Defenders of the Church and the City
“If you demand my person, I am ready to submit. Take me to prison or to death, I will not resist. But I will never betray the Church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to assist me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.” – St. Ambrose of Milan (c.338-397)
In the years 385-386 a storm broke over the Church in the Roman empire: the Emperor Valentinian followed by many, even army officers and priests, declared himself to be no longer Catholic but Arian. The swell in the numbers of Arian worshippers led them to try to appropriate Catholic churches for their use. Accordingly the governor of Milan went to the basilica to persuade Bishop Ambrose to hand one over to the sect, little expecting that the bishop would refuse – after all, nobody refused the Emperor. Yet that is exactly what the saint did, shortly afterwards repeating it in the declaration quoted above: the Roman empire learned that Ambrose of Milan (c.338 – 397) was not a priest to flinch from the danger involved in defending the honor of God.
However the most dramatic confrontation was still to come. In 390 Valentinian’s successor, the fiery Theodosius, fell into a fit of rage and ordered a massacre in Thessalonica in retaliation for the murder of the local governor by rioters. What ensued in the amphitheatre of the city was nothing less than a bloodbath as soldiers relentlessly slaughtered 7,000 people during three hours.
When Ambrose heard of it he knew it was his God-given duty to confront the ruler: such a sin could not go unpunished nor would God’s honor tolerate a man reeking with innocent blood crossing the threshold of his temple. Nevertheless the bishop weighed his decision carefully; he travelled into the country for some days and only then did he write to the Emperor telling him that he could no longer be present at the Holy Sacrifice or receive Holy Communion – in other words, that he was excommunicated. This is the dramatic confrontation symbolized by the imaginary confrontation at the doors of the basilica of Milan, depicted by Anthony van Dyck.
The confrontation was dramatic but it was not done by a bishop spoiling for a fight: “Look”, he stated on one occasion, “kings should not be recklessly attacked by God’s prophets and priests unless there are very serious sins they must be charged with; where there are such, then you should not forgive but correct with just reproaches”. But unfortunately such a moment had arrived and the true priest who lived in God’s presence and knew that he had to defend God’s honor and his people’s safety – even if it meant opposing the most powerful man in the world – knew there could be no backing down.
Even still, his letter to the head of state is a carefully drafted composition aimed at awakening the soul of Theodosius. It begins ever so gently: “Sweet to me is the recollection of your friendship in the past…”. In the same tone: “I am writing with my own hand what you alone may read”. Later on: “These things I have written not to disconcert you but that the examples of kings may stir you to remove this sin from your kingdom, for you will remove it by humbling your soul before God. You are a man, you have met temptation – conquer it. Sin is not removed except by tears and penance.”.
However the bottom-line is clear when he tells the emperor he is excommunicating him: “I have no charge of arrogance against you, but I do have one of fear. I dare not offer the Holy Sacrifice if you intend to be present. Can that which is not allowable, after the blood of one man is shed, be allowable when many persons’ blood was shed? I think not.”
“Should I keep silence? Then would my conscience be bound, my voice snatched from me – most wretched of all conditions. And where would be the significance of the saying that if a bishop declare not to the wicked man, the wicked man shall die in his iniquity, and the bishop shall be guilty of punishment because he has not warned the wicked?”
The great priest concluded his letter with the words: “If you trust me, follow me; if , I say, you trust me, acknowledge what I say; if you do not trust me, pardon what I do in esteeming God more than you.”
Reading those lines, Theodosius, the proud soldier with hot Spanish blood gazed into the eyes of a man whom he knew to be a man of God and over several months did public penance for his sin. By Christmas he had completed it, the possibility of the sin of scandal had been averted, Ambrose announced his forgiveness and the head of state crossed again the threshold of the church. Moreover the emperor promulgated a wise decree stating that thirty days should always intervene between a death sentence and its execution.
Theodosius said afterwards that during his life he had known only one true bishop.
