Arthur Middleton on The Priest Today
It is difficult being a priest today where even in the Church the secular culture rather than the Gospel determines so much and because of the general decay of religion and a general ignorance of God. Also, because the priest is reduced to a functionary, a managing director, where administration rather than doctrine and worship are to determine the form of the Church. The evil of the Church is doing church work in a spirit of business.
To avoid this the priest must be instant in prayer otherwise, he will lose that touch of the supernatural, without which he has no right to be a priest at all.
Two texts spring to mind. The first, from Proverbs 23.7: ‘As a man thinketh, so is he.’ Or ‘A man is what he prays’, for a man who prays is a theologian and a theologian is a man who prays. The second, Malachi 2.7, ‘men hang upon the words of the priest and seek knowledge and instruction from him, because he is the messenger of the Lord’. Prayer must inform a priest’s thinking, forming him into the man who conquers himself. Only then will people hang upon his words and seek knowledge and instruction from him.
The Divine Presence
Our hope must rest upon consciousness of a divine presence. Bishop Butler of Durham urged his clergy to yield themselves up to the divine presence and endeavour to inspire such a sense of God in the hearts of their people.
Here the priest is no mere manager. Classical literature describes him as a healer of men, described as the cure of souls, and the medicine of souls is subtler than that of bodies. The Coming of God in Christ is the medicine of the soul, undoing the Fall and bringing us to the Tree of Life. The priest administers this medicine in the sacraments, the means wherein this medicine is given, giving the Church a supernatural note. Christ was not made or moulded by the world; and the world knew, and still knows in him a presence that must be either obeyed or destroyed. He always viewed the world from God’s side and in God’s interest.
The priest comes in the same spirit, not as an obscurantist, but wearing the intelligible vestments of living faith, divine but positive, ministering in Word and Sacrament that which is humanity’s hope and salvation, the divine life in which he lives with Christ with the Father in the Holy Spirit, identified but not accommodated to the world.
The priest comes to his people as their teacher and guide, for the edification, the building-up of the Body of Christ, enabling people to see what happened to them when they were born again through water and the Spirit. We are to introduce our people into the life of the Church, which is salvation, to taste and see how good the Lord is. First, taste, then see, that is, understand. It is edification in the knowledge of the love of God, growth into the divine likeness. A priest is the Christ-bearer, a living Eucharist of the divine presence, bringing a sympathetic ear and a compassionate heart in which people find God’s consolation, understanding and love. He brings more than professional skills. He brings the lovingkindness, goodness and friendship of God, that will bind up the broken-hearted and bring release to those that are captive in the variety of today’s prisons.
It will not be a comfortable life-style, because it brings spiritual warfare and suffering for the priest as he identifies with those who suffer and shares the frustrations, anger, and incomprehensibility of that suffering in what it does to those who suffer. The priest shares in these struggles of his suffering people, the uncertainties it brings, the sense of divine abandonment it induces, and the loneliness it causes. Many people experience Gethsemane moments but eventually are able to say, ‘Not mine, but Thine’, even when consciousness of that divine presence must have felt as if it had been wiped out. As John Keble wrote:
What is this silent might,
making our darkness light,
New wine our waters, heavenly blood our wine?
Christ with His Mother dear,
And all his saints is here,
And where they dwell is heaven, and what they touch divine.
(Lyra Innocentium – Christ fills All Things)
This touch of the divine made our great priests effective evangelists even in the most atrocious slum parishes. This union of human lives with God in the way of holiness is fundamental to the life of the Church and the priest, giving priestly ministry its supreme and special value. These great priests were not career men with a ladder, but men girded with the towel of self-sacrifice, devotion, and dedication that issues from men whose hearts God has touched. They turned the common way of looking at things upside down. The spiritual power of a consecrated will can enter where the doors are shut.
Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College, a writer and retreat conductor.