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Faith in the Life of a Priest

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

If there is anything we can safely say about the Church in the modern world, it is the fact that many things we used to take for granted we can no longer casually assume. Not too many years ago it would have been, if not strange, at least a bit odd to talk on the importance of faith in the lives of priests. But it is not strange or odd today when the Faith of millions of the Faithful is being extremely tried and, for many, shaken to its foundations and lost. It would be strange indeed if the Faith of many priests was not also being tested. After all, priests are just as human as the rest of the people of God. They are subject to the same social and psychological pressures as their fellow Christians. If anything, they are more exposed to the strong winds of intellectual controversy, and consequently, they are more in need of reflecting on the importance of faith in their lives.

In order to arrive at a deeper and clearer understanding of what we are talking about, we will look at three words in sequence and briefly comment on each. The three words are faith, life, and priests. For each word we shall ask a corresponding question.

What is faith? Why is faith important in the life of a Christian? How is faith imperative in the life of a Catholic priest? We can give summary attention to the first two questions and concentrate on the third; yet I do not think that, given the state of things in the Church today, we should glide over either the meaning of faith or its importance in the life of every Catholic Christian.

What is Faith

What, then, is faith? Divine faith is man's response to God's revelation of Himself and His will for the human race. When we talk about what God revealed, let us make sure we know that the revelation is both Himself and His will. Revelation is not only for the mind of man, to know who God is; revelation is also for the will of man, what God wants. God's purpose in giving us His revelation is to enable us to reach Heaven, because we need supernatural means to reach a supernatural destiny; revelation is that means.

All these resources of knowledge which we need to reach Heaven are summed up in the person of Jesus Christ. Instead of asking, "What is revelation?" we might change the question to, "Who is revelation?" The answer is Christ. Saint Paul tells us, "After God had spoken in many ways through the prophets, now at last in these days He has spoken to us in His Son." God, then, sent His Son, the Eternal Word who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the inmost being of God.

What makes this Christian revelation unique is that Christ is the physical incarnation of the divinity. To see Him, as He said, is to see the Father. To hear Him is to hear the Father. Jesus speaks as man to men; but being God in human form, though He speaks with human lips, He speaks the Word of God. This divine revelation is synthesized or capsulized or best of all, incarnated, in the person of Jesus Christ. If we accept Him, we believe. Our assent to God's self-disclosure in Jesus is faith.

What bears emphasis is that this faith of ours is sovereignly free. We are free to believe and free to disbelieve; we may wish to assent or, if we wish to, we can dissent. Of course this does not mean we are morally free to disbelieve or dissent, but we are physically free. We can, if we want to, humbly submit our minds to the authority of God's revelation as taught us by His Church. Or we can find a thousand reasons for not believing; and yet, that is all we can find: reasons. How cheap for either not believing or choosing only some among the articles of faith to believe! No one, not even God Himself, will force us to believe against our wills.

As the Catholic Church understands the meaning of faith, it is not a blind impulse that wells up from the depths of a person's psyche that some people have and others lack, some who are the believing kind and others who are the unbelieving kind. No. It is an assent of the mind to God's revelation made possible through our free cooperation with divine grace. We believe with the mind, but only because of the will. It is, this faith of ours, a gift twice over: once on the part of God, whose grace enables us to believe, and once on the part of us because we give our minds in sacrifice to the infinite mind of God. If you wish, it's our grace to God even as the first was His grace to us. He does not have to give us the gift of faith and we don't have to give Him the gift of believing. So much, very summarily, about what this faith of ours really is.

How Important Faith Is in the Life of a Christian

If we ask how important faith is in the life of a Christian, many answers could be given. We have the most telling one in the lives of millions of fellow believers who are even now suffering persecution for the Faith throughout the world. People don't suffer for what is not important.

Martyrdom is not an archaic term to be applied only to those courageous Christians in the early centuries who laid down their lives for Christ rather than deny their loyalty to Him and to His Church. Martyrdom is also a modern phenomenon that is going on right now. For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church's Ecumenical Councils-and there have been twenty-one of them-because it was so important to say it, the Second Vatican Council told the Faithful to prepare for martyrdom if they are to remain firm in their faith today.

We judge the importance of something by a person's willingness to make sacrifices to obtain or retain that something. By this standard, faith must be considered important indeed, because so many hundreds of thousands of Christians have paid and are now paying the supreme sacrifice rather than betray the Faith of their fathers. It is ironical that we are today talking about the importance of faith, evidently because we need to shore up our convictions, on the same day that countless numbers of our fellow believers in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in Lithuania, Latvia and Rumania, in Poland, Russia and North Korea and China and now in the whole of Vietnam, are undergoing the most extreme privation and persecution just because they believe in Jesus Christ.

There is grim logic in all of this, because we need to be reminded of the importance of a treasure for which, in God's Providence, we have not yet been called upon to really suffer. Yet that one reason is why vocations flourish where there is persecution. Among the seventy provinces of the Society of Jesus in the world, the largest number of vocations are in provinces behind the Iron Curtain where the Society is still free to receive novices, as in Poland.

Why is the Faith important to a Christian? Because on his faith everything else depends. Faith is not placed first among the theological virtues for euphonic reasons, just because the sequence sounds better. Faith is first in the sense of the fundamental virtues in the life of a Christian. Without faith there can be no hope. What is there to hope for, if we do not believe in what we are supposed to desire? What can we desire unless we first believe in the object of our desires? Without faith, too, there can be no love. Why should we love either God or our neighbor, if God is only an illusion and our neighbor only an object to be used to satisfy our whims and passions? So much for why faith is important for all Christians.

