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Father Gerald Fitzgerald Manuscript
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Catholic Church is a permanent miracle of God's providence. From the days of her Founder she has been oppressed and persecuted, opposed and betrayed. Yet she stands after nineteen centuries stronger than ever and rising above her enemies as the City of God on earth. Already in the second century, Tertullian made the observation that has since become a motto, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." The Church actually thrives on her sufferings. No less than her Founder she continues to redeem the world by the shedding of her blood.
However, it is not trial and suffering alone that has so abundantly provided for the Church's supernatural prosperity over the centuries. The trials and problems of the Church had to be met by outstanding leaders whom the Spirit of Christ raised in times of crisis, to staunch the blood and heal the wounds of the Mystical Body. With rare exception, these leaders were men and women who became founders of religious institutes that carried on the spirit of those who established them, and thus insured that what was originally begun would continue, even for centuries, after the founder had entered eternity.
After the Church had been liberated under Constantine in the early fourth century, men like Antony of Egypt and Pachomius arose to prepare the Church interiorly through the creation of monastic communities in the Mediterranean world. Two centuries later when the Church began her work of civilizing Western Europe, St. Benedict became the father of generations of religious who were to evangelize the barbarians of that day. With the rise of industrialism in the early thirteenth century and the threat to Christianity from the use of money as a means of profit, Francis of Assisi appeared on the scene. He preached a return to the Gospels and a return to the poverty of Christ that preserved the Church from going the way of all flesh, when money becomes the guiding motive in people's lives. In the same century, the intellectual world began to challenge the simple truths of the Christian faith, so Dominic was inspired to found the Order of Preachers who became the Church's teachers to preserve the faith among the rising intelligentsia of the early Renaissance. In the sixteenth century, when the unity of Christendom was broken by the Protestant reformers, the Lord chose Ignatius of Loyola to defend the foundations of this unity, centered in the papacy. He added to the three customary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a special vow of allegiance to the Vicar of Christ for his professed members. In the seventeenth century when the growing wealth of the people made them forget the needs of their neighbor, Vincent de Paul became the apostle of charity to remind the faithful that sharing what they had with the poor was the condition of their own salvation. St. Louise de Marillac, spiritual daughter of Vincent, became the mother of innumerable families of consecrated women who, as angels of mercy, prove that Christ is still on earth to care for the sick and the halt and the lame and the blind, and to care for children who are specially beloved by the Master.
So the litany of God's Providence has gone on. Always a new crisis brought into existence a new leader. Problems facing the Church became challenges to be met by persons who, not unlike the prophets of old, saw themselves as messengers of Yahweh to teach the people His truth and to lead them in His ways.
No one familiar with the present age has any doubt that the Church has been going through a grave crisis for over a century. Some consider it the gravest in the Church's history and certainly its impact on the Church and her institutions has been drastic in the extreme. Under the general name of secularism it is the philosophy which claims that there is no other life than "this life" and no other world than "this world." If there is an after life and the secularist is ready to grant the possibility, it is so uncertain and improbable that the hypothesis has no practical value in determining a person's behavior. By now there is a variety of secularisms in the world. But they all have this in common: they hold the meaning of the world to lie within itself.
It would be unrealistic to expect the Church to remain unaffected by present day secularism. Catholics are too much part of the culture in which they live and too exposed to the ideas of their day not to be influenced by what they experience. Add to this secularism the rise of the communications media in the twentieth century and we get some idea of how inevitably the Church has suffered by contact with the unbelieving world in which she lives.
Among the Church's institutions the priesthood has been specially vulnerable. This may be partly explained by the fact that priests are the Church's divinely established leaders of faith and morals, but mainly by the strategy of the evil spirit who could be expected to intrude himself into the ranks of Christ's chosen ones. For even as the Church's greatest pride is in the sanctity of her ordained bishops and priests who lead the people of God in the paths of holiness, so they have been Church's greatest sorrow when they abandoned their high calling and turned their backs on the Savior Who ordained them.
The modern Popes have been eloquent in stressing the grave need of a strong priesthood to resist the pressure against the faith in our times. Leo XIII and Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII have pleaded time and again with bishops and priests to resist the seductions of a godless world and remain firm in their loyalty to Christ and His Church. No one could be clearer than Paul VI when, on the occasion of ordaining ten priests to the Episcopate, he urged them to remain constant in their faith. "It is the gift of Christ to His Church," he said. "It is the virtue that the Church needs today, assailed as she is by so many forces that aim at defeating her, indeed weakening and destroying her: firmness in faith." It is faith, he told the newly ordained prelates, "that must protect us from our inner weakness and against the growing confusion of ideas of our world." (Homily in the Vatican Basilica, June 29, 1973)
In the first year of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II wrote to the priests of the Catholic world, urging them to resist the temptation to compromise with the world. "What the people expect of their ordained leaders", he said, "is above all a priestly personality that witnesses to a world beyond this one and to values that belong to eternity. Priests should not be deceived. Sometimes the people may want priests 'to be in every way like them'; at times it even seems that they demand this of us." A priest must be on his guard. "It is very easy to let oneself be guided by appearances and fall victim to a fundamental illusion in what is essential. Those who call for the secularization of priestly life and applaud its various manifestations will surely abandon us if we give in to the temptation. We shall then cease to be necessary and popular." The Pope went on to explain how careful priests must be to avoid being manipulated and exploited by a world that wants to shape everyone, especially the Church's leaders, to its own image and likeness. (Letter to all priests, Holy Thursday, 1979)
The subject of our spiritual biography, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, clearly understood this teaching of the Bishops of Rome. He knew, as few of his contemporaries did, that what the Church in modern times most needs is priests who have not been seduced by the ways of the world but have remained firm in their faith as ambassadors of Christ, chosen by Him to dispense the mysteries of salvation until the end of time.
As we go through the life story of Father Gerald and look into his priestly mind, we shall find a man who was chosen by Providence to teach priests who they are and why they were ordained. In his own words, "A good priest is a prisoner of love for Our Lord because Our Lord is a prisoner of love for him." A priest, therefore, is a man of faith who is ordained to sustain and nourish the faith of others, just as much in the twentieth century as in the first. It is the same Christ now as lived on earth then through the power of priestly consecration.
Father Gerald appreciated the excellence of this free gift of God to man and would quote St. John Chrysostom, whose exalted view of the priesthood appealed to his own poetic spirit: "Although the priesthood is exercised on earth it rightfully belongs to the celestial realm. For it was no man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power that arranged this function, but the Holy Spirit himself, and it was He, too, that inspired men to seek the ministry of angels." Thus, it was not surprising to find him naming his congregation of priests and brothers "Servants of the Paraclete," and choosing Pentecost, of set purpose, as the feast on which his congregation of Sisters, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, were founded. His thoughts often returned to the gratuitous favor of God to His unworthy servants in a phrase which became something of a motto: "The priesthood is God's greatest gift to man. Its faithful fulfillment is man's greatest gift to God."
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
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