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What is a Priest?
(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is impossible to grasp Father Gerald's great love and concern for the priesthood, unless we see something of his understanding of what a priest is. During his lifetime, he did things that others misunderstood. He traveled many thousands of miles, to distant countries, and across the United States many times, in the interest of the priesthood. He literally exhausted himself in urging bishops to support his efforts for Christ's anointed ones, and in the pursuit of his vision he allowed himself to die estranged from the Via Coeli he had spent years in creating in order to serve the poorest of Christ's poor, the priests who were in trouble and who wanted to return to the active service in the priesthood.
All his labors make sense only on the premise that a priest is something unique; in fact so unique that it required the Incarnation of the Son of God to make it possible.
Ten years before his death, in a conference he gave shortly before Christmas to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, he opened his heart on what, to his mind, the Catholic priesthood means. Most of the present chapter will be the words of this conference. The author of these pages will step aside to allow Father Gerald to pour out his soul.
What makes the conference memorable is that it was given to religious women specially dedicated to serve Christ's priests, that it showed a keen awareness of the noble vocation to marriage and rearing a family, and that it explains why Gerald was so passionately insistent on priests being holy priests, seeing how great was their calling and how important their role in the economy of salvation.
When one speaks of the priesthood, one is looking on something that is vast like the ocean, or like a mountain range. There are many roads leading into a mountain and many harbors border on the sea, so I am going to take, as a sort of way of tying it in, a quotation that is in one of the chapels here in the Canyon; something I said some years ago. What I said was this: "The priesthood is God's greatest gift to man. Its faithful fulfillment is man's greatest gift to God."
Now, why do I make that little distinction? Because the priesthood is never seen in the abstract. Even if Christ were [visibly] here, the Great High Priest, it would not be an abstraction; it would be Christ, the High Priest.
We don't see the priesthood. It doesn't walk around except as it is specified and integrated in the souls of men. When you treat of the priesthood in the abstract, you have this sublimity, but when that sublimity is translated into the actuality of daily living, it is identified with a human being, with a man, who according to the various reactions of his soul to the Will and Providence of God, fills the part and is identified with the priesthood.
First, let us take the original half of the statement, "The priesthood is God's greatest gift to man," and consider it in the light of the Church's teaching.
There are two great basic purposes that God has revealed in creation and redemption. Now, of course, in the Divine Mind they come into the Divine unity, with the glory of God the fundamental purpose. But by our Catholicism, we believe God, as a Supreme Being, could be "fruitful" as the Godhead is, in the Son and in the Spirit; that is the "fruitfulness" of God within His own Divine nature.
This is a very wonderful truth and is sort of satisfying, that God is not lonely, that within the Divine nature, there is not only a Father, but a Son Who loves Him, and a Spirit Who is their bond of love; sort of making a perfect setup, the equivalent and the source of family life.
God realizes that He can share the gift of existence with creatures as part of His power and wisdom. So He wills to create and He dares to create a creature to His own image and likeness. He creates man to His own image and likeness and that means that man has a rational nature, even though his body is fashioned out of the clay of the earth. Because God breathes into this clay a living soul and thus you have in the image of God shadowed in the clay the reality of God, the earnestness of God. God is not setting up a tin solider, or a little plastic figurine. God is in earnest and so you have stemming out of that the first basic vocation of life, which is a very wonderful and a very holy one, the participation in God and with God in carrying on the work of creation, by which you and I had a mother and father and received the gift of life.
So you have the married state as a vocation which is a sublime and holy thing. God has honored man with the dignity of co-creationism, with Himself, of course, in our Catholic philosophy of truth, serving as He did in fashioning the slime of the earth by created forms, yet He breathes into it the living soul. Father and mother gave us [bodily] existence, but God himself creates the soul of man. That's the normal vocation of life to which the vast majority of men and women are called, to participate in the tremendous and holy and joyous work of creating the throb of love that was in the bosom of God from all eternity.
But there is a second and higher phase of God's revelation of divine love. Even as He was creating man, God foresaw that man would abuse his gift of freedom.
From all eternity God foresaw that man would fall into the folly of sin, which we call original sin because it goes back to the origin of the race, and brought it to pass automatically that all the children of men on earth were to stem back to disobedient parents and would have forfeited by the sin of their first parents the tremendous privilege of being conceived in the state of sanctifying grace.
