especially other priests, "quite evidently choosing God" themselves. It is hard enough to make the self-consecration in the first place; it is superhumanly difficult to recover the generosity after this has been culpably lost. In the ordinary course of Providence, the inspiration to do so must come from the outside. This explains Father Gerald's plea for holiness among those who undertake to re-sanctify the Church's priests.
Unless it is obvious to our priest-guests that we as individuals and as a Community are quite evidently choosing God then we shall have a very difficult time persuading them to choose God. It would be so easy for the devil or for their own souls to reflect: Well they say to choose God but they haven't done it themselves.
We must be ourselves sold on God. We must be sold on Christ with all our heart and mind and whole being. That is the great reason why the Church is not sweeping in our day and in any day, everything before it. We have the Teacher. We have the living Christ. We have Christ in His humanity. We have His sacraments. We have His authority. They have rowed away from the Bark of Peter expecting it to sink but somehow it never sinks. "The gates of hell shall not prevail against her." She isn't going to sink.
Why is it we do not persuade more to come back aboard this sea‑ worthy vessel that will wrestle with the winds and the sea until it is brought by the Divine pilot into the port of eternal rest? There is so much waiting for us. (C-91, 92).
What is the answer? The answer in the world at large and in working with priests is that those engaged in the apostolate are not holy enough. "If we can only be saints, nothing can stop us." And more pertinently, "When Christ is supreme in the soul of a priest, nothing can stop him." (C-92). If he labors among priests to bring them back to Christ, they will return - provided they see his laboring with an "overwhelming love of God," and see him "deliberately trample on" anything that challenges "the supremacy of this love." (C-92).
Have Them Pray. The role of prayer in the restoration of priests to sacerdotal fidelity comes in two stages, where each stage complements the other. There must be prayer, much prayer, joined with sacrifice, by others than the priest. They must invoke God's mercy to open the mind and heart of a priest and bring him to his senses. It may be called the prayer of conversion.
But once a priest has been so far touched by grace, he must start praying himself. Otherwise the gift of seeing the light and recognizing his need of God will go wasted, as Father Gerald admitted happened at Via Coeli. "We have every evidence," he said, "that a priest who was saying Mass was at the same time plotting the betrayal of the Master. He had no intention of permanent reform." Rather he "was using his retreat here and the magnificent opportunity of conversion merely as a cover for further liberty in the exercise of his own particular passion." (C-12). There may have been the original grace from God to break with his life of sin, and this brought him to Via Coeli. But there was no follow up; the priest did not carry through, and the result was disastrous.
The Paraclete founder was fond of comparing the apostolate to priests to what happened to Saul on his way to Damascus. "Every priest," he thought, "who comes to us with the proper motivation has been struck down on the road to Damascus. Bent upon persecuting Christ, Christ has reached down and in one way or another a Divine Providence has brought him to his knees." (C-46).
So far, the totally undeserved grace merited by others may seem to have been active. But this is only the beginning. "Then a man must be led; he cannot help himself. The sinner cannot help himself." No doubt "the grace of conversion is a true grace," but it needs to be assisted from the outside, that is by another or other human beings. And this is the indispensable role of those whom Father Gerald was forming into apostles of the priesthood.
Our beautiful vocation is like that of the attendants of St. Paul who led him into Damascus. He was blind. They led him to the city of Hope. They led him to the city where he was to meet Christ, where he was to receive Christ, where he was to receive his eyesight. And if a man makes use of his retreat in one of our monasteries properly, then he, too, will presently receive his sight. The scales of false values will fall from his eyes. He will see clearly as he never saw before the way he must go with Christ and one of you will bear the part of Ananias who will come and say: Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me to you to show you how much you are a vessel of election by the very fact that you are a priest. And He will show you how much you must suffer for His name's sake. (C-46, 47A).
Then comes the responsibility of the priest himself. Once Saul had been struck down, miraculously, by God's grace, he did what every converted sinner must immediately do, at the risk of losing the fruits of his conversion. He, personally, on his own, must pray.
What did Our Lord say to Ananias? He said to Ananias: "Behold he prayeth." One of the things that we must emphasize by word and example in the life of our retreatants, is the value of prayer. Without prayer there can be no salvation. God requires that cry from the human heart. He inspires it but even when He inspires it not everyone is ready to correspond.
The moral to be learned from this revealed event in the life of St. Paul is clear. Those who labor for priests "must ceaselessly invoke the Holy Spirit of God to give the grace of prayer" to those who have been initially converted from sin; which really means to ask for the grace that will move the converted man to pray. "There is the secret. The man who prays and who perseveres in prayer will doubtlessly come to salvation. God recognizes the basic good will that underlies all good prayer." (C-47A).
To repeat Father Gerald, "There is the secret." Any sinner who in pride or lust turns away from God does not, of himself have the strength even to turn to God and much less return to Him with all his heart. Such a person needs actual grace from the Lord whom he has rejected.
If, by divine mercy he is inspired, like Saul, to want to reform, this is only because of God's condescension. It is also only the beginning. Ahead of him lies the prospect of giving up his former ways, of sacrificing the praise and adulation he may have been getting from those who approve his manner of life, of letting go of such money or friends or prestige as living by the standards of the world often brings, of breaking bad habits that may be blinding him like chains and that he shudders to think what effort this will take; of withdrawing from creatures to which he has become addicted, and he foresees the agony of the withdrawal pains. All of this and more the sinner has to face, as the price of his reformation. It is the inevitable sanction for breaking God's commandments, and can no more be avoided than the consequences of ignoring the laws of gravity.
