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Relationship to Christ
(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Christ was the center of everything that Father Gerald wrote or said on the priesthood. Whether exhorting priests to be faithful to their calling, or recalling them to the responsibility they have to the Church of God, the main focus was always on their relationship to Christ. It is His call that leads a man to the altar; it is His grace that sustains him in priestly fidelity; it is His Kingdom that the priest is to labor for and spend himself in saving. In a word, there is only one priesthood, that of Jesus Christ, in which some men are undeservingly privileged to share.
With his characteristic imagery, Father Gerald resorts to many figures of speech to bring out the implications of this relationship but there are some that are fundamental. Certain attributes of the Savior by which He is known in the New Testament, become the key analogies between the chief High Priest and the men whom He ordained to cooperate in His sacerdotal ministry.
Lamb of God
The Sacred Scriptures, and especially the Gospels, are filled with comparisons between the mysteries of faith and things that are known naturally. And always the purpose is to make the mystery either intelligible at all or to bring out its depth of meaning in a way that would be impossible without such comparisons.
Among these analogies, one of the most expressive is the title given to Jesus by John the Baptist when he saw the Savior coming to him. "Look," he said, "there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The same title, lower case, can be applied to every priest.
Why the association? Because of the virtues that Christ wants priests to imitate in following Him, and because of their unique role in the redemption of mankind.
Paradoxical, is it not? The One Who has infinite power, yet nevertheless has willed to conquer the souls of men only by His merciful love, by His meekness and by His forbearance.
The lamb is identified in virtue with gentleness; meekness and liturgically with sacrifice, the immolation of self, and so I propose to you as part of our vocation, identification with the Lamb of God.
Every priest is supposed to be identified with Christ Who is always not only priest but victim. A priest must aspire not only for the very fulfillment of our priesthood in Christ Jesus, we must not only be offering Him but we must be capable of being offered by Him. (C-31, -32).
Revelation tells the believer that "only by sacrifice does God remove sin." So only by our sacrifice shall we remove our own sins and those of our fellowmen.
Without sacrifice we are not Christians and without specific sacrifice we shall never accomplish in its wholesomeness the vocation to which God has called us.
What is the essence of sin? The essence of sin is the refusal of the human will to sacrifice itself, even to the Will of God. The little entity, created entity yet immortal, endowed with immortality, knows the Will of God and then deliberately chooses its own will in preference to the Will of God. So the essence of sin is the substitution of one's own will for the Divine Will; and the essence of reparation is conversely, sacrifice of one's own will to the Divine Will. It is said of the Divine Lamb of God that He was "obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross." (C-32).
How does this affect a priest? Very intimately. If the essence of reparation for sin is sacrifice, and if priests are to be other Christs, then God asks of them "the immolation of their own wills to the Divine Will."
Among the forms of immolation, "sacrifices that come directly from the Will of God," like ill-health, rejection or "any one of a thousand different afflictions into which one's own will enters only in the acceptance, are preferable in the spiritual life to those that are chosen by our own will." (Cshy;32).
What, then, is the role of meekness and gentleness in the life of a priest if he is to imitate Christ, the Lamb of God? It is the all-important role of not resisting the Divine Will. After all, what is meekness if not the virtue that moderates anger; and in this case controls the natural tendency of the human will to resent the sometimes hard expectations of a demanding God. And gentleness is simply interior meekness carried into external practice.
It is not strange, therefore, to identify a priest with the Lamb of God because it is perfectly normal to associate the priesthood with sacrifice. But with one important addition. The more willingly a man allows himself to be sanctified, the more fruitful will be his priestly ministry. That is why the laudable ambition of every priest should be that Christ "may echo the words we say to Him; and as we call Him the Lamb of God, so He may in the depths of His Heart smile and say, 'Yes, and this is my lamb, this is my priest who is in Me and with Me, and by My strength and love is also a lamb for sacrifice."' (C-32).
The model of the Lamb of God as a pattern for priests to imitate was only the first step in an extended comparison between Christ and those whom He ordained for His service. Father Gerald proceeded to build a whole edifice of priestly virtues on this foundation, using St. Peter as his guide. "Remember," the apostle told the first Christians, "the ransom that was paid to free you from the useless way of life your ancestors handed down was not paid in anything corruptible, neither in silver nor gold, but in the precious blood of a Lamb without spot or stain, namely Christ." (1 Peter 1:18-19).
