Arthur Middleton offers some pre-ordination reflections for ordinands
It is difficult being a priest in the present climate, where, even in the Church, the secular culture rather than the Gospel determines so much. Gladstone in the nineteenth century said that the task of the priest had become much more difficult than it had ever been. Was it ever easy? A rising generation in this country does not know God because of a general decay of religion and attempts to push Christianity out of the public square. Also, a kind of thinking in the Church wants to reduce the priest to a mere functionary, a manager, where administration rather than doctrine and worship are to determine the form of the Church. The evil of the Church is the doing of Church work in a spirit of business, something to be got through. The only way to avoid this is for the priest to be instant in prayer. If he is not, 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.’ The second, from the prophet 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.’ The words from Proverbs might be re-expressed thus: ‘A man is what he prays’, for a man who prays is a theologian and a theologian is a man who prays. It is such prayer that must inform a priest’s thinking, making him what he is and forming him into the man who conquers because he has conquered himself.
Like Julian of Norwich our hope must rest on something outside ourselves. She said, ‘The remedy is that Our Lord is with us, keeping us and leading us into the fullness of joy; for our Lord intends this to be an endless joy, that he who will be our bliss when we are there (heaven) will be our protector while we are here, our way and our heaven in true love and trust.’
This consciousness of a divine presence dominated Bishop Butler’s life and he urged his clergy to yield themselves up to the full influence of the divine presence, and endeavour to raise up in the hearts of their people such a sense of God that reverence, love, gratitude, hope, trust and obedience will become an habitual way of living.
All the classical books on priesthood describe him as a healer of men which is much more difficult than being a manager. This is the cure of souls, and the medicine of souls is more subtle than that of bodies. Gregory Nazianzen claimed that ‘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 is to administer this medicine in the Word and Sacraments, the means wherein this medicine is given.
The priest comes in this same spirit of reconciliation, 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 energy in which he lives with Christ with the Father in the Holy Spirit, identified but not accommodated to the world Christ seeks to save. His vision will be Trinitarian, his theology a theology to be preached and therefore with a practical purpose, nothing less than to participate in this divine life Christ lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit, for this is salvation that makes us godlike.
The priest is entrusted with the spiritual guidance of his people, becoming responsible for them and making his mark on them, according to the pattern of his own spiritual life. He is 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 that they may taste
and see how good the Lord is. First, taste, then see, that is, understand, being edified in the knowledge of the love of God, growth into the divine likeness. So 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 help and skills. He brings the loving kindness, 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 can never be a comfortable lifestyle and there are more priorities than the ‘day off’. 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 say ‘Not mine, but thine’, even when consciousness of that divine presence must have felt wiped out. They have the transfigured marks of their Gethsemane on them.
To that extent such people know the depths of the human heart when it rejoices, admires or loves, the heart in its agonies of suffering, failure and emptiness. Here in them you will glimpse a clearer vision of death and resurrection than in a textbook. As priests uphold their people in prayer, so their people are to uphold their priests with prayer and love, for a priest cannot work without his people.
Great priests of the past were effective evangelists even in some of the most atrocious slum parishes, because of the touch of the divine in that union of human lives with God in the way of holiness that is fundamental to the life of the Church and to the life of every priest. They were not career men with a ladder under the cassock, but men with the towel of self-sacrifice, devotion, and dedication that issues from men whose hearts God has touched. These priests did not despair in their fight with secularism. Instead of despair they measured things so differently from the rest of people, so much so that they turned the common way of looking at things upside down.
‘[T]he spiritual power of a consecrated will needs no opportunity, and can enter where the doors are shut. … his gifts may suggest to some the thoughts of criticism, comparison, competition; his self- consecration can do no harm in this way. … personal holiness, determining, refining, characterising everything that a man says or does, will tell alike on those he may not know even by name, and on those who see him in the constant intimacy of his home’ (The Hallowing of Work, Bishop Paget).
Holy priests are to form a holy people. ND