“The times are dire. So where are the priests we desperately need to lead us?” (Anthony Esolen)
But will the Church have the Caliber of Priest required?
Robert Bork, in his masterful analysis of the collapse of the West, Slouching towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline concludes by saying that he sees only four events that can effect “a moral and spiritual regeneration”: “a religious revival, the revival of public discourse about morality, a cataclysmic war or a deep economic depression”.
The author, who is Jewish and who converted to the Catholic Faith after writing that book, meant by “religious revival” a renaissance of religion above all among Christians. However the influence of any such Christian reinvigoration of civilization necessarily depends on a renaissance of religious practice among Catholics both because of the highly-developed nature of of Catholic social doctrine as well as its demographic strength.
Yet a great question mark hangs over any such renaissance within the Church because any such rebirth depends on the strength of the Church’s leadership: the priests. The Church, like any organization, depends for its dynamism on “creative minorities” which either come from within the leadership or are fostered by it. Such centers of initiative are vital to the resurgence of Catholic vitality and the emergence of solutions for the complex socio-political problems affecting civilization.
The hierarchical leadership of priests must therefore be matched by their Christian, moral and intellectual clout. To the priests the laity spontaneously look for such leadership, hoping to find men who will walk ahead of them on the now dangerous pathways of what has become “enemy-occupied territory”.
By ordination we priests have the leadership – but what do we do with it? How do we exercise it? Are we even fully aware that we have it? These are the questions whose answers are pregnant with the destinies of the Church and civilization – and above all, of souls – at this dangerous junction in history.
At this moment when everything is at stake in the great clash of civilization and anti-civilization, it’s time for us priests and seminarians to hear the clamor of mankind, to recognize that in God’s providence we have been called to be priests now, in this concrete historical moment in order to lead God’s people It is time to rise to the level of our mission, to accept the call to be revolutionaries of “God’s revolution” (Pope Benedict XVI).
This must start with an interior revolution: we must overthrow any ancien régime of a decadent government within our souls – mediocrity, tepid ambitions, bloodless aspirations, laziness, lust and pride. Then we will be fiery guardians of the city: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore hear the word out of my mouth, and give them warning from me.”(Ezekiel 3:17).
The watchman on the city walls knows that first he has to watch himself in order to be far-seeing and decisive for the city. He forms the inner muscles of the warrior-priest through self-conquest on a daily basis, tirelessly forming the features of a rugged leader, ready to forego civilian past-times inappropriate for soldiers who watch on the battlements. Such a military regimen implies deep and daily thought in God’s presence (mental prayer), selective reading, inspiring conversations and studies under the ancient masters. Yes, heavy indeed is the mantle of the priesthood on the shoulders of those who know what they have donned!
Therefore the Church depends on the priests for the fulfillment of her mission; on the shoulders of priests rests the weight of responsibility; the glories and the catastrophes of the Church will be largely due to their fidelity or treachery; their role is primary and irreplaceable. For if the priesthood is healthy the whole Church flourishes; if it is wounded the whole Church bleeds – and not only the Church but civilization along with it.
Although the Church has Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will not hold out against it, it is a promise not of what will happen as much of what will not happen; a promise of “in-fallibility”, of the incapacity of the Church to commit error in matters of faith and doctrine and of its ability to endure in the sense of surviving until His Second Coming. But it is not a guarantee of Hegelian-style unending progress and expansion.
Therefore God has so willed the fortunes of the Church to rise and wane almost like any merely human group: largely dependent on the leadership ranks in any time and place, on the cooperation of the priest’s natural abilities of intellect, imagination, enterprise, grit and integrity with the supernatural powers of grace. For as a plaque in St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill in Washington DC reminds us : “The Gospel must be preached by men; the angels have other duties.”
There is nothing egalitarian about the march of history which shows itself always -as Christopher Dawson remarked – to be simultaneously aristocratic and revolutionary bringing progress or decline in its wake depending on the presence or absence of exceptional individuals who exercise their intelligence and freedom in leadership.
