The importance of the priest’s role in the providential plan of the salvation of souls cannot be overestimated.
As Alter Christus the priest has had greatness thrust upon him for, as St. Ignatius of Antioch has stated, “the priesthood is the apex of greatness” (St. Ignatius of Antioch): by ordination a man becomes a mediator in Christ of eternal salvation, irreplaceable for the Church and the world and hence called to shoulder an immense responsibility.
Leadership is exercised at many different levels -games, business, academia, politics, war – 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? 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.
“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.” (Homer, The Illiad)
Just as officers answer to higher authority for these lives, so will priests answer for their peoples souls when the “Book of Life” is opened (Rev.20:12).
The priest’s lifestyle therefore must rise to the heights of so sublime a vocation – indeed the most sublime vocation a man can receive!
“By nature, the priest is like all other men”, said St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “ through his sacramental character, he surpasses everything that is on earth; through his conduct, he must be comparable to the angels.”
“Those who handle the divine mysteries,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “obtain a royal dignity and must be perfected in virtue”. Elsewhere he added “The worthy exercise of [priestly] orders requires not any kind of goodness but excelling goodness, in order that, as they who receive orders are set above the people in the degree of priesthood, so may they be above them by the merits of holiness. Hence they are required to have the grace that is enough to make them worthy members of Christ’s people, but when they receive [priestly] orders they are given a yet greater gift of grace, whereby they are rendered suitable for greater things.” ( St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Supplement, question 35, 1, ad 3)
“We must begin,” wrote St. Gregory Nazianzus, “by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed in order to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified in order to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and where we are striving towards. I know God’s greatness and man’s weakness as well as his potential. [Who then is the priest? He is] the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ’s priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God’s image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes”.
Speaking about priests, St.Lawrence Justinian exclaimed: “A great dignity but great too is the responsibility; placed high in the eyes of men they must also be lifted up to the peak of virtue before the eye of him who sees all; otherwise their elevation will be not to their merit but to their damnation”.
No wonder that St.Francis and other saintly souls refused to accept ordination to the priesthood. The saint of Assisi said that the soul of a priest should be as pure as the water he saw in a glass container.
Even a man as fierce as St.Athanasius at one point fled in order to escape ordination as did the governor of Milan, St.Ambrose, who went into hiding – but was betrayed by his host and handed over to the pursuing Catholics!
St. Charles Borromeo, “teacher of bishops” examined candidates for ordination going so far as to question them on the texts they used for meditation in order to assure himself that he was fulfilling the word of God: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22).
For in our days there is no doubt that every priest will have his identity put to the test by the Dictatorship of Relativism. Recently in the United States a bishop revoked the Catholic status of a hospital after it performed an abortion. Immediately a bombardment of outrage fell on him from the media yet when asked in a press conference about his reaction to the outburst, he simply replied: “I really don’t read the blogospheres…I try to pray each day to find my identity in Jesus Christ. My identity comes from Christ. Christ is present in his living body, the Church: that’s my identity – it comes from that.”
The power to resist the attacks of the “principalities and powers” will not be lacking to you:
“But along with this character and these powers”, wrote Pope Pius XI, “the priest through the Sacrament of Orders receives new and special grace with special helps. Therefore, if only he will loyally cause to increase, by his free and personal cooperation, the divinely powerful action of the grace itself, he will be able to fulfill worthily all the duties, however arduous, of his lofty calling. He will not be overcome, but will be able to bear the tremendous responsibilities inherent to his priestly duty; responsibilities which have made fearful even the stoutest champions of the Christian priesthood, men like St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, St. Charles and many others. (Pope Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, n.22)
From the moment you tell people that you intend to cross the threshold of the seminary, you are no longer a private person. You are now a “ persona publica” as an officer of the Church in training, a future ambassador of Jesus Christ, a symbol of Catholicism. Catholics feel – and rightly so – that the priest “belongs” to them, that he represents them and they want to be well represented.
Nobility of Ideal to be Matched by Intensity of Self-Equipping
For you, Seminarian, the nobility of the ideal must be matched by the intensity of your preparation.
Responsibility towards God, the Church and souls demands the most exacting interior and exterior training for the priesthood.
If you arm yourself with the sword of the spirit, the breast plate of the teachings of the Holy Catholic Faith, the helmet of an intellectual preparation in line with the tradition of the Church, the strong and shining armor of virile asceticism and crossing that armor the heavenly-blue scarf of the Lady you love: you will be a priest who will bring glory to God, joy to the Church, salvation to souls.
“The education of a man,” said General Robert E. Lee, “is never completed until he dies”.
With a sense of urgency this formation should be lived!
We all know in this dramatic hour that “the Shadow grows and draws nearer” as the priesthood comes under attack. But we also know that:
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
a light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken.”( J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)
Out of the depths of thorough forging of Christian character shown from the years of seminary onwards will be born true priests and with them the glory of the Church and the hope of mankind.
“We know not of the future”, said, “and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action….no man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought.” (Major-General Joshua L. Chamberlain at Gettysburg, October 3, 1893)
How heavily therefore does the future of the Church – and therefore of the world– rest upon the stature of her cadets!
There is no single group more important for the future than seminarians! As the seminarians, so the priests and so the people. The seminarian’s strength of preparation is the Church’s strength for growth!
This is the deadly-serious task you are engaged in.
It is you -and only you – who takes the ultimate responsibility for your training, no matter how good or bad the seminary.
Your standard is not the seminary’s, your’s is that of Jesus Christ and the Holy Roman Church shining through the lives of the priest-saints.