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The Value of Prayer and Sacrifice for Priests

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I would like to address myself to the subject of the value of prayer and sacrifice for priests – the value of prayer and sacrifice for priests. If there was ever a need to pray and sacrifice for priests for their preservation and sanctity it is today. It is not exaggeration to say that the Catholic priesthood in countries like our own is going through the most difficult ordeal in the Church's history. That is no exaggeration. We have lost well over ten thousand priests in the United States since the close of the Vatican Council.

Vocations to the priesthood in our country have dropped almost seventy-five percent since the Council. Countless seminaries have closed there is confusion in many Catholic circles as to what is the priesthood. As a result we can safely say that the welfare of the Church in our country and in many other so-called, developed countries is at stake. Having taught priests over 30 years.

I am now teaching priests having lived with priests and having labored for them loving them suffering with them. No words I can use would be to strong to state that the Catholic priesthood needs prayer and sacrifice as never before since Calvary.

I would like to ask a series of questions to spark an answer that should be a prayerful reflection on our own responsibility. First, briefly, why the priesthood. In a single sentence the most important reason we need the priesthood is: That without the priesthood there cannot be the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist there would be no sacrifice of the Mass, No Holy Communion, no Jesus Christ, no Real Presence on earth to continue His work of salvation in the world. As I sometimes look at photographs of the monuments of genius, the cathedrals of France and Germany, Italy, I say to myself the only reason that generations were sometimes spent in building these tributes to the faith of those who constructed them is that every Catholic Church from the smallest Chapel to the Cathedral of Notre Dame or St. Peter’s in Rome. These are all, we believe, literally houses of God, Jesus Christ. The Son of God who became the son of Mary really dwells. But without the priesthood, Jesus Christ would not be on earth. That is our Catholic faith.

We go on. Why do priests need special graces from God? They need special graces because they have extraordinary responsibilities before God. They are to be more than ordinarily holy, more generous, more zealous, more patient. In a word, those who are responsible for Christ's presence on earth they are to be, of all people, most Christ-like. They are to be patterns of what Christ wants all of us to be. Count all of the grave crises in the Church over the centuries. Every single one of them, somehow at heart, was due to the fact that priests had failed the people of God.

As long as I live, I will never forget the retreat of the late Fr. Daniel Lord gave us scholastics before our ordination. He recalled the episode of a conversation that Pope Pius had with Fr. Edmond Walsh, then of Georgetown who had just returned from a mission in Russia, where millions were starving because of the treachery of their Communist overlords. After the famine had abated, Fr. Lord was told to meet with the Holy Father. Late into the night Pope and Jesuit were in conversation over the conditions of the Church in that day. And the Pope asked Fr. Walsh who do you think are the greatest trials to the Church? Are they the persecutors, the Neros and Attilas, the Communists? The Pope answered his own question. No, they are unfaithful priests. It is no overstretch of language to say as the priesthood goes, so goes the Church.

We go on. In our day, more than I believe in any other day before, there are pressures on all those who wish to remain faithful to Christ such as were not experienced ever before. But the pressures are experienced by priests with a violence and a virulence such as no one else but a priest can understand. One saint after another has declared that the devil’s principal target on earth is the Catholic priest. Stands to demonic reason – if the devil can deceive and delude a Catholic priest and draw him away from Christ, what happens? What happens is what we see happening in our world today. Priests are subject to extraordinary temptations from the devil, first and mainly, but also from the world.

I never dreamed that I would be told this, but told this I was. Six months after being on the faculty of a state university, one of my fellow faculty members told me John, you are the first priest that this university has ever had. I happened to be the first Catholic priest hired by a state university to teach Catholicism and paid to do so by the state. John, he said, we wanted to test you, especially in your chastity. You didn't know this, but women students on campus found out you are genuine.

Priests need, Lord how they need, special graces from God. We ask, why pray, then, for priests? We should pray for priests and bishops because this has been the practice of the Church since apostolic times. It’s a matter of revealed truth. It is a divine mandate. Whatever we find, certainly in the Scriptures of the apostolic age, we believe has been revealed by God. In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told Herod had James the Apostle beheaded. He then put Peter in prison. Then says Saint Luke, I quote, "All the time Peter was under guard the Church prayed for him unremittingly." I like that adverb, unremittingly. As a priest, may I beg you to pray unremittingly for Christ's unworthy servants whom He ordained as priests.

