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Humility and Obedience in the Priest

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

It may seem a bit strange that all the major exhortations of the modern Popes to priests stress the importance of the virtues of humility and obedience, with no exception. On second thought, however, it is not unexpected. You would expect priests to be reminded to practice especially the two virtues on which so much depends in their lives and ministry. Why? In answering this question I will take up each virtue separately and try to show why it is so important for priests, if they wish to be priestly priests, to be humble and obedient, and how they can grow in humility and obedience.

The virtue of humility in all of us is that disposition of will which makes us see ourselves for what we really are in relationship to God and our neighbor. In relationship to God, if we are humble, we see ourselves totally dependent on His power and His love; in a word, it is recognizing our creaturehood. In relation to our neighbor, we see ourselves, as a fellow creature, and by seeing ourselves we are fully conscious of our sins. In a word, humility is truth. It is keeping ourselves within our own bounds, not going outside the fence within which God has placed us.

As we apply these ideas to a priest, we see immediately that he will have difficulties above the ordinary in keeping himself humble. Faith tells him, and the faithful recognize the fact, that he is possessed of extraordinary powers. On his consecrated words depends the Real Presence of Christ on earth. No priests, no Eucharist. On his intention to separately consecrate the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ depends the continuance of the sacrifice of Calvary. On his words of absolution depends the reconciliation of sinners with God. On his anointing of the sick depends their remission of sin and the gaining of strength, when needed, to enter into eternity. On his teaching the revealed Word depends the faithful's possession and preservation of the faith. On his counsel depends, in large measure, the growth of souls in sanctity.

And so the list might go on. Every facet of the ministry is the exercise of such influence in the lives of others that no one under Heaven is more exposed to the temptation of pride than a priest. Perhaps some people, especially in academic circles, still wonder why the Church is suffering so gravely at the hands and lips of her priests. We need not wonder. Most of the chaos in the Catholic Church today is due to the pride of priests.

What adds to the gravity of the situation is that the media (the radio and television, newspapers, magazines and publishers) give priests so much occasion for publicity and such opportunities for recognition, especially if they have strange ideas, that unless priests are extremely careful, their vanity and desire for praise will be exploited by the enemies of the Church to the detriment of the people of God. It is hard enough to be humble when a person is educated, as priests certainly are, or not to be held in honor just in virtue of their office. A youngster in his mid-twenties is just ordained, and immediately the faith of the people sees in him a man apart. He gets respect and attention that no one else, naturally speaking, could get.

Combine all these factors and we begin to see what a great responsibility a man assumes when he is ordained: the responsibility for the practice of the most fundamental of virtues, humility. How hard is the task he has to face, as no one but a priest understands.

When the great Doctor of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom, as a simple hermit was being urged to become a priest, he strenuously resisted what he called not an invitation but a temptation, before he finally was ordained. Later on he wrote a book about it, a masterpiece on the priesthood. One of his main fears, as he confessed, was the dread of pride. He said to his friend Basil (later on, Basil the Great), who was telling him to be ordained, "I beg and beseech you, I know my own soul, my weakness, my infirmities. I know too the greatness of this ministry and all the difficulties of its office. The waves which break upon the priestly soul are greater than those which the winds raise upon the seas and the worst of these is that most terrible rock which is pride." Is it any wonder that the greatest mystic since Saint Paul, Francis of Assisi, did not dare to be ordained? Thus spoke and acted the saints and thus speaks every honest priest in the depths of his heart. He knows that his single worst enemy in the world is the demon of pride.

How does the priest cultivate this indispensable humility? The simple answer would be, as everyone else cultivates humility: by humble prayer; by daily reflection on his failings and sins; by humbly performing the menial duties and not looking for positions or places where he can shine. In the case of a priest there is, I believe, one distinctive path to humility, one specially his own, and this is not seeking to please; and when duty requires it, and it often will, being willing to displease. It is impossible for a priest to remain humble if he is always trying just to please people.

His time is for all who need his ministrations and not only for the more insistent or those who make demands. His message of salvation is the teaching of Christ, which includes penance and self-denial and carrying the cross. Not everybody, to say the least, wants to hear about the cross. But if a priest is to be humble, he will not qualify the hard sayings of the Master. His affection is to be universal; to be given to all without discrimination, according to their spiritual needs. He must be willing to displease, humbly, those who would monopolize his attention and preoccupy his heart. And he must hold his heart with both his hands; otherwise, somebody is sure to steal it from him.

A humble priest is therefore no respecter of persons. And if anything, he prefers the poor and unimportant, the simple and unattractive, the lowly, the ignored-people who will not nourish his self-conceit, or throw fuel on his pride.

There is a long passage in the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests that deals with the subject of their obedience, and it intertwines the practice of obedience with the virtue of charity. Certain key passages in that Decree bring to the surface important implications for priestly obedience.

