Letter to Brother Priests no.2

A priesthood for the salvation of the World

One of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s main pastoral concerns was for the formation of and sanctification of priests, who are at the source of a vibrant Christian life and a cause of peace and prosperity and the good for society in general.

Archbishop Lefebvre never lost this solicitude for the priesthood, particularly during his time as director of the seminary in Gabon, Africa, then as Archbishop of Dakar, as General Superior of the Holy Ghost fathers and finally as founder of the Society of St Pius X.

On many occasions we see in his writings his care for priestly holiness and for the formation of priestly souls in the image of Our Lord, the High Priest. To quote: “periods of decadence in the Church generally find their origin in the decadence of priests and bishops”. In another place: “the crises which have overrun the Church throughout history have generally come from the clergy who have abandoned the life of virtue: in as much as the priest abandons the way of the cross, so will society abandon virtue”.

But on the contrary, the sanctifying grace of the priesthood emanates from the sanctifying grace of the Cross. The priest is at the heart of this renewal by Grace, merited by Our Lord. His influence will be a decisive factor in the sanctification of souls and society. A holy priest, animated by a lively Faith and full of the virtues and gifts of the Holy Ghost can convert many souls to God, influence Vocations and transform a godless society into a Christian society.

With these lofty thoughts about the priesthood in mind, we would like to present to you a few reflections on the inspirational doctrine of the Church on the sanctity of the priesthood, as exposed by that holy Cardinal of Brussels, a leading light of the Episcopacy in the 20thCentury: His Eminence Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines-Brussels from 1906 – 1926

The Cardinal begins his treatise on the Priesthood by highlighting the union of the human priest to the Divine Priest, Our Lord.

The priest is another Christ.

There is one unique Priest of the New Law acceptable to God; a unique Mediator between God the Father and mankind, one unique Pontiff (he who bridges the gap), Jesus Christ. The Apostles and their successors continue and expand this priestly mission of the Incarnate Word, throughout time and space. Therefore, they cannot be priests for themselves and for their own desires. They are representatives of the Divine Priest. They guarantee His presence and priestly action in the midst of the Christian populace. Such is the essence of the Catholic priesthood. 

In his book The Interior Life, the Cardinal develops this theme of the priest who is another Christ. He speaks of the Kingdom of the Incarnate Word and the Church, which is the Temple of the Most High and then continues with the following thoughts: “In this kingdom and in this Temple of the Most High, what is our role? What place do you and I hold in this kingdom? He answers: the first place, but totally dependent upon its Head – Christ Himself. What functions do we perform in this kingdom? The functions of Christ Himself, the High-Priest of the New Covenant.”

At another place in this book, he states: “Your priesthood unites you to Christ; the works of your priesthood make you identify with Him. As I am writing these lines, I am reflecting upon that most solemn moment in our day, when Jesus the High Priest uses my intelligence, my will and my lips inorder that I may think, will and pronounce those august words: ‘This is my body…. this is the chalice of my blood’.”

Concluding this chapter, the Cardinal resumes his thoughts with these lines:“More than any other soul, the priest is held to a life of intimate union with God and with His Divine Son, because the priesthood with which he is invested is a dependency of the priesthood of Christ: in the daily exercise of his priestly functions, he is identified with the High Priest of the New Covenant. Christian Tradition understood this long ago and formulated this thought into a sort of theological adage: Sacerdos alter Christus- the priest is another Christ.”

The Lord is the portion of my inheritance

As a mediator between God and souls and in the image of the Son of God, the priest is a man set apart. By his chosen vocation, he has renounced the possibility of dividing his life between earthly goods and the supreme good. He is dedicated to living solely for God: The Lord is the portion of my inheritance (Psalm 15 v5). Cardinal Mercier writes: “we are by vocation and chosen state of life, consecrated souls, which means separated from the world and dedicated to the service of God. The sacred character of the priesthood which we received at ordination has set the priest apart forever from the profane and worldly; withdrawing him from not only its vices and worldliness, but even from the everyday and legitimate pleasures of work, family and recreation in the world” (Priestly Retreat). 

This lofty vocation requires and presupposes a high degree of moral perfection, which cannot be acquired without self-renunciation, following the example of the Apostles who said to their divine master: “Behold we have left all things and have followed Thee!” (Mark Ch10 v28). However, the priest will be unable to keep conscience of his lofty vocation without a profound spiritual life, otherwise, his ministry will be in danger of becoming a purely humanitarian affair. The Cardinal continues: “Oh my dear priestly colleagues, how these sublime truths of our vocation should make our souls soar high above the mundane, worldliness of our everyday duties; whereas we might often be tempted to neglect our daily meditation which lifts us up to these spiritual heights which we so need, rather than descending to the human and natural level of those who surround us!”

Is the priest a religious?

