Priest's Irreplaceable Importance for Civilization

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Every True Priest  Irresistibly Builds Christian Civilization

“Priests are the primary builders of the civilization of love” (Pope Benedict XVI)

Priests have changed the world because above all else they were priests. The influence of the priesthood on civilization was never confined merely to the thousands of priests of genius, organizational ability, and intrepidness. Power for change has  flowed from every priest true to his identity as representative of Christ  Head and Spouse of the Church; the impact, whether torrential or  trickling, depended above all else on the degree in which he as priest  fulfilled his triple mission to sanctify, teach and govern.

Hence the “ordinary” priest even though far from the spotlights of history can be and has been extraordinary in vitality for society. He achieved so much that did not appear on the world’s TV screen but only in Heaven’s  vision – which is of course the only one that ultimately matters.

“The priest is molded from Christ’s own love”, said Pope Benedict XVI on June 13, 2010, “that love which impelled Him to give His life for his friends and to forgive his enemies. This is why priests are the primary builders of the civilization of love. At this point my thoughts go to many priests, the well-known and the less well-known, some elevated to the glory of the altars, others whose memory remains indelible in the minds of the faithful, perhaps in some small parish community”.

Even many of the priests who “rocked” history with some of the greatest social, cultural, political and economic transformations achieved not only because of their personal abilities but due to the power for creativity and transformation inherent to the truths and dynamism of the Catholic Faith.

Many of them also changed society while on the journey to fulfill their priestly mission: they were travelling on the roads of this world seeking to bring man to God, to change first of all not the world around man  but the world within him ; and as they sought with all their heart and mind and strength to teach, sanctify and shepherd, the effects followed as day after night just as He had promised:  “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well.”(Mt.6:33).

By the divine tools they wrought this change first in the individual and then in society: sanctifying grace through the sacraments activated by prayer and  cooperated with by self-conquest  transforming individuals into new men with new personalities due to the power of  divine life flooding their intellects, wills, imaginations and sensitivities with  insight and strength – radiating outwards to create a new culture and a new civilization.

Why the Priest is Builder of Civilization: Sociological and Theological Reasons

The grandeur and strength of any society or organization hinges upon two realities: the quality of its ideas and the caliber of its leadership.

So likewise with the Church. As regards the nobility of her ideas she has no peers: the splendor of her sublime truths about God and man, goodness and love, history, eternity and salvation have led many of history’s finest intellects to recognize through them her divine origins.

But the Church of divine truths and sacraments is for fallen men and has to travel along the dangerous highways of history. Therefore, as in any organization,  her leadership ranks are also vital  for if the truths are the soul of the Church’s organism, the priests are the limbs of her action: at any given moment  the competence of priestly leadership is her strength or weakness for fulfilling her reason for existing.

It is certainly true that  leaders can come from outside the ranks of the priesthood and throughout history the Church has always recognized and deeply respected a two-tier level of leadership: the two “h”s of “hierarchy” and “holiness”. Thank God we have not lacked for saints such as the consecrated women St. Clare of Assisi and St. Brigid of Sweden,  hermits like St. Anthony of Egypt, monks like St. Benedict, monarchs like King Edward the Confessor who led the way in personal holiness and in the process created  a Christian culture around them. However – happily – many of those in her hierarchic leadership  were also priests of holiness who led with Christlike qualities.

Happily indeed because although in any organization hierarchic authority influences the entire organization for good or ill, this is extraordinarily true in the case of the Church as the non-Catholic historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, noted  in Civilization on Trial when he looked at the Church from a merely sociological perspective:

“In this Catholic form of the Church, I see two fundamental institutions, the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Hierarchy, which are indissolubly welded together by the fact that the priest, by definition, is the person with the power to perform the rite. […] . As for the hierarchy of the Church in its traditional form, this, as one knows, is modeled on a more recent and less awe-inspiring yet nevertheless most potent institution, the imperial civil service of the Roman Empire.

