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Modern Secularism and the Priesthood

(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)

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

There is a basic problem that the founder of the Paracletes and Handmaids raises for anyone who is concerned, as he was, with the status of the Catholic priesthood in the modern world. The problem is, "Whatever happened to the priesthood?" Why has the Church, at least in the Western world, been plagued with so many, thousands in a few years, defections from the priestly ministry? Why have vocations to the priesthood in some countries dropped to an all-time low? Why have so many priests made public spectacles of themselves, through the press and media, in criticizing, if not ridiculing, the papacy, celibacy and the Church's unmistakable moral teaching?

Many explanations can be given, and by now scores have been made, to try to account for the crisis of the priesthood that no one, except those who are part of it, will deny. But there is one explanation that deserves our special attention, because given by the subject of the present study. Father Gerald would say there is a crisis in the priesthood because there is a crisis in modern society. The secularism of our day has affected the Church and infected her priests; or better, there is a problem in the Catholic priesthood wherever and to the extent that secular philosophy has penetrated the ranks of Christ's ordained.

In less sophisticated language, the underlying difficulty that has created so many problems is the rise of a new idolatry. It is the idolatry of self, more commonly known as pride. Although as old as humanity, it has taken on a new capacity for making converts, partly because of the newly discovered means of social communication and partly because the evil spirit seems to be more than ever active in seducing souls to his cause.

Speaking of his own life-time experience with priests and specifically of those for whom he labored in the apostolate, Father Gerald said, "It would be my honest conclusion that eighty-five percent, perhaps even more, ninety-five percent of the problems that bring priests to Via Coeli have their root in pride. A proud man will not learn; he refuses to learn even by his mistakes. A humble man, if he offends God, no matter in what virtue it may be, will come back to his God and say: I'm sorry. The proud man cannot say: I'm sorry. Because pride is self-deification. One makes oneself one's god and says even to God: Non serviam, I will not serve." (C-100).

Affluence and Atheism

There is some value in exploring this phenomenon of modern pride if we are to make sense of what has happened in the priesthood and to be able to reform what needs reformation.

A large contributing factor that has stimulated man's preoccupation with himself and forgetfulness of God is the rise, certainly in America, of an extraordinary access to the good things of this world. "We have a boasted affluent society." Americans are told, "We never had it so good." Look at us! "We crowd the golf courses today. We are cruising in power boats and sail boats and yachts over the bays, and the lakes and the oceans that surround us. We are bathing in the balmy weather wherever American industry will carry us on commercial tours. We have a forty-hour week. We have cars and every material convenience." (H-25, 26). All of this is common knowledge and in varying degrees, available to millions.

Yet all the while that people are becoming immersed in these naturally satisfying experiences, they are becoming less interested in God and the things of the spirit.

We have within us a built-in intelligence which allows us to dominate the whole kingdom which graces the whole visible universe at our feet and gives us the universe to conquer. And God invites us to conquer it. But the problem among the children of men is not the conquering of this visible universe -- we haven't begun to conquer ourselves. That's the problem.
Man can land on the moon, but so what! There is every indication that a human being on the moon can be as unhappy as we are by the millions down here on earth. And if you land a second man there is no reason why the two of them might not have a fight to death over it. Man has made tremendous, appalling, startling progress in the physical and material sciences, but oh how woefully he has failed in the science that is most important of all to the human happiness and even happiness essential for human co-existence, social relations of the national and international basis. (H-25).

Along with affluence has developed a callous indifference to the needs of others. We boast of our prosperity, "in the face of the fact that millions of our fellow beings even in this country are hungry tonight." We indulge in pleasures of the flesh and satisfy our emotions while so many of our people are desperately looking for meaning in life. They are "in agonizing defeat that leads them at last to revolt." What is wrong?

Man has failed in the most important of all relations, his relations with God and with his fellow man. Never before has atheism raised its ugly head so blatantly and openly, inviting the lightning of God's disaster, God's retribution. Unless men believe they cannot please God, and unless men believe in Jesus Christ, even if they have perfect human relations within the nation and internationally, what do they have? If all man's powers or glory and happiness led only to the grave, 0 Jesus, what would we have? The more that life was filled with happiness, if the grave ended it all, the greater the tragedy. The happier a man or woman was, the sadder would be the hour of their leaving. (H-26).

These are the conclusions of a believer as he looked at the results of what man's genius produces when it seeks only his own personal and collective gratification separated from God.

The first factor, then, that helps explain the modern crisis in the priesthood is the conflict between worldly prosperity and the "narrow way" of Christ that leads to salvation. When the Master said those are few who walk His way, because the ways of the world are more naturally appealing, He included some of His anointed ones, who would choose mammon to God and even defend their choice as more relevant or contemporary or "in touch with the times."

