Wednesday 6 June 2012

St Norbert, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Priests...

June is the month of ordinations to the priesthood. While I celebrate 19 years of priesthood on the 26th of this month, I am still seeking to achieve the ideal I set for myself. As each anniversary approaches I am particularly focused on the promise I made to the Lord on my ordination day; a promise that I would “celebrate Mass with reverence so as to inspire people with a love and awe of Your Majesty; preach with orthodoxy since the Truth alone sets us free, and be there for those in crisis”. I have today been deeply moved by two passages I read earlier this morning. The first was an exclamation of St Norbert whose Memoria we celebrate today in the Ordinary Form; the second was in Fulton Sheen’s ‘The Priest is Not His own’. Fulton Sheen writes, 

After the priest has given up meditation and fills his day with ‘activism’, his next downward step is to give up mortification and become lukewarm: “Peter followed Him at a great distance” (Matt.26:58).
At the Last Supper Peter had promised everything; quickly he begins to give up everything. When Our Blessed Lord set His face toward Jerusalem, Peter and the others “followed Him with faint hearts” (Mk 10:32), dreading the prospect of the Cross... As a commentator of the ninth century wrote, “Peter could not have denied the Saviour if he had stayed by His side”. He would have stayed by His side if he had not drawn his sword without orders and if, above all, he had known how to watch and pray with the Saviour. Every priest undergoes the same experience. Neglect of watching, prayer and mortification, produces an inner uneasiness about being close to the Lord.
When this happens, the priest’s heart is no longer in his work. He celebrates Mass and says his Office, but he rarely makes a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. He keeps the Lord at a distance. He mounts the pulpit to plead for the missions, but gives nothing from his own pocket. He no longer assists at a Mass after he finishes his own. He loses the taste of spiritual things. Saintly priests annoy him. He observes the days of fasting and abstinence but cuts lots of corners. He whispers to his conscience, “Well, if I have not done all the good that I could, at least I did no harm”.

How easy it is to fall into all kinds of corner–cutting today when there are so few priests and so much ‘active’ work to be done. It is not from a lack of sincerity or desire to serve the Lord and His people that corners are cut, but from a wrong sense of priorities. I remember a priest of this Diocese, Father Hugh Lavery (of happy memory) saying, “Remember priest: presence precedes doing”. I think we priests must once again return to being men of presence. We must remember that we enter people’s homes as Christ. No matter how much the housebound appreciate the Holy Communion brought to them by a faithful and devout Extraordinary Minister, a visit from their priest moves them deeply and greatly pleases them. In my heart I believe that we priests, in order to be worthy of the office of alter Christus and the love our people give us, must fill ourselves with the presence of Christ. This can be achieved by devout celebration of the Mass and devout, prayerful visits to the Blessed Sacrament.  My mind and soul tell me that if we don’t fill ourselves with His Presence, we can take only ourselves to the people: our theology, our energy, our human concern. But we cannot take Christ; our ontological change will be impoverished in its spiritual fullness, and yet this fullness in Christ is fundamental to life as priests. The people of God, when well-trained and well informed, can do our administrative work for us, and they are invaluable in supplementing us in catechesis, housebound visitation, support of the bereaved and such like. But they cannot replace us. They are not shepherds, and we cannot leave the sheep to tend the sheep without a shepherd to guide them. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves that priests are alter Christus, and that in this, “Presence precedes doing”.

And what of that exclamation of St Norbert? It is from his ordination day and is striking:

“O Priest! You are not yourself because you are God. You are not yourself because you are the servant and minister of Christ. You are not your own because you are the spouse of the Church. You are not yourself because you are the mediator between God and man. You are not yourself because you are nothing. What then, are you? Nothing and everything. O Priest! Take care lest what was said to Christ on the Cross be said of you: “He saved others, himself he cannot save!’”

Brother Priests of all ranks and offices: let us pray for one another daily, especially in the Most Holy Sacrifice and before the Blessed Sacrament. Holy People of God: pray for your priests, and assist without replacing the alter Christus God has sent you.

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