There is no way a person in this situation can make it alone. He needs help from other people, and extraordinary help from God. The best help that others can give him is to urge him to pray. If he prays, but only if he does, divine grace will not be wanting and the reformation already begun will take root and grow, as it did in Saul of Tarsus, until it reaches even sanctity.
Faith tells us that God never demands the impossible. This does not mean, however, that we may not find ourselves in circumstances where it is humanly impossible to do what needs to be done, as in the case of sinners who want to reform. At this point of crisis, if the sinner prays, he will obtain the light and strength from on high that he lacks from below and the return to God becomes not only possible but even easy; certainly easier than a person's fearful imagination would suggest.
If the one who contemplates returning to God is a priest, prayer is, if anything, more necessary. Why? Because as one who knows better, his guilt is greater; and because often there are more human ties that bind a priest's estrangement to the practice of virtue. Add to this what Father Gerald never tired repeating, that the evil spirit is most active in seducing priests, so that the need for prayer, earnest, deep and humble prayer by a priest for himself becomes absolutely imperative.
Resources to the Eucharist. But not just any form of prayer is to be practiced by those who wish to follow through on their initial grace of conversion. Especially for priests, it should be prayer to the Holy Eucharist.
That is why Father Gerald liked to hear the Jemez Canyon called "Canyon of the Blessed Sacrament." As we have seen at length, in Father Gerald's mind, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is of the essence of priestly piety. It is certainly of the essence of priestly reformation. For if neglect of the Eucharist is the main single cause of infidelity among priests, then devotion to Christ in the Eucharist is correspondingly necessary for restoring them to the faithful service of God. Reserving the Blessed Sacrament and making its Presence available everywhere and at any time of the day or night was part of Father Gerald's master plan for priests. It is also the part of Father Gerald's master plan for priests. It is also the part of Father Gerald's methodology that Pope John read about "with particular pleasure." It was in praising this practice that the Holy Father made the astounding but very true statement that "the priest who has not the Blessed Sacrament in the center of his life cannot live the priesthood." To which we might now add, nor can a priest recover his priesthood except by the same Eucharistic means.
It becomes less surprising then for the Paraclete founder to say what he did about the basic pedagogy that priests in trouble have to be taught.
What we are trying to do here is to teach priests to realize what it means to live under the same roof with the Son of God. Here is the answer to all problems: material, physical, spiritual. Here is a God who loves us and counts our heartbeats, which is something that we would grow tired of doing. But the Son of God never grows tired of keeping and counting the heartbeats of men, and especially the heartbeats of His priests. They are His own heartbeats! They are (if that would be possible) affectively, it would seem, dearer to Him than His own heartbeats, for His heartbeat stopped on the Cross that our heartbeats might be rhythmed with His for all eternity, that we might not lose life everlasting. Here is the answer to all problems. (E-70).
This is saying a lot, and apart from faith it may seem to be saying too much. What, someone may object, the Presence of the Eucharist is the answer to all problems? How unrealistic can you be?
But Father Gerald was so convinced of this fact that he staked his whole apostolate on fidelity to the practice of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He saw in the Eucharist what faith tells every believer, that the Son of God who became the Son of Mary, is really, truly and bodily present in the Sacrament of the altar. Since it is the same Jesus who worked miracles in Palestine, why should He not continue working miracles now, especially for His priests. "Here is the God all love, for all problems find their solution in that Supreme Love," who became man and, not merely dwelt, but dwells among us. (E-70). And "from His fullness we have, all of us, received" (John 1:16), but only in the measure of our faith. To rekindle this faith in priests is the surest way of restoring them to loyalty in their ministry.
Along with devotion to the Real Presence, the offering of Mass by a priest is a powerful source of grace. In the early years of Via Coeli, guest-priests were not given the privilege of saying Mass unless, or until, they were fully rehabilitated and, in fact, canonically reinstated with the Church. One of Father Gerald's long-cherished hopes was to obtain a mitigation of this severe, though understandable, rule. Finally he appealed personally to the Roman Pontiff, then Pope Pius XII. His account of what happened in Rome is revealing. "As regards the Mass for our longtime retreatants," he said, referring to the priests-on-probation, "the Holy Father himself said to me in private audience last Thursday when I had explained my conviction that the Mass should be considered not as a privilege but as the Daily Bread of these penitents -- he himself replied at once, 'for their spiritual life.' This is a direct quote and expresses the whole attitude of our saintly Holy Father." (Letter to Mother Dolorosa, December 21, 1953).
As with the Real Presence, so with the Mass, what Father Gerald recognized was the Eucharist as a phenomenal source of grace. That is why he did not hesitate to say of Via Coeli, "we must aspire to make this mountain canyon another Lourdes. Our particular apostolate is to cure the afflicted among God's Shepherds." (J-2, p. 56). But this was also the Canyon of the Blessed Sacrament.
Whatever else a priest in trouble needs it is the conviction that "The answer to our priestly needs, the secret of priestly happiness, the source of priestly zeal and contentment, the love our hearts like all other hearts, crave by their very nature -- all these things are to be found in the cultivation of a personal devotion to our Divine Lover in the Sacrament of His Love." (L.O.F.P., p. 193). To recover one's faith in this truth is the essence of Father Gerald's method of reclaiming strayed shepherds. Everything else, as important as it may be, is secondary. This stands to reason, since only God can work miracles, and the Incarnate God is present and active on earth in the Holy Eucharist.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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