In any age the importance of the priest’s leadership cannot be overestimated either to Church or nation. Leadership is exercised at many different levels – media, sports, business, army, politics, academia – but the most serious – putting all others in its shadow – is the leading of men to God because that involves not only their time but their eternity. Moreover the only men nominated by God for this role are those consecrated by him through his Church: priests, said St. Ambrose, are the “leaders and governors of the flock of Christ”; they are, according to St. John Chrysostom, the “interpreters of the divine judgments”, the “vicars of Christ”(St. Denis).
If this is not the most daunting leadership position in life, what is? If this does not provoke at times a healthy sense of trepidation, something is not functioning for men of integrity who have leadership thrust upon them should have a healthy restlessness about their role, as Homer noted in the Illiad writing about the Greek king Agamemnon:
“Inspired with Nestor’s voice and sent by Zeus, the dream cried out, ‘Still asleep, Agamemnon?… How can you sleep all night, a man weighed down with duties? Your armies turning over their lives to your command – responsibilities so heavy.”
For just as army officers are responsible for the well-being and safety of their soldiers, so are priests for their people’s spiritual well-being. Just as officers answer to higher authority for these lives, so will priests answer for their leadership of peoples souls when the “Book of Life” is opened (Rev.20:12).
What is leadership anyway? A London consultant had spent years researching the implications of leadership when one day he stumbled across a definition in a 1912 Scottish dictionary that embedded itself in his mind like no other. It was succinct and every word had relevance: ‘To show the way by going first.’
On the pathway to salvation, our Savior Jesus Christ did exactly that: he underwent his passion and death in order to glorify human nature in his resurrection, becoming the New Adam, the first-born of a new race of men who by following him as their Lord and Savior in the power of sanctifying grace, suffering and dying according to the Christlike pattern, would one day resurrect to undying life. The Lord, before he ascended into Heaven, willed to prolong his presence and power through the sacraments by means of an unbroken chain of priests stretching from the apostles to his Second Coming. Thus he would have his ambassadors among men with delegated powers to teach (“Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort; be unfailing in patience and in teaching.” – 2 Timothy 4:2), to sanctify (“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn.20:22-23) and therefore to lead precisely in order to guard the treasures of truth and the vessels of sanctification. He was most explicit about their authority to lead: “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk.10:16)
Therefore the priest’s authority for leadership derives not from the people or personal abilities but solely from Christ through his entry to the order of priesthood. Every time he celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, he stands at the head of the faithful – something which is quite clear when he celebrates Mass ad orientem; each time he raises his hand to baptize a neophyte or to absolve sins he is leading souls forwards on the road to Heaven; every time he ascends into the pulpit, it is with the gifts of the Holy Spirit to teach and govern God’s People.
“Do not be afraid,” said Benedict XVI on 26 May 2010, “ to guide to Christ each of the brothers and sisters He has entrusted to you, certain that each word, each action, if they come from obedience to God’s will, will bear fruit. Appreciate the advantages and recognise the limits of the culture in which we live, in the firm certainty that announcing the Gospel is the greatest service we can do for mankind. In fact, there is no greater good in this earthly life than to lead man to God, to reawaken his faith, to raise mankind from inertia and desperation, and infuse the hope that God is close and guides the history of individuals and of the world. This is the profound and ultimate meaning of the task of government the Lord has entrusted to us”.
Therefore the priest is unavoidably a leader: he cannot, he may not, and he must not renounce his role to govern without being unfaithful to his identity. Yet he must lead like the Good Shepherd, who “goes before them, and the sheep follow him” (John 10:4) showing the lay faithful the way by going first in both personal sanctification and apostolic drive. From the priestly anointing he has a special fullness of the Holy Spirit’s gift of counsel to assist him in leading.
The priest as leader of God’s people becomes automatically “Defender of the City” in the sense that he becomes the defender of man’s dignity and of authentic civilization by fulfilling his role as defender of God’s honor which entails being defender of the Faith.
Defending God’s honor will always be the priest’s sacred duty because it is intrinsic to his sacramental character of teaching, sanctifying and ruling that he upholds the rights of God whether this is in fashion or out of fashion (to paraphrase St.Paul’s “in season and out of season” – 2 Timothy 4:2). The saints and blesseds of the Church – indeed all true Catholics – have never been willing to negotiate away the divine honor even for the sake of “peace” and “unity”. Such is the background for instance to Blessed John Henry Newman’s powerful statement with regard to false ecumenism: “The honor of our Lady is dearer to them (the Catholics of England) than the conversion of England.”