Only deep humility, born of faith, is a match for the subtle worldliness that surrounds priests today like the atmosphere they breathe. Hence the need for prayer, asking the Savior what the disciples asked from Him in Palestine: "0 Lord Jesus, increase our faith. And thank You for our faith. I believe in one God. I believe in a Father who created me. I believe in a Son who came out of the happiness of His Father's bosom in order to share my life and to invite me to share His life as victim, host and priest." (H-27).

Nothing but this kind of faith will sustain a priest in today's climate of selfish affluence.

Need of Prayer

It is almost to be expected that pride leads to a neglect of prayer. After all, whatever else prayer is, it is the acknowledgment of God's greatness and my littleness: His goodness and readiness to give and my terrible and constant need of His help. But proud people do not pray, in the exact measure of their pride. Only humble people are honest enough to admit that God alone is God and they are simply they.

In light of this truth of faith and fact of human experience it is revealing to be told that, where priests have difficulties, there is a universal explanation.

The greatest problem we have in the lives of the priests is neglect of prayer. They tell me that they forget -- they were so busy building churches, running bazaars, taking care of clubs that little by little prayer went out of their lives. How does this apply in our lives? If you are going to be successful in the spiritual life, you must fall in love with the business of prayer. Prayer must be, not a burden, but a joy. (J-3, p. 125).

Therein lies the hub of the problem; for so many priests prayer has become a burden and so they relieve themselves of the weight as often and for as long as they can.

What Father Gerald says about "building churches" and "taking care of clubs" is only symptomatic of a wider issue that affects every priest, and bishop, no matter what his activity may be. There is no apostolic work in which a priest engages that cannot become for him an excuse for praying less than he should, or even giving up prayer altogether. But always, no matter what the reason, it is an excuse. Why? Because for a man who really understands his priesthood and wants to live it as he should, there can be no legitimate grounds for neglecting prayer, because there is no one under God who needs to pray more than a priest.

Adoration. Why must everyone, and therefore with emphasis, why must priests pray? The fundamental reason is that our primary obligation is to worship God. "Your primal purpose as rational creatures and as priests of God . . . is to adore your God and keep Him loving company. That's your first duty and nothing takes its place." (E-45). Not only is prayer the primary duty of a priest, it is also his greatest privilege.

What a privilege to adore one's God. The ultimate and highest activity of a rational creature is to adore with grateful love, appreciation, understanding, oblation, the Supreme Being Who has given him existence; Who has given him more than existence, strange as that may seem, by redemption; and Who is intent on perfecting the image of the beauty of God in the individual soul, which is the result of sanctification.
Dear Fathers, never forget the element of adoration. The more you adore God, the more God will draw you to Himself, and that which seems so attractive in creation will find its absorption in the divine goodness and loveliness and beauty of God. (E-17).

On both counts, therefore, as a duty and privilege, a priest should pray and witness to others that he prays, because he has been ordained to testify to the world that there is an infinite God who deserves and demands His creatures' recognition and the evidence of their submission to His Divine Majesty.

We are above all other creatures called upon to adore God -- we are the formal, official representatives of God, and the basic attitude of a creature to its God is adoration: Venite adoremus, come let us adore Him. We have come with gifts from the East to adore Him, to offer Him adoration: that immolation of the human spirit in the presence of Divinity. Now since we are always in the presence of Divinity, the ideal of the contemplative soul -- and you must aim at being contemplative souls according to the degree of grace that God will give you. Our Lord Himself is the model: from the first moment of His existence in His Mother's bosom, His whole Heart, His whole Being was in adoration, so the humanity of Our Lord was absorbed in adoration of the Divinity.

So for a faithful priest it becomes a deep instinct, a habitual attitude of the soul. The soul rests in the presence of God like a little child whose eyes follow its mother wherever the mother goes, the little child remains in loving contemplation of its mother. So in the depths of your souls -- it works this way -- the more you cultivate this interior union with God which adoration brings about, the more you will find contentment and happiness. You will be able to deal with the unreasonableness and cruelties of man, including the cruelties of God's priests to God, that we must bear with. (C-3, C-4).

But how is a busy priest, involved in so many things, to keep up this practice of adoring prayer? One method is "by the use of a repeated phrase, to stir the soul and to renew the soul, like the little ticking of a clock. The soul can say to God habitually, Adoro Te, adoro Te, adoro Te. Fill in the little breaks in the mortar of activity with the cement of a momentary elevation of the soul to the Trinity, any phrase by which you lift yourself to the Adorable Trinity." (C-4).

If the natural, worldly attitude, is to become so preoccupied with creatures as to forget about the Creator, the supernatural habit that a priest must cultivate is just the opposite, namely the practice of constant prayer.