In one of the seven letters that Saint Martin of Antioch wrote on his way to martyrdom in Rome, date 107 A.D., the future martyr begged the people, "Pray for me who stands in need of your charity who stands before the mercy seat of God."

Why, then, pray for priests? Because through prayer we gain graces for them which otherwise they would not obtain. If we all need the help of one another, and we do to receive the graces we need, how much more should we pray for priests from whom we have received Jesus Christ in the Eucharist – and by whom we have been so often absolved from our sins. I don't want to even think of the state of soul I would be in except for the absolutions that over the years I have received from priests. As fellow members of the Mystical Body priests need, desperately need, our help and in no way more urgently than to obtain through the prayers we offer for them the graces from God of which, in my judgment, no one stands in greater need than do priests.

Why sacrifice for priests? Our prayer for priests should be joined with sacrifice. In other words, our prayer should be united with the practice of patience, selfless charity and mortification. Why? Because the most effective prayer is the prayer that costs – costly prayer, otherwise known as sacrificial prayer. How powerfully before the throne of God are the sufferings of the sick, the lonely, the abandoned, the poor, the crushed offered up to God for our purpose, when offered up for priests.

After all, that is what a priest’s life is supposed to be, a life of sacrifice. By now I have told hundreds of priests, “Fathers you are not only to offer the Mass, you are to live the Mass.” But if priests are to be truly priestly, they need, how they need, to have the faithful to offer their own trials and temptations to obtain from the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, the light and strength that the priesthood demands.

What grace does a priest most need? There is no doubt in my mind that the one grace that the priest most needs is to embrace the Cross. His union with Christ Crucified is the priest’s key to an effective priesthood. His power as a priest comes from the Cross as he identifies himself with the Crucified Lord. What are we saying? We are saying that a priest must be willing and able to have happen to him what happened to his Master in Palestine. As I've told so many priests and by now have so often told myself, I am only as much a priest and genuinely priestly as I am ready and willing, like Jesus Christ, to suffer for souls.

Can we be more specific? Yes, the principal cross which priests experience today is the suffering they feel with the situation in the Church today. As one priest put it I quote, “The cross is the present, the now experience and not some imagined and future pain.” That is why making the Way of the Cross – and I am now recommending the Stations of the Cross to others – I consider a most effective way of praying for priests. To make the Way of the Cross, uniting oneself with Jesus Christ, no longer suffering in His physical body, but suffering in His Mystical Body, which is the Church.

I would recommend that all the faithful daily offer at least one prayer for all the priests in the Church and especially for those who have done most for them in their lives. I try to remember at Mass every day the priest who baptized me, the priest who heard my first Confession, who gave me my First Holy Communion, the bishop who ordained me, the bishop who confirmed me. I recommend, therefore, that all the faithful daily, in a special and concrete way, pray for priests. I further strongly recommend that all the faithful offer up each day some sacrifice. I am tempted to say some little sacrifice. NO! I suggest it be the most difficult sacrifice of the day for priests. I further recommend that when we hear about a priest who has been unfaithful to his high calling, that our first and immediate reaction should be to pray for him. I finally recommend we do everything in our power to extend and propagate the apostolate of prayer and sacrifice for priests.

Needless to say, the Church of the future will not only survive, but please God in our own country, will thrive. But that will occur only where and insofar as the priests have not only been faithful to their vocation, but have lived their priesthood how I like to say this, in a living martyrdom in union with the first martyr, Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, no mere recommendation or exhortation as far as I can make an imperative. Pray and sacrifice for priests.

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, you ordained the apostles priests at the Last Supper to continue your mission of mercy to the end of time. We believe that every Catholic priest traces his ordination to that first ordination on Holy Thursday night. We know how much you expect of your priests and we also know how weak and human they are. Inspire us, dear Jesus, to pray and sacrifice for your priests who are also our priests that by their faithfulness to you in this life they may bring countless souls to you in the life to come. Mary, mother of priests, pray for priests that they may love your Divine Son, even as you did unreservedly, all the days of their lives. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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