I would like to address the subject of the value of prayer and sacrifice for priests. If there was ever a need for the preservation and sanctity of priests, it is today. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Catholic priesthood in countries like our own is going through the most difficult ordeal in the Church’s history. We have lost well over ten thousand priests in the United States since the close of the second Vatican Council.
Countless seminaries have closed their doors, and there is confusion in many Catholic circles as to what the priesthood entails. As a result we can safely say that the welfare of the Church in our country and in many other so-called "developed" countries is at stake.
Having taught priests, lived with priests, labored for them, loved them, and suffered with them for over 30 years, there are no words that I can use that would be strong enough to state that the Catholic priesthood needs prayer and sacrifice more now since the time when Our Lord died on the Cross at Calvary.
I would like to ask a series of questions to spark an answer that could be a prayerful reflection on our own responsibility. Firstly, why the priesthood?
In a single sentence, the most important reason we need the priesthood is: without the priesthood there cannot be the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist there would be no Sacrifice of the Mass, no Holy Communion, no Real Presence of Jesus Christ on earth, where He continues His work of salvation in the world.
When I look at photographs of the cathedrals of France, Germany, and Italy, I say to myself the only reason that generations were spent building these tributes to the faith, is that those who constructed them built them in faith. This could be said of every Catholic Church, from the smallest Chapel to the Cathedral of Notre Dame or St. Peter’s in Rome. These are all, we believe, literally houses of God. The Son of God who became the Son of Mary truly dwells within them. Without the priesthood, Jesus Christ would not be on earth. That is our Catholic faith.
Why do priests need special graces from God? It is because they have extraordinary responsibilities before God. They are to be more than ordinarily holy, more generous, more zealous, and more patient. In a word, those who are responsible for Christ’s presence on earth are to be, of all people, the most Christ-like. They are to be examples of what Christ wants us to be. Look back on all of the grave crises in the Church over the centuries. Every single one of them was due to the fact that priests had failed the people of God.
As long as I live, I will never forget the retreat the late Fr. Daniel Lord gave to us scholastics before our ordination. He recalled the episode of a conversation that Pope Pius had with Fr. Edmond Walsh. Fr. Walsh was from Georgetown and he had just returned from a mission in Russia, where millions were starving because of the treachery of their Communist overlords. After the famine had abated, Fr. Walsh was told to meet with the Holy Father. Late into the night Pope and Jesuit were in conversation over the conditions of the Church of that time. The Pope asked Fr. Walsh, "What do you think are the greatest trials of the Church? Are they the persecutors, the Nero’s and Attila’s, the Communists?" The Pope answered his own question. "No, they are unfaithful priests." It is no overstretch of language to say that as the priesthood goes, so goes the Church.
In our day more than any other century, there is pressure on all of those who wish to remain faithful to Christ, such as have not ever been experienced before. The pressures that are experienced by priests carry a violence that no one but a priest can understand. One saint after another has declared that the devil’s principal target on earth is the Catholic priest. It stands to demonic reason – if the devil can deceive and delude a Catholic priest and draw him away from Christ, what happens? What happens is what we see today. Priests are subject to extraordinary temptations from the devil first, but also from the world.
Six months after being on the faculty of a state university, one of my fellow faculty members said to me, "John, you are the first priest that this university has ever had." I happened to be the first Catholic priest hired and paid by a state university to teach Catholicism. "John," he said, "we wanted to test you, especially in your chastity. You didn’t know this, but the women students on the campus found out you are genuine."
Priests need special graces from God. Why pray for priests? We should pray for priests and bishops because this has been the practice of the Church since apostolic times. It’s a matter of revealed truth. It is a divine mandate. Whatever we find, certainly in the Scriptures of the apostolic age, we believe has been revealed by God. In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told Herod had James the Apostle beheaded. He then put Peter in prison. Saint Luke says, "All the time Peter was under guard the Church prayed for him unremittingly." I like that adverb, unremittingly. As a priest, I beg you to pray unremittingly for Christ’s unworthy servants whom He ordained as priests.