But if Christ as the Lamb of God shed His Blood for the salvation of the world, then priests are to shed their blood, according to God's Will, in union with the Savior and in order to apply the fruits of His redemption.
Perhaps no single New Testament term for the redemptive work of Christ appears more often in Father Gerald than "the Precious Blood".
Some twenty years before his death, he wrote a short essay on "The Precious Blood and the Priest", that should be quoted almost in full.
The Precious Blood of Jesus obviously belongs to all men, insomuch as for all men without exception it was poured out on Calvary.
Nevertheless it will be profitable for us priests to reflect upon our special relationship with the Redeeming Blood of Christ.
These reflections tend to make the thoughtful priest anxious to deepen his gratitude and devotion to the Precious Blood, to quicken his desire to offer the Chalice of Salvation with greater tenderness, reverence, and humility, and to resolve to glorify the Blood of Jesus by lifelong fidelity to that priestly self-discipline of which the Blood of Jesus is both the Source, Inspiration and Everlasting Reward.
May the Blood of Jesus quicken us to the glory of God and the salvation of immortal souls. (Sponsor, July, 1950).
On the theme of the Precious Blood is woven practically every feature of the priesthood, especially the responsibility it imposes on the ordained to be worthy witnesses of the Savior, Who is now saving souls through their sacramental ministry.
"How I rejoice with you," Father Gerald writes to a fellow priest who is being sorely tried in his labors, "Jesus loves you. He proves it by giving you, by sharing with you, His own, His very own priesthood. How can you ever repay Him?" The answer is by uniting your trials with those of the Savior.
0 my Brother, do not drink the Chalice of the Lord only at the visible altar, but let your soul be His temple, your heart His invisible altar, and there drink the mystical chalice of Our Lord's sufferings, sacrifices, humiliations, disappointments. If you only pray, pray perseveringly to His Spirit and to His Mother, all will go well.
I shall pray for you always, and you must do the same for me. God has given me, these many years, the grace to recognize that neither race nor color counts with Him and consequently should not count with us; we are brothers -- we who share His Priesthood, we who have Christ as an Eldest Brother and His Blood as the Sacred Bond of our amity. (Letter of Father Page, pp. 178-9).
He opens a letter to a young man about to be ordained, with the greeting, "with what joy I write you this letter in the Blood of Jesus. I can almost feel the Precious Blood falling on my hands as I write, for am I not a priest, and am I not writing to one who is so soon to be a priest and hold the Precious Blood lovingly aloft before the eyes of the world in the chalice of his virgin soul!"
So you are to be a chalice, my Brother, a chalice for Christ, with Christ, in Christ, and you will find it sweet, I am sure, for you will be generous.
When a priest is generous with God, or even tries to be, he is bound to be happy. This truth holds true in all vocations but perhaps in no vocation so assuredly as in that of the Priesthood, for when a priest tries to be generous, he is dealing directly with God and God is divinely generous.
Be, therefore, dear Brother, generous with Christ; ask Him to make of your soul a Roman chalice, with the broad, heavy base of humility, the straight stem of singleness of purpose, and the ample, wide cup of generosity. Ask His Holy Spirit, as well, to adorn it with the virtue -- gems that shall delight both God and His angels. And as for me, I shall daily ask Our Blessed Mother to keep your chalice and mine and the souls of all priests, our brothers in Christ, chaste and holy and thus less unworthy of the lips and the Blood of Jesus Christ. (Letters of Father Page, 169-170).
Still again, he writes to a priest to remind him that this is precisely what the priesthood means, a lifetime sharing in the Passion of Christ. But the strength to live this life is always there, in the Precious Blood which the priest is both to consecrate and, by consuming, imitate for the upbuilding of Christ's Body which is the Church.
In a true priest, God has given, man has given -- the result is a work of Love, Divine and human. The Priesthood offers man the supremest way of giving all to God. This is what Our Lord meant when, turning to those same sons of Zebedee, He asked them quietly, "Can you drink of My Chalice?"
