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We Can Achieve What We Will
(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
One evidence of Father Geralds balanced spirituality is the fact that he never lost sight of the human factor in the pursuit of sanctity. He never tired urging priests to pray. And all we have so far seen should make it clear that he looked to divine grace for whatever success a person expects in the ways of God.
At the same time, he had no illusions about God's expectations of man. If we are to pray and beg the divine mercy for help, as though everything depended on Him, we are also to exert ourselves as though everything depended on us.
Father Gerald used the apostles often to illustrate his teaching of priests, and for the present purpose he found the combination of Matthias and Judas especially instructive. Matthias was chosen to replace Judas because Judas had freely decided to betray the Master. Matthias, therefore, exemplifies one of the great fundamentals in the priestly life, the fact of human liberty. "We cannot think of St. Matthias without thinking of Judas who could have been a saint; but he did not want to.
Before us in our individual souls is set the tremendous privilege, the tremendous reality of the liberty of our individual free will. We can achieve what we will. We can become saints of God. We can make a tremendous contribution individually to the application of the generosity of Divine Love as waiting for man in the Divine Treasury of the Sacred Heart. God's desire is to save and sanctify mankind. He could have done it all alone but there certainly is a certain reasonableness that God should call upon His image to cooperate in the salvation of others. (C-88).
In one sense, every human being who has reached the age of reason is thus called to cooperate, not only in his own salvation but in the salvation of others. We are our brothers', and sisters', keepers. But from the dawn of salvation history, some people are called to a special, and more intimate, cooperation with the salvific plan of God. The ancient patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; then Moses and Aaron; and after them all the prophets, from the great ones like Isaiah and Jeremiah, to the lesser ones like Nahum and Osee. Without exception, they were chosen by Yahweh to be His spokesmen, through no merit of their own, but only because they were to be the channels of His will and the instruments of His grace to the People of Israel.
With the coming of Christ, there was no change in the divine economy of salvation. What the patriarchs and prophets were in the Old Law, the apostles and their successors -- on a higher and more sublime level -- became in the New Dispensation. It is in this context that bishops and priests become part of God's mysterious Providence.
He has invited us from among all the thousands of mankind. He has called upon priests to help Him in the salvation of our fellow men. 0 Lord what a privilege. Thou who art God hast invited me a little creature to come and help You to save the world. Why? That is veiled in the mysterious depths of Thy predilection and of Thy love, for when God calls a man to a special service, He does so out of love. We see that most clearly illustrated in the story of a young man who did not answer that call. The young man who asked Our Lord: What must I do to gain eternal life? And Our Lord said to him: Keep the Commandments. And he said with simplicity: All these I have done since my youth. And Our Lord looked upon his soul and it is said that Our Lord loved him, and He said: If thou wouldst be perfect, go sell what thou hast and come follow Me an invitation. And the young man went away sorrowing because he had many possessions. But out Lord's love was the source of the call He looked upon him and loved him and He called him.
And so our dear Lord looked upon our souls very early and perhaps revealing His love only when we were comparatively mature. He looked upon us and loved us and called us. And that same love because it is His love, is still anxious to have us fulfill our first vocation. And not only fulfill it but gives us a unique privilege of extending the invitation of love to those who have betrayed Our Lord. (C-89).
While these words were originally spoken to the Paracletes, whom Father Gerald was training for work among stray shepherds, they apply with equal vigor to all priests. They are all chosen by the Savior to labor with Him in reconciling sinners with their Creator. But the degree of their priestly zeal depends on how clearly they recognize their own indispensable role as, willing agents in the hands of a merciful God. "He has actually made us free", either to respond to His vocation or refuse to follow Him in the priesthood; and again either to generously cooperate with the Savior in the priestly apostolate or selfishly hold back.
Father Gerald was speaking in 1955 when he declared that, "we are approaching a time in the world when there is a subtle propaganda to destroy the actual recognition of free will." (C-90). The social and psychological sciences are conspiring to reduce man to a mere robot, and his actions to the product of heredity, environment and education. On these premises, Christianity becomes a myth and the function of sacraments and the priesthood a fraud. What Father Gerald saw here was the modern residue of what in the sixteenth century invaded the Western world as Calvinism. But Calvinism then and determinism today are not true. They are in open contradiction to the whole message of the Gospels, and priests had better awake to the danger that faces modern man under the guise of emancipating him.
The whole philosophy of the Son of God dying, means that He was trying to reach their free will: He is appealing to their free will. He is recognizing their free will and supplying a motive to entice the free will of man by the movement of grace of course to submit their will to God freely and thus enter into eternal life. "Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into My heavenly Kingdom, but he who does the Will of My Father." He who substitutes the Will of God for his own little will, shall enter into the Kingdom. The choice is reserved to each individual soul. Before man are two highroads -- the highroad of God's beautiful Will and the highroad of his own will and every man including every priest makes choice of which way he will travel. Therefore, if God has elected us, we must ratify that election and for God, we must choose God. So great is the independence of God in us, the liberty of God in us that God solicits as a lover asks for a lover's consent for a marriage contract, so Our Lord tells us: Behold I stand at the door and knock. Notice He doesn't force His way in. He doesn't break in. He waits for the door to be opened at His knock. He waits for man to correspond with His grace, to ratify the choice that God is offering him. (C90-91).