Here we come to the second vocation in which you and I participate. The God Who created man planned from all Eternity the redemption of man. St. John tells us, that "God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son" and the Son so loved us as to give Himself for our salvation. And immediately on earth, there was the vocation of helping Jesus Christ. That help was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Indeed, from the beginning of the race, there were men who felt drawn apart and whom God drew apart to speak to Him and honor Him and offer sacrifice to Him. But we are not concerned now with the priesthood of the Old Testament. We are concerned with the priesthood of the New Testament, with the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Now, what is the basic plan of God; The Incarnation; that His Son without ceasing to be God should become one of us and so in the marvelous graciousness of God, as one woman had brought disgrace upon the whole human race and had opened the top, as it were, of a Pandora's box to allow evil to come into the world, so God looked upon His beautiful image of woman and her disgrace and humiliation. He undid that. He raised her up again by choosing to open the gates of life everlasting through a woman, through Mary. As one woman undid the happiness of God, the second woman would help the second Adam bind up the wounds and open wide the gates by her Son Per Christum Dominum Nostrum.
Thus we have in Christ the beginning of a second vocation, beyond the universal vocation we all have of being called by creation to serve God as human beings. This second vocation began at the Last Supper when Our Lord ordained His first priests. Why?
To pave the way for the continuation of the Incarnation to the end of time. Mary, the Virgin, brought Him into the world and clothed Him with her flesh. It was His intention to be in the world until the end of time. "I will not leave you orphans I will come to you Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world." How was this to be accomplished?
He showed how it was to be accomplished when on the threshold of His Passion, He took the bread and wine, transubstantiated them into His Body and Blood, and then turning to His newly to be ordained priests, He said: "Do this in commemoration of Me" and by those very words ordained them.
In other words, He established another vocation on earth, the tremendous vocation of helping Jesus Christ save mankind; and at the very heart is that vocation in which you participate by your total dedication and consecration and oblation to Our Lord. Our Blessed Lord set at the heart of that vocation His priests, for as the heart in the physical unity and entity of man keeps the blood pulsating to all parts of the body and receives it back again purified, so the priest of God by the pulsation of the words of the consecration of his Mass effects that the Blood of Jesus Christ shall be on earth and shall go forth through the arteries of the sacramental life of the Church; and in the mysterious ways of Divine Grace for the purification of the whole Mystical Body, which we are in God's Holy Spirit.
What are we saying? Are we saying that the priest, offering Mass for us this morning here at the altar, gave to you the same Jesus Christ that Mary gave to the whole world by her unique maternity? Yes!
So the priest by the Consecration of his Mass supplied Jesus Christ and all the priests saying Mass this morning and every morning supply Jesus Christ to the children of men.
Now that involves the coming of Jesus Christ to a real, but mystical sacrifice, the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which all the merit of His bloody sacrifice on Calvary is made available to the children of men, in which He continues ceaselessly, for Masses are being said somewhere in the world at every hour. So unceasingly, Jesus Christ has found through His priests, a way to continue His life of sacrifice. He can no longer suffer, but His priests can suffer for Him.
Therefore, you see how natural and logical it is that as in the Sacrament of Matrimony, when a husband and wife dedicate their bodies and souls exclusively to God and their partnership in God, to work with Him for the creation and training and care of little ones, so how logical it is and what has taken place through the Christian centuries, that the mind of the Spirit of God is expressed in the discipline of God's Church, which asks a man who aspires to this vocation to walk as Christ did without a home of his own and to be so in love with the heart of humanity, that he would not give himself exclusively to any one heart, except the Heart of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the Heart of the Mother of God, to whom it is safe for all of us to give our hearts.
You see the beautiful unfolding of the plan. That is why I have been able to say that God's greatest gift to man is the priesthood, because it gives Christ day by day to mankind. It makes it possible for you to come in here at midnight and find Jesus Christ waiting here for you. It is responsible for your own vocation. You are here because Jesus is here and Jesus would not be here unless a priest had consecrated a Host at Mass.
The second part of Father Gerald's two superlatives follows logically from the first. If the highest of God's grace to us is His priesthood, then the highest form of generosity we can give to God is to correspond with the grace of the priesthood.