That is what the Priesthood really means, a chance to drink of the Chalice of Our Lord, a chance to add your life and blood to His life and Blood; a chance to lift His Chalice to your lips and the chalice of your soul to His lips; a chance to give till there is nothing left to give -- till the arms of death receive you from the arms of the cross and lift you to the arms of Jesus and His Mother Mary. (Letters of Father Page, pp. 159-160).
Finally, in a letter to his ordination class, on their anniversary of receiving the priesthood, Father Gerald goes back in memory over "the years that have slipped between. We are still young, are we not, still newly ordained? I hope so, still with our first fervor and zeal and innocence, preserved for us by the Blood of Christ!"
It is this Blood of Christ, which they daily bring down on the altar, that unites priests in a blood relationship of grace that has no human counterpart.
How closely one in spirit should we be -- we priests -- seeing that morning by morning the Same Blood purples our lips, crimsons our hearts, purifies our souls. Why should we not be one in heart, and mind and soul, we priests of Jesus, nourished by the Blood of His One Heart. Why should we not be joyous, we who have such a daily pledge of His undying love. Why should we not be holy, we who are inebriated with the Life Blood of God's Holy One. "I know Thee, who Thou art," cried out the evil spirit. "Thou Holy One of God!" Every priest should be able to win like recognition from the foes of God and Holy Church. There is a mysterious force in real holiness; it can win recognition even from the devil, not to say from men.
But I am wandering. What I want to ask is this: Have you ever felt after the Communion of the Precious Blood, a sense of humility, born of the realization of the greatness of His giving and the littleness of ours? 0, if ever God, Who is Generosity Divine, has been generous, it is with us, His priests, He has been generous. Others, Christ has made His children. Of us -- He has made Himself.
With feeble recognition and thin gratitude we answer all this Largesse of Almighty God. Like James and John, He has invited us to drink of His Chalice -- we have and shall do so faithfully day by day. It has all been very sweet thus far, and I trust we shall grow stronger so that we may drink the dregs of bitterness and trial as unhesitatingly as we have supped of the depths of devotion and consolation. Are you prepared for this? We priests must be preparing for Gethsemane even while we dwell on Tabor. When we shall have emptied Life's chalice -- we shall be given another brimming one -shy;overflowing with eternal joy. (Letters of Father Page, pp. 161-162).
Given this penetrating grasp of the mission of a priest, sent into the world to help redeem the world by his life of sacrifice, it was only natural that Father Gerald should name the community of Sisters he founded, Handmaids of the Precious Blood. They were to be just that, servants of the Savior Who shed His Blood to reconcile sinners with the Father. But their mission was to be very specific, to sacrifice their lives for priests, the faithful ones so they might remain loyal to the Master, and for those who had strayed so they might return to the One Who ordained them.
"The great mistake," the Handmaids were told, "of the priests who fail God is that they forget that the priest must also be the victim." Someone, then, must pray and make reparation where priests have failed to do so. The Handmaids, therefore, and the faithful they inspire to join them, must "identify yourselves with the Precious Blood by a willingness to suffer, not in some way you choose, but in the way He chooses. A victim does not choose his own form of immolation; that is for the one making the sacrifice, that is for your Divine Lover to choose."
And what is the value of this kind of immolation, "what becomes of this sacrifice?" Those for whom it is offered, in the spirit of faith, are immensely benefited by God's grace. "The priest who not only is priest but victim immediately becomes powerful in Christ to do what Christ has done. What is that? Raise souls to life again in the Sacrament of Penance, and the priest becomes another Christ, saying to a soul, 'Lazarus, come forth'." (J-6, 66-67).
In this vision of the priesthood, priests need the faithful to join with them in sacrifice for the continued saving work of the Precious Blood of Christ.
The very idea of cooperating with Christ requires an intimacy with Christ on which the priest must presume. Otherwise what he expects Our Lord to do through him would be folly, if not blasphemy. There must be a nearness to the Son of God that is logically prior to a priest's claim to being an instrument of God's grace.