The implications of this philosophy are far-reaching. Contrary to the world's philosophy, that is forever talking about freedom, while denying it in practice, the philosophy of Christ recognizes that we are free human beings, capable of either loving God by doing His will, or rejecting God by doing our own will in contradiction to His.
It must seem ironical for Father Gerald to be so insisting on human freedom in directing priests, when the popular image of a priest is of one whose main role is to inhibit human freedom by telling people what they are obliged or forbidden to do.
But that is precisely where the error of modern amorality needs to be exposed. Critics of the Church, or of the priesthood, when it is faithful to Christ, forget that the whole of God's law is an expression of God' s love. He forbids and commands us not to inhibit our liberty but to keep us truly free by doing, not what we please but what He knows will make us happy, both now and in eternity. Once this fact dawns on a person, he will respond with "a lover's consent" to what God "solicits as a lover" from His creatures.
If a priest needs to keep the beauty of human freedom always before his eyes, and never tire of teaching it to others, he must also remember that his own will has been weakened by sin and therefore needs constant strengthening by self-denial and prayer.
Never forget that "the will is strengthened by exercising it, just as the will is weakened by the failure to exercise it." This simple truth, put into practice, produces saints.
Watch a football squad that trains zealously -- they do this to give themselves strength and ability when the real contest comes. If we do not deny ourselves the little things, if we do not in the secret of our own little hidden life exercise, agere contra, our will will grow flabby and then some day when a major assault is made against the will, we will not be prepared. Peter failed Our Lord when he had permitted himself the indulgence of warming his fingers, a very simple and little indulgence, but was it in keeping when the Son of God was mocked and spat upon and insulted? It was an act of self-indulgence that took Peter off his guard and made it possible for a strong courageous man to become a liar and a traitor to his Master.
Quietly, each in your own way, strengthen your wills dear Fathers. Keep back the little word, keep back the little taste of satisfaction of some appetite, curb the little bit of mental or physical curiosity, exercise in a hidden way your will in "agens contra" the natural satisfactions of life. And what comes from that? When the time comes for the Master to ask you to ascend the Cross with Him, you will be prepared. The man who does not die to self every day, in the little things, will not be able in the end to die to self in the greater things without some special dispensation of divine Mercy. (Cshy;123).
There is more here than meets the eye. For one who believes in Christ and is a priest of God, this is not mere voluntary discipline. It is imitation of the Master. Choose by preference until it becomes habitual, what the Lord wants.
Will what God wills, not only sentimentally, not only emotionally, not only with your lips, not only with your heart, but with your will, will the Will of God. Go to Gethsemane and see there the Son of God placing Himself, under emotional stress, that which alone could bring distress to an All-holy Man -- to be identified with the rebellion of rebellious beings. His lips to be identified with all the lies and blasphemies and evil speaking, His hands to be identified with all the acts of impurity and violent murder. We could go on but what is the need? He flung Himself deliberately into a situation where His whole Being cried out. Because of His very holiness -- strange paradox of His vocation -- to become SIN to redeem sinners, to become the scapegoat. And the very moment when His whole soul revolted because of His holiness of becoming identified with sin, abandoned Himself, and as all men by the essence of their sin turn and say: I will not -- to God, He said: I will. But He wanted us to know that He did it purely and completely in abandonment to the Divine Will. (C-124).
No one is saying this is easy, as no one claims this comes either naturally or without a struggle. But that is why Christ gave us the awesome manifestation of His humanity in the Garden of Olives. He showed that a person can be very holy and completely resigned as He was, to Divine Providence, and yet experience (at times) the agony of conflict between the indeliberate will of a creature and the manifest and demanding Will of God.
One final, and strong recommendation: Pray for a strong will. All that has been said so far assumes that we have the grace to do what our minds tell is plainly the Will of God. But without prayer the grace will be lacking.
Dear Fathers, beg God to give you a good will. We recognize it in others do we not? This is the great thing that we pray and hope for in the priests who come to us that we may help them here under God to rebuild their lives. We are lost, we get nowhere unless there is good will. That is all that God has blessed on earth, is it not? He made that careful distinction and had His angels express it at the moment when heaven was radiant in its own generosity, when the night was filled with the music of the angel choirs. And what is it that they are proclaiming? Not peace on earth to everyone but only peace on earth to men of good will. (C-120, C-121).
And what is a good will? A good will is one that is habitually disposed to do God's will. Why is it a good will? Because only in doing what God wants are we achieving what is truly good in our own lives, here and hereafter; and what is truly good for others, in terms of their best interests, even in this life and certainly in the life to come.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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