Such a resolute spirit however will need to recognize and resist the ever-menacing temptations to compromise. Let us all examine ourselves for what a priest once noticed in his former seminary rector: “Yes, he was quite a good rector but we got the impression he was encouraging us to go into battle while he himself stayed behind the lines.” Neither in ideas nor in lifestyle can the priest stay behind the lines: the lay faithful want to hear a clear bugle-call in the priest’s clear teaching of Catholic doctrine and clear-cut personal example in living it out. For “if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”(1 Cor 14,8).
The clear bugle-call demands from the priest a stalwarth defence of the Catholic Faith. To stand for any truth is to “define” it (etymologically “to set frontiers”). Therefore a leader is only a leader if he leads in a specific direction; a guide is only trustworthy if he points out wrong roads; a ruler is only a ruler if he measures for others the limits of their actions and the standards of their conduct, the truth of their ideas and all of this not by his own idiosyncrasies but by the objective truths he himself must also live by. Accordingly the priest in fulfilling his role of protecting Catholic truths from heresy, defending the sacraments from sacrilege and defending the “little ones” from scandal will immediately be a sign of contradiction under the “Dictatorship of Relativism” where frontiers have been abolished to form one limitless spiritual wasteland.
As regards the duties of the priest with regard to scandal, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura commented:
“But there is also true scandal, that is, the leading of others by our words, actions and failures to act, into confusion and error, and, therefore, into sin. Our Lord was unequivocal in his condemnation of those who would confuse or lead others into sin by their actions and their failures to act. In teaching His disciples about temptations, He declared:
“Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Lk 17:1-2).
It is clear that Our Lord taught as a primary responsibility, with the gravest of consequences, the avoidance of scandal, namely, of any act or failure to act which could lead another into sin. Our Lord’s words are nothing less than vehement.
To ignore the fact that Catholics in public life, for example, who persistently violate the moral law regarding the inviolability of innocent human life or the integrity of the marital union, lead many into confusion or even error regarding the most fundamental teachings of the moral law, in fact, contributes to the confusion and error, redounding to the gravest harm to our brothers and sisters, and, therefore, to the whole nation. The perennial discipline of the Church, for that reason among other reasons, has prohibited the giving of Holy Communion and the granting of a Church funeral to those who persist, after admonition, in the grave violation of the moral law (Code of Canon Law, cann. 915; and 1184, § 1, 31).
It is said that these disciplines which the Church has consistently observed down the centuries presume to pass a judgment on the eternal salvation of a soul, which judgment belongs to God alone, and, therefore, they should be abandoned. On the contrary, these disciplines are not a judgment on the eternal salvation of the soul in question. They are simply the acknowledgment of an objective truth, namely, that the public actions of the soul are in grave violation of the moral law, to his own grave harm and to the grave harm of all who are confused or led into error by his actions. The Church confides every soul to the mercy of God, which is great beyond all our imagining, but that does not excuse her from proclaiming the truth of the moral law, also by applying her age-old disciplines, for the sake of the salvation of all.
When a person has publicly espoused and cooperated in gravely sinful acts, leading many into confusion and error about fundamental questions of respect for human life and the integrity of marriage and the family, his repentance of such actions must also be public. The person in question bears a heavy responsibility for the grave scandal which he has caused. The responsibility is especially heavy for political leaders. The repair of such scandal begins with the public acknowledgment of his own error and the public declaration of his adherence to the moral law. The soul which recognizes the gravity of what he has done will, in fact, understand immediately the need to make public reparation.
If there has always been the danger of giving scandal to others by public and seriously sinful actions or failures to act, that danger is heightened in our own time. Because of the confusion about the moral law, which is found in public discourse in general, and is even embodied in laws and judicial pronouncements, the Christian is held to an even higher standard of clarity in enunciating and upholding the moral law.