Priests are told that, "The priestly ministry, being the ministry of the Church itself, can only be fulfilled in the hierarchical union of the whole body of the Church." Consequently, a priest is obedient and obediently working with and under and through the hierarchy, or his work will not be blessed by God. There is no such thing as a priest going off on his own, independent of ecclesiastical obedience, and expecting God to grace his labors. A priest is not ordained for himself; he is ordained as the Vulgate has it "ad alios", for others. But being a priest, he is not only ordained for others; he must also work with others, "cum allis", and those others are his fellow priests united under the hierarchy.

There is an important observation to be made regarding bishops, because all that I have said about priests applies, sometimes with greater importance, to bishops. The Church teaches that a priest must be united with the hierarchy to expect God to bless his work; that also means that bishops must be united among themselves as the successors of the apostles and under the Vicar of Christ. This condition is so imperative that where and insofar as a bishop is not obedient to the Vicar of Christ, to that extent he loses the divine light to know what to teach and what is most terrifying, he loses the divine right to command people. They are to obey him only insofar as he obeys the Vicar of Christ.

Second, priests are told by the Second Vatican Council that by obedience they dedicate their own wills to God. Obedience is the sacrifice of the human will to God. The dignity of any sacrifice is measured by the sublimity of that which is offered. There is nothing that man possesses that is more precious to him than his own will. This is the heart of the priest as sacrificer, because standing at the altar, though he does indeed offer the Holy Sacrifice, yet there he is only the instrument of the great High Priest Jesus Christ who is the principal priest sacrificer at Mass. But the one thing which the priest can most call his own, his own free will, is what he surrenders when he obeys. It is that surrender that is so pleasing to God and so demanded by God of the priest.

Third, priests are told to carry out obediently the commands and suggestions of the Pope, their bishop and their superiors. There are two profound insights here. The first is that perfect obedience in anyone, here in a priest, does not wait to be commanded. In fact, by the time a person has to be commanded, he or she may still obey of course, but that is not the main function of obedience, to give solemn commands. True obedience responds even to the suggestions or intimations of ecclesiastical authority.

Notice too, that the first one that a priest is told to obey is the Pope. Thirty or forty years ago, had a Council been held at that time, that Council probably would not have felt it necessary to explicitate Pope, bishops and superiors. In today's Church this can be a difficult obedience indeed. Part of the crisis in the Catholic Church is that some of the most explicit directives of the Holy See are given lip service but are not seriously put into practice, or for priests, are not preached.

We have, for example, the Pope's most formal, authentic, and solemn condemnation of contraception. How seldom in these United States do we find any pastoral letters from bishops, or sermons from priests reemphasizing the Church's solemn teaching; a recent poll claims that between seventy and ninety percent of Catholic American married couples practice contraception.

The Holy See insists on first confession for children before their first Communion. Yet, in traveling across the country, I hear some of the most pathetic stories from mothers who are trying to find priests who will hear the confessions of their young children.

The Holy See has given the clearest declarations on the grave obligation to recite the Divine Office. The Pope, following the Council, gave unequivocal directives on clerical garb. Is it any wonder so many religious women have removed their habits? Priests, who themselves are disobedient to the Church's directives for them, in turn tell the women religious that they too don't have to be identified as consecrated to God. The Holy See has repeated forthright statements on the sacred vestments to be worn for the offering of the Mass. I've attended the Divine Service where angels would weep to see how the priest or priests were undressed at the altar. They would show more respect to a policeman than to the Son of God.

Rome has repeated warnings about following the prescriptions of the Liturgy, about not making up one's own Eucharistic Canons or substituting other prayers or readings for those clearly indicated and prescribed, with manifold options, but nevertheless prescribed by the Church.

Anyone who knows the state of affairs today can testify, a priest's obedience is mightily tested, especially in these crucial areas of the mind of the Vicar of Christ and of the Holy See.

How is a priest to cultivate this priestly obedience which the Church tells him is so needed in his sacerdotal ministry? He must of course pray, especially when either the directives are hard or, what may be harder today, when he sees his fellow priests disobedient. He must pray and ask his Lord,"Help me; keep me straight".

But especially, he needs to meditate, first of all on the blessings that God will give him if he is obedient. We do nothing without our reason. Being obedient has cost the priest much these days. He needs to be strongly motivated. But meditation shows the priest that obedience will give him power and influence over souls and absolutely nothing else can substitute for it. His meditation will also show him that if he wants people to listen to him, he must listen to those to whom he owes obedience.

The priest should read, maybe just a page or two a day, from the life of some great priest whose life reflects the influence of obedience on souls. They must read of such men like the Cure of Ars, who was almost illiterate but who created a history of his own because he was simply and totally obedient. The priest might also, once in a while, reflect on some of the giants in the priesthood that he knew or that he reads about who, because of their disobedience, not only fell from their priestly office, but did incalculable damage to the Church of Christ.

A priest should also ask the faithful to pray for him, and pray especially asking the dear Lord that God might keep him humble and obedient. In his humility and obedience is the strength of Christ, who will work through him, provided he is little in his own eyes and totally submissive to the authority that Christ placed over him, in order that through him, humble and obedient, souls might return to God.

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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