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Retreat on the Priesthood

Priests and the Ministry of the Word

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Since the life of a priest is to be modeled on the life of his Master, even as Christ went about preaching and teaching the Word of God, so the primary duty of a priest after the offering of the Mass and the administration of the sacraments is to proclaim God’s revelation to a world that needs nothing more than to hear the message of salvation. The term “primary duty” may seem too strong; the Latin expression is “Primarium manus” and that is the terminology used by the Second Vatican Council in its Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests. “Since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is the first duty of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men.”

What is the Church’s teaching on the duty of priests in proclaiming the message of salvation, and what responsibilities does this place on priests if they are to live up to the Church’s, which means Christ’s, high expectations? Many people have never read the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Even if they were read when they first came out, by now there has been such a debris of second and third rate commentators as to have in some peoples’ minds quite thoroughly obscured what the Church really taught.

Here is what the Second Vatican Council states on the subject of the duty of priests as proclaimers of God’s Word. “Priests owe it to everybody to share with them the truth of the Gospel in which they rejoice in the Lord. Therefore, whether by having their conversation heard among the gentiles they lead people to God; or by openly preaching proclaim the mystery of Christ to unbelievers; or teach the Christian message or explain the Church’s doctrine; or endeavor to treat of contemporary problems in the light of Christ’s teaching—in every case their role is to teach not their own wisdom but the Word of God and to issue an urgent invitation to all men to conversion and to holiness.”

Out of this document I would like to select certain passages that are specially, even embarrassingly significant. Priests are said to “owe it to everybody to share with them the truth of the Gospel, in which they rejoice in the Lord.” What is the Church telling her some four hundred thousand priests in the Catholic Church?

First of all that this is no option. To proclaim the Gospel is no luxury; it is an obligation. Priests owe it to everybody, and if they owe it, others have the right, a God-given right, to hear God’s Word proclaimed. Priests are further told they are to share with everybody. It means, therefore, that the Gospel is to be shared with all who are under their immediate care, but not only those. A priest is never off duty; a priest never retires.

Among the many things that a great moral theologian taught his priest-students was to make sure that they never held back the hard sayings of the Gospel. “For example”, he said, “if you are preaching in a wealthy parish and it happens to be the Gospel, or you take the occasion to preach of the difficulty of the rich to save their souls, tell them like it is. They may never call you back. No matter. They have heard the Word of God.” Whatever weakness a priest has, it should never be human respect.

Priests are to share with everybody. You don’t share except what you yourself already have. Evidently, a priest himself already possesses a large storehouse from the ocean of God’s wisdom. If a priest is never off duty, so a priest also should never stop learning and acquiring.

Priests are to share the truth, which means they know the truth and know the difference between truth and untruth. Too often when we talk about discernment of spirits we think correctly but inadequately of discerning between the spirit of good and the spirit of evil. But even more fundamental is to recognize the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit that is the father of lies. Given the times in which we are living, we hear if anything too much about the devil and not always by people who believe in him. Oh, he is real alright! The one thing we should know about the evil spirit is that he is a deceiver. And a priest must know when somebody is trying to deceive him.

Priests are to share with everybody the truth of the Gospel, in which they rejoice in the Lord. There is such a thing as enjoying the truth. In fact, if a priest does not himself enjoy what he believes, the odds are he won’t bother sharing it. It means, therefore, to have both the truth and to live it. Joy is living the truth. There is no joy in living a lie.

Priests are to share the Gospel not only with believers but with unbelievers, too. How that needs to be emphasized. The world’s population is growing geometrically; it is now close to four billion, four thousand million people. The chasm separating the number of Christians in any shape or form from those who are not Christians is becoming greater by many millions every year.

Dear Lord, who is at fault? I believe you became man and died for the human race; yet less than half of this world population has even heard your Name!

Now theology tells us that it is possible for the good Buddhists or the pious Shintoists to be saved. But is that why Christ came into the world and died, that men should not have known that the Son of God is in our midst in human flesh; not believed in the Real Presence; not known that “God so loved the world, “as John tells us, “That He sent His only begotten Son” to become one of us; not to be really clear and lucid about the purpose of life? Only God knows, but I dare say a good half of America does not really know why it exists. Who is at fault? All of us. Because Christ, having done His work, left not merely the preservation of the faith, but its propagation to all of us according to our respective states of life; and among the responsible persons are especially priests.

The letters that Saint Francis Xavier wrote back to Europe seem almost like the letters of a madman; he was overcome by the teeming millions all around him hungry for the Word of God, and there was no one to tell them. So much so that he wrote more than once to Saint Ignatius, “My hands actually drop dead. I sometimes have to have them supported to baptize the people who want to become Christians once I tell them that God loves them and died on the cross and shed His blood for them. That kind of a God they want to believe in.” No wonder he wore himself out, lived a very short life, died exhausted preaching the Gospel.