It is particularly insidious that our society which is so profoundly confused about the most basic goods also believes that scandal is a thing of the past. One sees the hand of the Father of Lies at work in the disregard for the situation of scandal or in the ridicule and even censure of those who experience scandal.”
Further on in the same speech, Cardinal Burke stated:
“One of the ironies of the present situation is that the person who experiences scandal at the gravely sinful public actions of a fellow Catholic is accused of a lack of charity and of causing division within the unity of the Church. In a society whose thinking is governed by the “dictatorship of relativism” and in which political correctness and human respect are the ultimate criteria of what is to be done and what is to be avoided, the notion of leading someone into moral error makes little sense. What causes wonderment in such a society is the fact that someone fails to observe political correctness and, thereby, seems to be disruptive of the so-called peace of society.
Lying or failing to tell the truth, however, is never a sign of charity. A unity which is not founded on the truth of the moral law is not the unity of the Church. The Church’s unity is founded on speaking the truth with love. The person who experiences scandal at public actions of Catholics, which are gravely contrary to the moral law, not only does not destroy unity but invites the Church to repair what is clearly a serious breach in Her life. Were he not to experience scandal at the public support of attacks on human life and the family, his conscience would be uninformed or dulled about the most sacred realities”.
Under the same iron logic, Pope Benedict XVI asserted the priest’s duty to be defensor fidei by opposing heresy as he commented on the psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd” on June 11th, 2010 for the closing Mass of the Year of Priests:
” ‘Your rod and your staff – they comfort me’: the shepherd needs the rod as protection against savage beasts ready to pounce on the flock; against robbers looking for prey. Along with the rod there is the staff which gives support and helps to make difficult crossings. Both of these are likewise part of the Church’s ministry, of the priest’s ministry. The Church too must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray. The use of the rod can actually be a service of love. Today we can see that it has nothing to do with love when conduct unworthy of the priestly life is tolerated. Nor does it have to do with love if heresy is allowed to spread and the faith twisted and chipped away, as if it were something that we ourselves had invented. As if it were no longer God’s gift, the precious pearl which we cannot let be taken from us.”
True leadership in positions of government inside or outside the Church always involves both “positive” and “negative” action. Positive government by setting forth doctrine, giving motivation and setting example; “negative” government by clear and timely condemnation of error and heresy, preventive action against immorality by setting standards of behavior embedded in legislation with punishment for those who do not keep these standards and fulfill their duties as laid out in the laws of the Church. If one does not govern with “negative” government in parish, school, seminary or diocese, one does not defend the Church and the “little ones” from harm. Indeed one becomes a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the effects of one’s omissions become evident sooner or later – as we have recently witnessed in so much harm to the young and so much world-wide damage done to the Church’s mission.
For there are two roads by which the Church’s teaching arrives to the lay faithful: by doctrine and by discipline. For every man – indeed, every child – knows that unless discipline is the other side of the coin of instruction, you have debased coinage. The priests who have conscientiously fulfilled their mission have faithfully exercised both roles bonding their teaching with wise and undaunted discipline. When, united to doctrine and discipline there exists a pedagogy sensitive to the mentality of the age– and of course holiness – you have the dream combination for a great priest or bishop. For there can be no progress of the Church without discipline in her ranks. It is thanks to the disciplinary reforms of the Council of Trent implemented by great pioneering bishops such as St. Charles Borromeo ( the “doctor of bishops”) that the serene education of generation after generation in the truths of the Faith could continue for four centuries and empower agents of change in Western Civilization. It is thanks to bishops like Anselm of Canterbury that state hegemony in Europe was held at bay for centuries in spite of the fact that in his harsh struggle to save the “libertas Ecclesiae” he had to fight alone since “even my suffragan bishops gave me no other advice except to be in agreement with the will of the king”.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s description of the Irish priest and bishop, St. Malachy, illustrates how the true priest integrates a soft heart with a strong mind, ready when necessary for confrontation:
“Who was as tender as he in compassion, who was as ready with help, who was as fearless in correction? He was full of zeal, but not lacking in that knowledge that must govern zeal itself. While he could be weak with the weak, he was nevertheless mighty with the mighty. He withstood the proud, he beat down the tyrant, he was a master and director of kings and princes. As if he were the father of all, so did he live for all. He made no distinction of sex or age or condition or rank. He never failed anyone, for his heart overflowed with sympathy for them all.”