Immolation. There is a special kind of adoration which is very pleasing to God, and that priests are literally ordained to practice. This is the prayer of sacrifice, or what Father Gerald calls immolation.

It is noteworthy that the one time when Christ specially urged His disciples to pray was when He was in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the one time when He gave us the most eloquent example of how to pray was during His agony. What is most significant is the fact that Christ did not actually have to pray, as though, being God, He needed the help that without prayer He would not have received. His prayer was an act of adoration, but the adoration of sacrifice. And His urging the apostles on that occasion to pray was not only, or mainly, to obtain the strength they (unlike Him) certainly needed "not to be put to the test" (Luke 22:40); it was principally that, in prayer, they would acknowledge God's sovereignty and show they were submitting to His Divinity.

Is this the doctrine of Christ? It certainly is the doctrine of Christ. Our Lord said on one occasion that we should pray always. He Himself being in the Agony gave Himself to further prayer. And our prayer can be an immolation especially when the soul is in great suffering, in desolation. It can place itself, humble itself in adoration to the Divine Will and when the soul does that, then God must always smile upon it. Actually God is always with the soul even if the soul is not aware of it. Live a life of adoration and if you do that you will find yourself without frustration at the end of the day and at the end of life.
Adoration then is the A, the Alpha of priestly existence. Now God has given us His own life to adore but God Himself does not adore. What does He do? God blesses. (C-4).

That closing sentence is very meaningful. Those who adore God are blessed by God. They give Him what, as God, He demands but does not need. He gives them what they need but have no right to demand. More than once in the Scriptures, we are told that God blesses those who bless Him. Those who worship the Almighty open the doors to omnipotence; they tap resources of divine power that no one else can expect to achieve.

And this access to God's blessings, as the reward for giving God His due, is especially fruitful when the adoration is costly, that is, when it is immolation. This, in fact, is the real meaning of a priestly priesthood; when the one who offers the sacrifice of the Mass unites his sacrifices with that of Christ, and in doing so becomes a more effective channel of salvation to a sinful mankind.

Union With God

Father Gerald never tired urging his followers to help priests respect their high calling and not be so involved in other activity as to become ineffective in working for souls. "God didn't ordain us for these other activities. He didn't need to ordain us for them." Why then? "We were ordained to link men to God, and to do that we must be linked ourselves to God." (E-62).

Failure here has serious consequences. Admittedly, "there is always danger of an over simplification. But would it not seem a reasonable comment on the priesthood of America today to say that we are not successfully, efficiently, as far as numbers are concerned, linking people to God because we are not closely linked to God ourselves?" (E-62).

This is not so much an indictment as the sober conclusion from observable facts. Where and when and in the degree that priests are truly men of God, they win souls from Satan and for Christ out of all proportion to their numbers or natural abilities. Who were "the greatest of God's disciples of the active apostolate" among priests? They "have all been men who have been 'hidden in Christ'. St. Francis Xavier spent long hours in prayer with Our Lord, Ignatius, John Baptist Vianney. You cannot find a saint who was not, and is not, 'hidden in Christ'." (E-6). Without exception, God uses those who are most closely united with Him to accomplish His greatest work for souls.

Why should this be so? The final reason is a mystery, but one reason is undoubtedly that just as in nature like reproduces like, so in the order of grace holy people reproduce themselves in sanctifying others. And since priests are to be the principal channels of God's grace by their ministry and teaching, their union with God should be outstanding -- seeing how much the faithful depend on their ministrations.

Christ is and Christ is forever! If I do not bring the people of God to Him I have done nothing. If I am not afire with His love I am like an acolyte trying to light the candles with an unlit taper. My own personal ego can only burn with a human flame, a naturalism, unless I have buried myself with Christ and am able to say with St. Paul "I live, no not I, but Christ lives in me."
One of the deepest errors that we are witnessing in the Church of God at this time is the attempt to rush into the lives of others before we have lost ourselves in the life of Christ. I am going to lead men and women to God by walking with Christ. If I walk with Christ -- if I live with Christ, then the world will come to my doorstep. This does not mean that we are indifferent to the fruitage of the cruel social, national and international injustices of the past which we are reaping in this country and which is being reaped all over the world, but it means this: I will be able to reassure and strengthen the faith and give motivation to those whose life is by the plan of God already committed to be the image of Christ in the family, in the parish, in the community, in the inner city, in the battle lines that are being drawn on our university campuses. (H-36).

The error to which Father Gerald refers is no minor mistake. It is, as he knew and subsequent events have borne out, somewhere near the center of what we began by calling a crisis in the priesthood. Since Father Gerald made these comments the year of his death, perhaps a hundred other explanations have been given and as many solutions offered for the loss of faith among so many faithful; the growing instability of family life among Catholics, and their increased acceptance of premarital relations, contraception, and even the abortion of unwanted children.