Priests are to teach, not their own wisdom, but the Word of God. This means they meditate on the Word of God daily. Do you know why Saint Dominic’s order, the Order of Preachers, came into existence? Because the clergy of Dominic’s day were just not preaching the Word of God. Saint Dominic’s motto for his Order is “Contemplata Alius Tradere”— to pass on to others what I have first contemplated. But I must first have done the contemplation.

No less than Christ, who had His vision of the Father which we don’t have, a priest, too, must live on faith. But he must, through his daily meditation, contemplating the truth, become so enamoured of that truth, so embued with its depth, so on fire with zeal to share it that he can’t wait until he gets out and shares it with as many as are willing and even those who are unwilling to listen. Daily meditation is absolutely essential for a priest.

Priests are to teach in such a way that they invite people to conversion and to holiness. Note these are the two goals of priestly zeal. First, to conversion. This means that the first object of their preaching and teaching the Gospel should be to bring sinners back to the God from whom they are estranged. It is not only the ignorant or the unlettered who are in need, but often also the too-learned and educated. Many wealthy people, who perhaps have become so immersed in the things of this world in the process, have lost contact with God. We can practically quote Christ in saying this: it seems that not a few will be lost. If they are, I partly blame priests who have not had the courage to insist with those on whose, perhaps, generosity they depend. That’s what makes it hard, when you have to bite the hand that feeds you.

Or, on another level, among the learned. A priest should never apologize to anyone for his own lack of learning. If he is not as learned as he thinks he should be, let him learn more so he can cope with the educated world. He gets an assignment, say, to a University parish. He must measure up to the academic level, as far as in him lies, of the people in whose favor he is to preach the Gospel, so they will listen, so he can use the sesquipedalian words they use and tell them in their own jargon, “You are sinners, and in plain Anglo-Saxon you’re going to hell unless you repent.” I also know they expect priests to talk this way. They are scandalized when a priest plays up to them or carters to them or, may God forgive him, is afraid of them.

Moreover, it is not only to convert sinners. It is also, as the Church tells her priests, to invite people to holiness. Never, I believe, has the peoples’ desire for things of the spirit been greater than today. The editors of Doubleday tell me in their more than seventy-five years of publishing existence, never have they had so many people buying so many books, often the great, so-called “out-moded” classics. Saint John of the Cross, I am told, is selling well. They just made a brand new edition of Caussade’s “Abandonment to Divine Providence” because of the clamor for this kind of reading. People want it. And the more demonic the forces outside in the world become, the more people will tell themselves and tell the God in whom they believe, “Lord, who else but you can save us?”

It was in this phenomenal context of our strange world that the Second Vatican Council has explained in the clearest terms how God is calling all His faithful to holiness. Yes, all of this is true. But it can be pathetically true unless these people find among their priests those who are willing to talk to them about the things of God; to give them counsel and direction; teach them; train them in the things of the Spirit. It is especially priests who themselves being holy, are to teach holiness to others. Holiness can be taught, always of course with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

On both levels of this teaching, conversion and leading people to holiness, a priest will be only as effective as he is first of all knowledgeable. Where does he get this knowledge? Holiness by itself is not quite enough; he must know. He gets this knowledge from study; but it must be sound, authentic, orthodox doctrine that he learns. It is not easy for a priest always to distinguish between the sound and the spurious in the books and the journals that he reads, the lectures he hears, or even the guidelines he sometimes receives from those in his diocese or community who are to direct his preaching and teaching ministry. Yet, distinguish he must. A priest must learn; he must read; he must listen. But either he reads and hears the truth, or the faithful will not receive the truth from him.

The laity need priests to teach them God’s truth and nothing but the truth. Sadly, they are not always getting the truth. I think it is a miracle of grace that our laity have by and large remained so faithful to the Church in spite of the sometimes atrocious nonsense they are being taught in religious education programs, in the lectures, in the sermons, in the conferences they hear, in the columns in diocesan papers they read, behind all of which stands this anguishing need which can be met in the Church only by the priests. They must know the truth; otherwise, in God’s Church, who else will know it?

Is there some single and simple formula for the priests to identify what is Catholic truth and what, though perhaps very learned, is either untruth or dubiously true or only someone’s fervid speculation? Yes. The acid test more than ever today is whether what is written or said conforms to, or is in contradiction to the teaching of the Vicar of Christ. Those who agree with him are teaching the truth and they should be listened to. Everyone else is to be ignored.

In the years to come the faith which Christ came into the world to give the world, will remain intact, and the Church He founded will be strong where, and to the extent that priests have been aware of their responsibility as spokesmen for Christ in the modern world. All other elements in the Church, and they are many, are useful or even necessary. But the last analysis the Church stands or falls in any place or among any people on one condition, that the truth of Christ’s revelation is being proclaimed. The first divinely appointed proclaimers of this truth are priests. With Saint Paul, they should say, “Woe to us, if we do not proclaim the Gospel, the full Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Conference transcription from a retreat that
Father Hardon gave in December, 1977 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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