If the priest acts as defensor fidei he then becomes Defensor Civitatis [defender of the city]. By teaching the Faith in its purity he becomes a leader carrying the twin torches of the truths of Divine Revelation and the Natural Law in order to enlighten Catholics and all men and women of good-will who wish to build a civilization of justice.
For the dignity of man and the common good of society is safeguarded with the highest walls and the strongest battlements in the Catholic Church for she alone intellectually defends these truths with their ultimate reasons.
By the Incarnation of the Eternal Son of God for us men and for our salvation Catholicism asserts the amazing value of man in the eyes of God; by showing through her perennial philosophy the rational structure of the Natural Law and how it can be the solid rock on which to build society’s laws the Church shows practically how to answer moral dangers to man and society in each era of history.
It has become increasingly evident to the world at large with the passing of the centuries – and especially in the last hundred years – that the Roman Pontiff is both “Defensor Fidei” and “Defensor Civitatis”. For instance Pope Pius XI: a pontiff who was both a scholar and a diplomat, diplomatically adept and tactful as a man of government should be, but when it came to principles he did not back down.
A clear example of this occurred in 1938 when the Fascists threatened the Church with the closure of its newspaper L’Italia if Cardinal Schuster of Milan did not retract his condemnation of the racism in the Fascist anti-Jewish laws of 1938. The warrior-pope’s answer came straight-from-the-shoulder in a letter signed by his secretary, Monsignor Carlo Confalonieri: “The Holy Father exhorts the cardinal of Milan to uphold Catholic doctrine courageously because on this point we cannot back down nor can the newspaper ‘L’Italia’ change course. ‘Aut sit ut est, aut non sit’ [Either it must be as it is or it must cease to be]. If it should be forced to stop publishing, it should give the names of its subscribers to ‘L’Osservatore Romano’.” (And the last line shows the delightfully practical mind of the fighting pontiff!)
In our days many legislators, doctors and intellectuals have abandoned the defence of the city to join the forces of the “Dictatorship of Relativism. Many in the city now call out for leadership to the leaders of the ancient Church of Rome just as in the days of barbarian-invaded Europe of the 5th and 6th centuries when men looked to their predecessors. Catholics and men and women of good-will in our days hope that there will be many priests with the features of St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Hugh of Lincoln and St. Thomas A Becket who defended the “little ones” against the power of the state and the mob.
As the Culture of Death continually tightens its grip on society the priests of the Church are called once again to be defenders of the city: as defenders of the unborn, defenders of the handicapped and the aged, defenders of marriage and defenders of the family by being first of all defenders of the Faith and the honor of God. For as the title of a recent discourse by Cardinal Raymond Burke succinctly stated: “Catholic Orthodoxy [is the] Antidote against the Culture of Death”. We will frequently be called to muster our valor against the world in order to be for the world. May each of us be willing, by the power of grace, to repeat the words of St. Ambrose of Milan as he opposed the Emperor Valentinian in 385 A.D:
If you demand my person, I am ready to submit.
Carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist.
But I will never betray the Church of Christ.
I will not call upon the people to succor me;
I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it
 St. Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on Psalm 37, 43.
 Letter of Ambrose to Theodosius, written in Aquileia, c. April 390, Saint Ambrose Letters, Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954, New York, pp.20-26.
 HOMER, The Iliad, 2.25-29, translation copyright by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam,Inc.,1990, quoted in PETER G. TSOURAS, The Daily Telegraph Dictionary of Military Quotations, Greenhill Books, London, 2005, p. 380.
 CARDINAL RAYMOND BURKE, D.D., J.C.D., “Catholic Orthodoxy: Antidote against the Culture of Death” – allocution at the World Prayer Congress for Life, Rome, October 9th, 2010.
 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX, Sermon 2 on the occasion of the death of Malachy.
Quoted in GIACOMO Biffi, Memorie e Digressioni di un Italiano Cardinale, new expanded edition, Cantagalli Publishers, Siena, 2010 (my translation).