The founder of Via Coeli would lay these and similar aberrations, at least partially, on the consciences of priests. "Whenever a priest who loves God says Mass, the people gather around him as bees gather around a honeycomb for they know that if he is a man of God he will give them the honey of the Truths of the Gospel for their minds, the flaming fire of Divine Love to lift their weak human wills and inflame them with a love to crucify themselves. Those who are Christ's have crucified themselves." (H-37). But that is the key. A priest must have died to himself in his love for Christ so that others will be led to do the same because Christ uses him as a catalyst for their sanctification. Or even more emphatically, as a priest "if I am a man of God, I will draw the people of God to God." (H-37). Where people are not being thus transformed, this means they need more men of God to draw them to their Lord.

Poorest of the Poor

Mother Teresa of Calcutta has become world-famous because of her work among "the poorest of the poor". Her Constitutions specify that the Missionaries of Charity specialize in working among these outcasts of society, whose number is greater than most people imagine and whose condition is deplorable in the extreme. In countries like India they die in the streets, untended, unwanted and, except for the charity of some heroic souls, even unknown as they enter eternity.

Father Gerald applied this expressive name to men who were ordained to the altar and are leaving this life without appreciating their awesome dignity.

Is there any beggar in the world so pitifully poor as the priest of God who dies not appreciating his priesthood? Dear God! The man who receives the priesthood has received the greatest gift that God can give to an individual man: His Priesthood. He is Himself in the priesthood. When He gives Himself to us in Holy Communion, He does indeed give Himself, but when He gives Himself in the priesthood He gives Himself in such a way that the priest can give Him to others -- to His Father and to His people. (671-A; Paragraph 1).

It is to these desperately poor men that Father Gerald directed his apostolic efforts, and in their interest that he organized the Paracletes and Handmaids.

There is no one in the world so poor as one who dies not understanding how rich he is. And so, in working for those who are in the state of not appreciating their priesthood, we are working for those who are the poorest of the poor. We know that Jesus Christ has stamped these souls with His image, and so we know without having any visions that what we do for them we do for Christ Himself. Christ is imprisoned in their souls and we can help Him to open the door and set Him free. In setting Christ free, they set themselves free and like Lazarus they come out of the tomb into Easter morning, into the daily living of the good Christian. What a beautiful vocation, to "slash your lives" and give them to Christ in the poorest of the poor! (671-A; Paragraph 2).

Only God knows how many such men there are. What is sadly true is that there are enough today who are so confused about their identity, they give up their priestly ministry for the most appalling reasons. "When priests betray Our Lord it is for less than thirty pieces of silver, is it not? After all, the silver had done no evil, the silver had not enticed of its own, if the silver could have spoken, it would have said: 0 Judas do not take us for our Creator; we are only gleaming dust, He is gleaming Divinity. All sin is the choosing of the dust. Even when it is the choosing of a living creature, what are we but animated dust? And what is the source of our animation? All the beauty of human love, all the beauty and tenderness that is in honest human love, is only a fraction, a faint shadow of the tenderness of God's love that waits for God's priests in His Heart and in the beautiful silver chalice of His Mother's Heart." (D-217).

The secret, therefore, to a priest's appreciation of his true worth and the only sure protection against infidelity is the satisfaction that comes to one who in faith, is totally dedicated to Christ. He should be able to exclaim, and mean it, "Oh, the joy of being a priest!" He should be convinced that "a priest is a link between God and souls; he is the link, Christ in him or he in Christ, whichever way you wish." (E-63).

But then a question arises, and it must be answered by every priest for himself if he is to recognize his worth in a world that sees in him only another man, and no different from anyone else.

There is a natural linking to our fellow creatures; our linking with God has to be supernatural. A normal man loves companionship. It's so natural to be gracious to his fellow man, to smile on the world, for a mentally well-balanced individual. But what about the link with God? That requires supernatural activity. That requires, if it is to be a deep and permanent linking, long hours of Eucharistic Adoration. That requires pleading with God: "Lord, fasten me more firmly into your Sacred Heart so that nothing in the world shall take me away from it." Every priest in trouble has the basis in his will and is a priest who has been, at least partially, or temporarily taken away from God. Taken away from God. So we should plead with Our Lord to fasten us more deeply into His Sacred Heart. (E-63).

This is the language of faith, that every priest should strive to learn and speak with increasing ease. In practice it means that he must spend all the time he can in the company of his Eucharistic Lord. It further means he must never cease pleading with God to convince him that "nothing the world has to offer -- the sensual body, the lustful eye, pride in possessions -- could ever come from the Father but only from the world; and the world, with all it craves for, is coming to an end." This kind of conviction the priest needs if he is to convince others that only the person "who does the will of God remains forever" (I John 2:16-17).

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