Father Gerald identified this nearness with the title by which the Savior more than once called Himself, namely The Bridegroom. There is, of course, a prior and universal sense in which Christ is the Bridegroom of every soul that believes in Him, and the writings of the mystics abound in rich imagery of supernatural espousal between Christ and the devoted faithful who love Him.
Then, building on the teaching of many Fathers of the Church, Father Gerald saw in the miracle at the marriage feast at Cana a perfect symbol of the Incarnation, which is the fundamental marvel of Christianity. In this miracle of miracles, "the Son of God was wedding human nature. He was taking human nature unto Himself by the hypostatic union, and in the virginal womb of His Mother, He was wedding humanity." (C-25).
But if all of this is true of people in general, and of those who are Christians, it is more than ever true of those whom Christ has ordained to the priesthood. "Especially and immediately," we must say, Christ "was wedding humanity in the souls and bodies of those who would be privileged, day by day as we are, His priests to bend over a little white host and identify it with ourselves." This calls for some explanation.
A priest is wedded to Christ. Our parents were wedded to Christ and in Christ that in their oneness of living in God they should continue the work of creation. You and I, dear Fathers, are wedded to Christ not for a sexual purpose, but for a purpose of intimate union that has in mind the redemption of mankind and our union is superior to the sacrament of matrimony because in matrimony it is two creatures, there are two created lovers who are united in one uncreated love and lovers. But in our union with Christ there is no other created being concerned in the oneness itself; a Divine person takes the place of a human person, a Divine person Who utilizes all our powers of body and soul for the accomplishment and continuation and especially for the fulfillment of the unloosening of the great channels of salvation, the reservoir of salvation that He established in His Passion. And that He releases to the world only through our passion, only through our passion. (C-25).
The implications of this fact are startling, but also predictable. If a priest is to become as fruitful in the salvation of souls as Christ wants him to be, he has no choice. He must join sacrifice with sacrifice, his own with that of the Redeemer. And among the sacrifices that a priest must make, his lifelong celibacy has special efficacy in rearing a supernatural offspring for God.
He cannot be a fruitful partner to Christ except by abiding in Christ and giving Christ that sovereignty of love that belongs in the -- matrimony to -- mutually one partner to another. We are like the Blessed Mother fruitful to God -- wedded to God in virginity and fruitful to God in absolute chastity, as she brought forth, without the sacrifice or the impairment of her virginity, her absolute immaculate virginity. So the priest brings forth Christ at the altar day by day and the more like the Blessed Mother he is in his virginal heart and chaste and disciplined body so much the more joyously does the Son of God rest in his arms. (C-26).
There is an implicit covenant in all of this, between the priest and Christ. Absolutely speaking, because he has the power of orders, a priest can validly consecrate and validly absolve no matter what his state of soul may be. And the Church has more than once condemned the error of those who would identify a priest's ability to exercise his sacramental powers with the sanctity of his personal life.
But there is more here than just a re-affirmation of the sacrament of orders, which, as a sacrament, has the built-in ability to confer the grace it signifies. What Father Gerald is arguing for is the terrible need for sanctity in priests. Otherwise, they will have the power to confer the sacraments but people may not be ready to accept their priestly ministrations and God will not use them to the limit of their capacity as channels of His saving mercy. This applies with special poignancy to the people's use of the sacrament of penance. And it points up the significance of what Pope John Paul II told the American Bishops on his pilgrimage to America. "In the face of a widespread phenomenon of our time," said the Pope, "namely that many of our people, who are among the great numbers who receive Communion, make little use of confession, we must emphasize Christ's basic call to conversion. We must also stress that the personal encounter with the forgiving Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation is a divine means which keeps alive in our hearts and our communities, a consciousness of sin in its perennial and tragic reality, and which actually brings forth, by the action of Jesus and the power of His Spirit, fruits of conversion in justice and holiness of life." (Address of Pope John Paul II, to the American Bishops, Chicago, October 5, 1979).
Father Gerald would say that one conclusion to be drawn from this is the need for greater holiness in priests. They must be personally nearer in spirit to the Bridegroom of their souls.
On the one hand, priests are gifted with divine powers for healing sinners that have been the scandal of unbelievers.