In one of the seven letters that Saint Martin of Antioch wrote on his way to his martyrdom in Rome during the year 107 A.D., he implored the people, "Pray for me who stands in need of your charity and who stands before the mercy of God."
Why do we need to pray for priests? It is because, through prayer, we gain graces for them which otherwise they would not obtain. If we all need the help of each other and we receive the graces we need, how much more should we pray for priests from whom we have received Jesus Christ in the Eucharist – and by whom we have been so often absolved from our sins. I don’t want to even think of the state of my soul if I had not had the absolution that over the years I have received from priests. As fellow members of the Mystical Body, priests desperately need our help.
Our prayer for priests should be joined with sacrifice. In other words, our prayer should be united with the practice of patience, selfless charity and mortification. Why? Because the most effective prayer is the prayer that costs – costly prayer, otherwise known as sacrificial prayer. How powerfully before the throne of God are the sufferings of the sick, the lonely, the abandoned, the poor, and the crushed.
An ordination of the
A priest’s life is supposed to be a life of sacrifice. I have told hundreds of priests, "Father, you are not only to offer the Mass, you are to live the Mass." If priests are to be truly priestly, they need to have the faithful offer their own trials and temptations to obtain from the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, the light and strength that the priesthood demands.
There is no doubt in my mind that the one grace that the priest needs above all, is to embrace the Cross. His union with Christ Crucified is his key to an effective priesthood. His power as a priest comes from the Cross, as he identifies himself with the Crucified Lord. A priest must be willing and able to have happen to him what happened to his Master in Palestine. As I’ve told many priests in the past, I am only truly and genuinely a priest as much as I am ready and willing, like Jesus Christ, to suffer for souls.
The principal cross which priests experience today is the suffering they feel with the situation of the Church. As one priest put it, "The cross is the present, the experience of right now, and not some imagined and future pain." That is why making the Way of the Cross – and I am now recommending the Stations of the Cross to others – is a most effective way of praying for priests. In making the Way of the Cross, one unites oneself with Jesus Christ, no longer suffering in His physical body, but suffering in His Mystical Body which is the Church.
I would recommend that all the faithful offer daily at least one prayer for all the priests in the Church and especially for those who have done most for them in their lives. I try to remember every day at Mass the priest who baptized me, the priest who heard my First Confession, who gave me my First Holy Communion, the bishop who ordained me, and the bishop who confirmed me. I recommend, therefore, that all the faithful, in a special way, pray for priests every day. Also, I advise the faithful to offer up some sacrifice for priests each day. I am tempted to say some little sacrifice. NO! I suggest it be the most difficult sacrifice of the day for priests.
I further recommend that when we hear about a priest who has been unfaithful to his high calling, that our first and immediate reaction should be to pray for him. I believe that we should do everything in our power to extend and propagate the apostolate of prayer and sacrifice for priests.
The Church of the future will not only survive, but thrive. However, that will occur only where and insofar as the priests have not only been faithful to their vocation, but have lived their priesthood in a living martyrdom in union with the first martyr, Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, no mere recommendation or exhortation that I make, but an imperative to pray and sacrifice for priests.
Lord Jesus Christ, you ordained the Apostles priests at the Last Supper to continue your mission of mercy to the end of time. We believe that every Catholic priest traces his ordination to that first ordination on Holy Thursday night. We know how much you expect of your priests and we also know how weak and human they are. Inspire us, dear Jesus, to pray and sacrifice for your priests, who are also ours, that by their faithfulness to you in this life they may bring countless souls to you in the life to come. Mary, Mother of priests, pray for priests that they may love your Divine Son unreservedly as you did, all the days of their lives. Amen.
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
Text edited by the MICHAEL Journal and reprinted with the kind permission of Inter Mirifica.