“The Church in its traditional form thus stands forth armed with the spear of the Mass, the shield of the Hierarchy, and the helmet of the Papacy; and perhaps the subconscious purpose – or the divine intention, if you prefer that language – of this heavy panoply of institutions in which the Church has clad herself is the very practical one of outlasting the toughest of the secular institutions of this world, including all the civilizations.

“If we survey all the institutions of which we have knowledge in the present and in the past, I think that the institutions created, or adopted and adapted, by Christianity are the toughest and the most enduring of any that we know and are therefore the most likely to last – and outlast all the rest. (ARNOLD TOYNBEE, Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948, p.242-243).

Although some of Toynbee’s assertions would need to be heavily nuanced, his conclusion about the welding together in the priesthood of the various realities that are “the be-all and end-all” of the Church’s reason for existing is on target.  Even the Papacy falls within the priesthood since it is the office of the Bishop of Rome and therefore belongs to one of the degrees of holy orders, all of which “are irreplaceable for the organic structure of the Church: without the bishop, presbyters and deacons,one cannot speak of the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1593).

History has certainly proven true Toynbee’s opinion that the sociological structure of the Church  centered on the Sacrifice and the priesthood  is capable of withstanding the storms and earthquakes of the ages.

Yet sociology can only lead us so far: the Catholic knows that he must reach a deeper level in order to understand; he recognizes that the social dynamism of the Church and the priesthood evident in their enduring influence through history  is but the radiance of a mysterious reality that surpasses the natural, that is super-historical and  super-natural : the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and the priest as the man empowered through sacramental and mystical identification with Christ Head and Spouse of the Mystical Body to enable the Church to fulfill her raison d’etre.

For the sacrament of priestly ordination “confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a “sacred power” (sacra potestas) which can come only from Christ himself through his Church… also called consecratio, for it is a setting apart and an investiture by Christ himself for his Church,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church)  the purpose of which is to prolong Christ’s redemptive mission until the world’s final moments by fulfilling his triple mission to teach, to sanctify and to govern in the Church.

For through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which the priest alone makes possible and through the sacraments in which “whatever was visible in our Savior has passed over into [them]” (Pope Leo the Great), the Church is empowered to bring about the world’s salvation from the darkness of sin and eternal death; through the priest’s teaching of  the Catholic Faith the world is brought to the Way, Truth and Life of  eternal salvation and unending joy; through his government of the Church the sacraments and the doctrine are defended in their integrity.

Therefore “just as the Eucharist makes the Church” -as Pope Benedict XVI said on September 16th, 2010 – “so the priesthood is central to the life of the Church”. Radiating from the mystical reenactment of the self-sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of man is everything else in the Catholic Church: all of her hierarchy, theology, philosophy, art, architecture, music and poetry.

The 2,000 years of culture at the heart of Western Civilization flowed from the Catholic “cultus” [worship] of the Mass and the sacraments with its paradigm of the essential goodness of  reality created by a God of love who loves man from eternity to eternity. Such glories of architecture as the Gothic magnificence of Chartres and Salisbury started deep within the hearts of Catholics ardent with admiration for the Sacrifice of their salvation present in the Mass.

 And throughout those two millennia  always standing beside the Mass and the sacraments as their divinely appointed guardian was  the priest. “We cannot live without the Mass” said the third century martyrs of North Africa to their persecutors and as we cannot live without the Mass so we cannot live without the priest: thus Catholics assert through the ages and thus cries at the top of its lungs 2,000 years of  genius and energy in Western Civilization.

Sanctifier, Teacher, Ruler:  the triple priestly mission springing  from his identity as Christ’s ambassador situates the priest in the very heart of the Church where man’s intelligence and creativity is  inspired by the truths of the Faith and purified by the sacraments.

From these hidden springs flow  underground streams transforming the hidden depths of men’ s minds and hearts long before they suddenly burst out into the open countryside to swell into mighty rivers and waterfalls altering the  landscape of society.  

Therefore the priest’s exercise of his triple mission is necessary for the very existence of a Christian culture which  exists only in the measure in which a vibrant Faith exists:  that is the logic demonstrated by sociology, theology and history.