You can go as far as you like as long as you go with reverence and meekness and humility in thinking of the identity of a priest with Christ. He shares with us according as we are willing to have Him share with us, as far as we are interested in Him, in proportion as He is the dominant love of our souls, He shares with us His own ineffable life. He will forgive sin through us the great barrier between souls and the Kingdom of heaven. Who can forgive sin, they said, when He started to exercise His magnificent mercy of God -- who can forgive sin but God? Which after all, is theologically and philosophically true, but Christ was God, and when we forgive sin as His delegates, it is He Who forgives. Christ is in us, is in the faithful priest reconciling the world to His Father. How wonderful! And how wonderful our vocation! "For Christ," St. Paul says, "we are ambassadors." We're more than ambassadors. Oftentimes an ambassador must communicate back by radio or in one way or another -- cable -- with the one who is greater than he, the one who has sent him, the President or the Minister or the Chancellor or the Secretary of State to whom he is immediately responsible. We don't need to do that. Christ liveth in us, the Divine Supreme King of Kings. We are His ambassadors but we are also identified with the King much more fully than any ambassador. He ratifies our works, He ratifies our decisions: "Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven; whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound also in heaven." That's more than an ambassador can do.
The contracts that we make are signed by us and as we sign them, Christ signs them with the Blood of His Heart, He writes the receipt in full for our absolutions. 0 how marvelous is the life of a priest! It is Jesus Christ finding another way to live on in the world and to go about doing good. (Cshy;26, C-27).
Since the priesthood is so powerful to reconcile sinners with God, and draw them away from evil, the devil is most eager to draw priests away from sanctity. He knows he cannot deprive a priest of his sacerdotal power to remove sin, but if he succeeds in seducing a priest from nearness to Christ, he has weakened the priest's influence with the people. The evil spirit is very shrewd.
Just because a priest can be and ought to be and if he lives according to his conscience and to the grace of his apostolate as Christ in the world, just because this is true, he is the particular object of the malice of the devil. The evil spirit -- the forces of evil would rather eliminate one priest than a thousand layman. They would rather bring one priest to disgrace than a thousand laymen. It is more advantageous to the interests of evil. (C-27).
No wonder priests can say, "How precious is our vocation in the sight of God. How terrible is our vocation in the sight of demons. Because this is true, you must be vigilant in guarding your own immortal souls." If as great a priest as St. Paul could beg the Christians of his day, "Pray for me, lest having preached to others, I myself become a castaway," how much more should others who are less holy than Paul ask the faithful, that as priests they remain faithful to the great privilege of saving souls.
Perhaps nowhere else did Father Gerald show himself more prophetic than what he foresaw would take place before the end of the twentieth century: a massive and successful propaganda against the existence of sin. With the notion of sin removed or obscured, it is easy to reduce the priesthood to an archaic form of piety that has no particular value in modern society.
One of the most important things that we must emphasize in our own lives is what the devil in the twentieth century is very cleverly trying to soften, trying to make men forget. It is quite simple because the mercy of God is over all His work, because modern science investigating the humanity of man, the corporeal nature of man finds so many things that lessen -- that tend to lessen so many pressures and areas of pressure upon his soul that they can find subtle excuses for the aberrations of the human soul. Even in Catholic theology and I make this as a prophecy, there will come a time when the Holy Father will have to speak out against the infiltration of philosophical and kindred ideas that tend to lessen the responsibility of man for his actions.
It was necessary for Our Lord to speak of the Holy Spirit as convincing the world of sin. Chesterton has told us that one of the great sins, one of the basic sins of our age, was the denial of sin. (C-28).
The logic of the evil spirit is perfect. He knows that, as the reality of sin becomes less clear, the people's sense of guilt is weakened and gradually disappears. What is the purpose of confession, or the sacrament of penance or, for that matter, of a priesthood that allegedly was instituted by Christ to remit sin and restore sinners to friendship with God? Forgiveness implies the existence of sin that needs to be forgiven. But if practically no one commits mortal sins anymore, what is the meaning of the sacrament of reconciliation, except as the relic of a former, theologically unenlightened age?