The caliber of the individuals is therefore decisive. Although the Catholic priesthood like many other leadership roles is configured in such a way that the function can be exercised with a minimum of necessary qualifications – after all, the sacraments function ex opere operato – nevertheless it is evident that the higher the caliber of the leader embodying the ideals of the institution, the greater will be the institution, the swifter its progress, the more penetrating and enduring her influence.
As a leader within the Church the priest is called to inspire in Catholic youth aspirations to create a new civilization, a civilization of love and truth founded on the natural law inscribed on the heart by the Creator and elevated by the law of Christ. Certainly most special attention will be given to the young men who are called to be priests and to the women called to be nuns and consecrated virgins. Yet alongside these diamonds in the crown of a man’s priesthood will be the lay people who through him will discover the vocation to work for the common good as Catholic intellectuals, lawyers, judges, journalists, teachers, artists, musicians, union leaders – and politicians.
The mission is awe-inspiring in its grandeur, its exigencies – and its urgency. In young priests and seminarians the white-haired world of the West must see the beginnings of warrior-priests battling to save civilization: men who are ready to shoulder the burden of leadership, to be surgeons of souls and orators of fire. Then the first rays of dawn will appear on the horizon as the lay faithful look up to Christ-like men, priests with the fire of St.Augustine and St.Ambrose, who march ahead of them as soldiers of God leading the great struggle for the salvation of souls and the culture of life that will benefit all men and women, both Christian and non-Christian.
We can look to history for lessons, inspiration and courage for there was once another “Catholic Moment” when the Church saved the West. As Alcuin of York, one of the most important architects of the Carolingian renaissance of the 800s stated during that first Catholic triumph, so we can assert today: the wisdom of Catholicism and its power for civilization-building surpass all others that have ever existed, that exist and that can ever exist in the future. All that is needed is to be ourselves: true Christians, true priests. “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire” (St. Catherine of Siena)
The lives of the warrior-priests of history – men as temperamentally different as St. Bernard, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis Xavier and St. Pius X – were always a source of initiative and inspiration for social progress. Let us take these great priests who have changed history as our points of reference: vigorous, energetic, enterprising, insightful, relentless in achieving self-mastery, men of prayer, intrepid in the most amazing evangelizing and pioneering feats, uncompromising in the face of lies and injustice.
The priest therefore must be a frontiersman living the rugged lifestyle of a man on the wild frontiers between this life and eternity:
“To live for eternal truths, to possess the first fruits of eternal life, while facing every practical responsibility and meeting the demands of the present moment and place on their own ground – that is the spirit by which a Christian culture lives and is known. For Christian culture involves a ceaseless effort to widen the frontiers of the Kingdom of God – not only horizontally by increasing the number of Christians but vertically by penetrating into human life and bringing every human activity into closer relations with its spiritual center.” (C. Dawson, “The Historic Reality of Christian Culture”, in Christianity and European Culture, edited by Gerald J.Russello, CUA Press, 1998, p.9-10)
At the radix of the identity of great priests in the past was the Great Commandment : “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind and with your whole strength” – this was what moved them to “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” conscious that “all these things shall be yours as well.”(Mt.6:33). They were all men of deep prayer and this led them to fall headlong in love with God which in turn became the ground for their intense and relentless activity for:
“Love is a fire no waters avail to quench,
no floods to drown;
for love, a man will give up all that he has in the world,
and think nothing of his loss.” (Song of Songs 8:7)
The task of rebuilding a Christian civilization is a daunting task but we will be both enlightened and galvanized into action by recalling how it was built the first time. A civilization is built or destroyed not by nameless forces but by the cumulative force of the actions of individuals who in exercising their intelligence and freedom bring about change.
Before ever a social revolution happens, an interior revolution occurs. It is in the soul where history is changed : in that secret sanctuary where all the political, legislative, police and mass-media forces of a totalitarian regime are powerless. And it is this sanctuary that is the raison d’être of the priest.
Therefore in the measure in which he fulfills his triple role of entering this sanctuary with the truths of the Faith, sanctifying it with the force of divine life and guiding it to union with God within Christ’s Mystical Body, he is the primary and irreplaceable builder of civilization.