How Imperative Faith Is in the Life of a Priest

Now our third and focal level of reflection, faith as imperative in the life of a priest. Against this unmistakable background, it should not be difficult to see how indispensable faith is in the life of a priest. To say it is indispensable or imperative is more than to say it is just important. It is an importance that must be seen as a duty, because on the Faith of a priest rests so much of the Faith of the people to whom he ministers; on his own commitment to God's revealed word depends so much of their allegiance to the Savior.

This should not be surprising. After all, is not a priest appointed by God to serve others, to bring them the means of salvation? And among these means of salvation, what is the most essential, without which nothing else that a priest can offer the people have any meaning? Is it not faith?

A priest is to offer Mass for the Faithful, and they are supposed to attend, which means both be there and be attentive. But why? Because the Mass is a renewal of Calvary, in which the same Priest and Victim who died on the cross now offers Himself to His Heavenly Father in an unbloody manner every time the double consecration (to symbolize the separation of blood from body) is reenacted by a validly ordained priest. That's what the Mass is. But why should anyone attend Mass, be even physically present, much less than devoutly give attention to it, unless he first believes that what the Church teaches about the Mass is true?

So many people, especially the young, are not going to Mass because they say, "It is not meaningful to me." And maybe they are right. But now the awful question. Who is to teach and explain this Faith, and show by his words and especially by his conduct that he believes the Mass is meaningful? Is it not above all the one who offers the Holy Sacrifice, that is, the priest?

A priest is to administer the sacraments to the Faithful. But the meaning of the sacraments is meaningless without faith. Pouring water on a child's head while pronouncing a few words; or listening to a tale of sins and giving absolution; or rubbing a touch of oil on a sick person's forehead in the sign of the cross; or placing a small wafer on a person's tongue and telling him "This is the body of Christ": all of these are only so many curious actions that defy rational explanation, unless those who perform them believe that these are sublime mysteries. Only faith can see the unseen.

Among our Eastern fellow Christians the word "mysteries" is regularly and appropriately used for the word "sacraments": the seven sacraments are the seven mysteries. If priests believe in the mysteries that they offer the Faithful, in the ordinary course of Providence, according to the measure of their belief the Faithful too will believe. They will receive and respond if the priests who administer the sacraments are themselves firm and deep believers in the mysteries they administer.

A priest is to teach the Faithful what they must do to be saved. It was no coincidence that in Christ's last message to the apostles He told them to make disciples of all nations. What kind of disciples? By teaching them "to observe all the commandments I gave you." Note that the heart of the Gospel teaching is the obligation to keep the commandments taught by the Savior. In fact, He is Savior to the saved only if they observe the moral precepts He commanded to be obeyed. Faith is not something you merely believe in; faith is something you do.

These precepts include some very difficult commandments: like monogamy in marriage-difficult in a country like ours that has now reached, for the first time in its two-century history, more than fifty percent divorces each year: commandments about chastity of the eyes; patience under duress; love of one's enemies; and loving others even as Christ who is God has been loving us; forgiving injuries; obedience to those who in God's name have authority over us; poverty in spirit; humility of heart; peaceableness and kindness; feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; and treating the least of those who enter our lives as we would Christ Himself.

But for this we need faith. Christ, to impress us with the gravity of what He was telling us to do, and to make sure He was not giving us options but obligations, shortly before He died make it plain that our very salvation will depend on the Faithful observance of these injunctions. Those who keep them will be saved; those who do not will be lost.

How is it possible, even conceivable, that anyone will listen to these solemn demands of Christ and keep them unless he believes in them? He must believe that Christ's commandments were really enjoined by the Son of God; that they are necessary for salvation. He must believe that the same Christ who commands also gives the grace to do what is commanded. In a word, he must have faith.

Once again we return to the priest, who is the mediator-in the sense of being communicator of the divine will to a weak human family that is terrified at the divine will. The priest's strong faith in what he teaches will, in large measure, determine how persuasively and effectively his teaching will affect the Faithful. Nothing convinces like conviction. Nothing is more persuasive than certitude. Speaking for my fellow priests and myself, if we are convinced of what we teach others to believe and carry it into practice, then the people will be able to follow, not just our words but our example. But if we fail them, God help them. That is a prayer.

This is what our people most need in today's confused and convulsive world: priests who are men of faith, who see the unseen, and who are therefore able to tell everyone who enters the ambit of their ministry about the passing nature of this life and the glorious city on high that awaits all who believe.

However, this is not only a matter of good example, although it includes that too; but it partakes of that mysterious law of procreation which obtains not only in the order of nature, but also in the realm of grace. Like reproduces like. And under God there are only miraculous exceptions. Like priests, like people. Faith reproduces faith. Or, as we also sadly know, unbelief reproduces unbelief.

God wants us priests to be strong, clear and sure in our faith, because He wants the multitude, redeemed by the blood of His Son, to believe. We priests have the undeserved rare privilege to be the instruments of God's grace to the people. But we also have the terrifying duty of being faithful to our calling.

If we priests are to transmit a strong faith to the Faithful, we must ourselves have experienced the realities of our faith by nourishing them at the fountain of prayer. Prayerful union with Jesus Christ, the High Priest, is the only way that a priest can remain priestly. The saddest thing on earth is a priestless priest. The priest must have learned from frequent converse with the Master who the Master is, what the Master wants, and how the Master wants His priests to minister to the people.

That is why all the Faithful should pray daily, adding sacrifice and suffering if necessary to their daily prayer for Christ's priests; begging the Savior to protect them from evil and the snares of the devil; and to give them that love of His Sacred Heart from which all who enter the life of a priest can be nourished.

Lord Jesus, the Eternal High Priest, bless your priests. Keep them close to yourself; and make them what you want them to be-channels of your saving grace to a sinful human race.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

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