We must remember that God and God's grace will never do violence to a human soul. God respects the gift of liberty that He has created. He even inspires parents to recognize this freedom in the children from their earliest days.
A good Christian mother, as she picks up her little one, would say: "Would my little boy like to get up now?" The child might not want to, but at least he says so. She will try to persuade him if he does not. There is respect for the liberty of the individual; that little sovereignty God has established in the soul.
God invites His creatures in the Church today to participate in His life, in the Life of the Adorable Trinity. The vast majority of men and women feel drawn, unless there are some circumstances that prevent it in their life; some obvious obligation like that of a good daughter, who stays at home to take care of her mother, or a son in the family, who sacrifices himself and gives up the establishment of a home of his own because there is no one to take care of the aged parents. The beautiful Providence of God, which extends to every slightest detail of our lives, governs that.
There is no real lasting happiness without discipline in every vocation. Thus we see how God has provided for the happiness of married people through their cooperation with His grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony.
But here and there, God whispers to a boy, a young man, or a widower, a man in mature life -- "Come and help Me and I will make you fishers of men." "Come and walk alone with Me, that I may have the opportunity by your annihilation that Christ shall live in you." And so you have the equivalent of the transubstantiation in the ideal accomplished by the grace of God.
Our Lord is completely dedicated to helping us. What He does, He does with absolute generosity. You have the proof of that in daily Communion for He just doesn't shake hands with you. No, it is the whole Christ who comes to us in the fullness of His divinity and humanity, with His body and soul, entering our body and soul.
And so it is with that other mystical taking over, possession. God wants by grace to transubstantiate His creations until He can say with St. Paul and with all the priests saying to God -- "I live now not I, but Christ lives in me."
So the priest in the ideal fulfillment of his vocation must not only speak the words that turn the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but he must permit himself to be transubstantiated, so he can say by the grace of God: "I live now not I, but Christ lives in me."
That is why, let me say in closing, I believe I am justified in saying that the priesthood is God's greatest gift to man because it gives us Christ in the world today. Its faithful fulfillment is man's greatest gift to God because the priesthood not only gives Christ to man, but gives Christ to God.
In giving Christ to God, it is not only giving the sacramental Christ, but Christ in you. It takes Christ to those dying and able to receive the Last Sacraments. The priest comes and gives Christ to the dying Christians. First of all, he washed that soul in the Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of Penance. He gives it, as it were, a baptism for eternal life in the Sacrament of Anointing. Finally, in Holy Viaticum, he gives the soul Christ and he makes it possible for the soul to give itself to Christ washed and purified and sanctified in the Blood of the Lamb, so that at that moment on the threshold of Eternity, having seen that it was safe in the arms of Christ, we might logically say: "0, My Jesus, I thank You for the Priesthood by which You came to me and I have come safely to You." (J-9, pp. 1-10) 12-16-59
What is Father Gerald saying? He is setting down the two basic ideas that should motivate every Catholic believer: gratitude to God for giving us the priesthood, and concern to make sure that priests are faithful to their sublime vocation.
To be told that, "the priesthood is God's greatest gift to man", does not mean merely that the priesthood is the highest calling a human being can receive from God. More than that, as the continuance of the Incarnation, it is the highest benefit that God, become man, has bestowed on the human race.
Running as a theme throughout his conferences and the foundation of all his apostolic labors was this sense of gratitude that Father Gerald wished to inspire in every believer: God not only became man but He remains man; and as man Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Mass, comes to us in Holy Communion, and lives among us in the Holy Eucharist -- through the priesthood which He instituted at the Last Supper.
But gratitude for the priesthood must be more than sterile sentiment. It should manifest itself in deeds; priests are to live up to their awesome responsibility.
Everything that Father Gerald said or wrote on the subject -- by now in thousands of words; and everything he did Pro Christo Sacerdote, for Christ the Priest -- was somehow an expression of these two principles, like two pillars, on which he built: gratitude and faithfulness.
What bears emphasis, however, is that the duty of thankful fidelity is a two-edged sword. It applies mainly to the priest himself; but not only. The People of God are all beneficiaries of the priesthood. They also have the duty to show their appreciation for this divine gift and, by prayer and sacrifice, to help priests remain faithful to their sublime destiny.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
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