Father Gerald could be outspoken, when the occasion called for righteous indignation. That is why he warned priests of the erroneous ideas that were looming over the horizon.
You make a mockery of the Cross, dear Fathers, you make a mockery of our religion, you make a mockery of the daily Mass, if there is not such a thing as sin and hell. The life of Our Lord becomes -- as it is in reality, not becomes, as it is in reality -- a road-block cast up by Divine mercy, to try to stop millions from casting themselves into hell. God was not bluffing when He permitted His Divine Son to be nailed to a cross. (C-28).
Consequently, remaining faithful to Christ means remaining docile to His teachings. And among these teachings none is more crucial than the Savior's doctrine on sin. We commonly associate a temptation of the devil with being seduced to indulge in unlawful pleasures. But the devil is also, and principally, a deceiver. He tries to make us believe that what is, in fact, a lie is actually the truth.
In this critical area, on which the whole structure of Christianity depends, everyone must ask for light not to be deceived. "The Eternal Word, without whom the Father does nothing that He does, was not bluffing, was not making merely a gesture, when He whispered in the agony in the Garden, 'Pray that you fall not into temptation.' " No one is excluded from this necessity to ask for divine assistance. Certainly, "priests . . . and bishops are not exempted." Indeed, "all of us must turn to this Divine Bridegroom" in constant prayer so as not to be deceived by the evil spirit. (C-29).
There is one more relationship to Christ that Father Gerald urges priests to foster, namely as the Way.
True enough, when the Savior said He was the Way, He meant that for all mankind He is the unique path to the Father, and the only road that anyone who wants to be saved must follow. But the same title has a distinctive meaning for priests. "The Incarnate Word comes to every priest not only out of personal love but He also says to that priest, 'Clothe Me with your flesh, clothe Me with your blood, give Me your lips that I may speak, for I am the Truth.' " (C-116).
In other words, Christ is the Way not only as the channel of mercy and pattern of sanctity for the priest himself, but also the Way by which He uses the priest to serve as vehicle of grace and model of holiness for others. In effect, Christ tells the priest: "Give Me your heart that I may love mankind, give Me your eyes that I may look out with compassion on the multitudes, give Me your mind that I may flood it with the love of faith, give Me your feet that they may take Me on sick calls, that I may go to the sick and dying, that I may go to the fallen nations that sit in darkness." (C-116).
The Savior asks the priest to leave all things; to become another Christ; to leave his own mother in imitation of Christ. And above all, "to leave his one little ugly ego, to die to himself and allow Christ to live within him.
He asks for everything a priest has. And that is why our vocation is so sublime and also so difficult for human nature. We must be totally capitulated to Christ. Think of the magnificent truth contained in those words of St. Paul: "I live, no not I, but Christ liveth in me." The Holy Spirit compelled him to say those words. The Son of God dominated Paul and the Son of God wants to dominate us. So you see there is for us a sursom Corda, an Ascension required even on earth: we must ascend out of our nothingness, we must ascend into the Heart and Mind of Christ, so that we have no mind but Christ, no heart but Christ's Heart, no hands but Christ's hands. That's what it means: "I am dead," again as St. Paul, "I am dead, and my life is hidden with Christ in God." So the individual priest, like Mary, is the object of love of the whole adorable Trinity. We must surrender to Christ, we must belong to Him. (C-117).
What are the consequences of such total surrender? Men of this caliber become potent instruments of divine blessing. "When we belong to Him, He uses us as a Via, we become part of the Way. A good priest is the highway of salvation for thousands of souls." Take the case of St. John Vianney.
To the Cure of Ars, God forced the evil spirit to say: "You have taken eighty thousand souls away from me." Isn't that magnificent? Even apart from that, think of the priests who went to confession to him and who went back to their parishes, to their religious communities, the Bishops who went back to their dioceses with a new life and who themselves spread the flame that had been rekindled at the hearth of this parish priest. See what is given to us in our vocation. (C-117, C-118).
Such is the high calling, and also the grave responsibility, of every priest. The Master wants to use him as the way that leads others to heaven and sanctification. And he will be as effective in the hands of Christ as he is united with the Heart of Christ. This is the verdict of, by now, nineteen centuries of the Church's history.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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