Cardinal Mercier asks himself this question. He reminds us that all members of the clergy, whether a simple cleric or a consecrated Bishop, are men separated from the world of the faithful and devoted to a life of the service of God and to imitating Christ, the High Priest, in a profound way. Without a doubt all baptised souls are called to consecrate themselves to God by a holy life, but this does not dispense with the need for sacred ministers. “Even under the old testament law, divine providence required that one of the tribes of Israel be especially set apart in order to offer to God sacrifices in the name of the whole people and to preside over the public ceremonies of their religion. Thus, the Levites were freed from temporal and worldly concerns in order to fulfil this priestly calling, but also requiring of them a total devotion of their souls to their religious duties. This old testament law was a prefiguring of the new testament, being an image of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. He instituted a sacrament which would set aside an elite, dedicated to performing the religious duties of the Christian people, towards the eternal Father.”

Every member of the clergy is therefore a man of God, a consecrated soul. By virtue of this consecration to God, they are called to a moral perfection higher than that of the simple lay person, even if the latter is also called by a religious profession to practise the perfection of the evangelical counsels.

Continuing his theme, the Cardinal speaks to his priests in terms which reveal the depths of his conviction: “Yes, my dear priestly colleagues, we belong to the very first religious order ever established in the Church: your founder is Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself; the first religious of His order were the Apostles; their successors are the bishops and in union with them the priests and all the ministers in the major and minor orders including all clerics who make a public avowal of choosing nothing but God Himself as the portion of their inheritance and the only function of their daily lives to be the service of God.” (The Interior Life)

Working for the Kingdom of Heaven

Cardinal Mercier does not directly address the question of priestly celibacy. This is not necessarily surprising since, at that time in history neither priests nor seminarians nor even the faithful, ever questioned the renouncement of marriage by the clergy. It was taken for granted that the priesthood required this renouncement so that the cleric could live ‘for the kingdom of Heaven.’

In his work Priestly Retreat, he looks at ‘weaknesses in the priestly spirit’. On various occasions in this treatise he highlights the dangers which can threaten priestly chastity and he proposes various means to resist this failing. In another place he talks about self-denial and comments: “At first, the Apostles had to continue working in the world, but as soon as it became possible to do so, they passed on this type of manual work to the deacons and gave themselves up exclusively to the work of the spiritual apostolate, namely prayer and preaching, Why then, have we solemnly promised to be celibate in our lives, unless to give ourselves the means to be free from all earthly creatures  and cares in our minds and hearts, free from worldly preoccupations and cares of a family?”

At another point in this work, the Archbishop talks about the means for perseverance in the Priesthood: firstly, mental prayer and secondly, vigilance: to be careful to flee from occasions of sin. This he cites as a particularly important spiritual rule in regard to preserving the priest’s chastity, according to the constant teaching of the Fathers of the Church, St Augustine and St Jerome in particular.

The Cardinal does not tackle priestly celibacy directly, but indirectly it is touched upon throughout his work and is implied and presupposed. In as much as he teaches that the priest is a consecrated soul, given totally to the service of God through the Church, he is highlighting that this implies a total gift of the priest, without reserve; a renunciation of all that is not devoted to God in himself, according to St Peter’s words: “Behold, we have left all things and followed Thee”” (Mt Ch 19 v 27)

Co-workers in the apostolate of the Bishop

It is the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops, who participate in the fullness of the Priesthood of Our Lord: priests participate in the Priesthood of Our Lord in a less perfect way, since they are the co-workers of the Bishop. Their role is to administer the Bishop’s work for souls in a practical way throughout the diocese, because he cannot practically be present everywhere. The priests supply this presence for the Bishop. Since the priest is called to ordination by the Bishop, and receives ordination at his hands, the priest is no longer his own, but he now shares the Bishop’s mission in the diocese of being a mediator between God and His people, in union with the Divine Mediator, Jesus the High Priest. In this sense the priest is the Bishop’s auxiliary and this position brings with it very clear moral consequences in the life of the priest: he is called before God to imitate that priestly pastoral charity, which is the specific form of Christian perfection to which the Bishop is called. 

The solemn promise made by the priest to his ordaining bishop embodies this thought in a profound way: “At that moment when you promised respect and obedience to the spiritual head of your diocese, is it not the case that you were putting yourself at his disposal? You were motivated by a profound sense of charity towards your neighbour and to profess this by a solemn promise of obedience is characteristic of episcopal perfection.”

If the priest seeks to make progress in acquiring the virtue of charity, he could not do better than to imitate those virtues which are characteristic of episcopal perfection. “Look towards your bishop, whose co-adjutant you have become; be merciful towards his weaknesses and have pity on the disproportion that exists between his capacities and the great burden of office which he must bear. Put all of your zealous efforts into bearing the burden with him and there you will discover the way of your own progress in perfection.”

A model for the faithful

By the example of the holiness of his life, as also in imitation of his bishop, the priest must lead the faithful by the example of his Charity and a life animated by all the virtues. As the shepherd of his flock, he must be a role model in the spiritual life for them. This life of virtue is not possible, unless the priest himself be in possession of a profound spiritual life, essentially based upon the spirit of prayer. This is the recurring theme at the heart of Cardinal Mercier’s work and he puts all of his skill into impressing the importance of it in order to raise the spiritual standards of his clergy.

In his work Priestly Retreat, the Cardinal concentrates upon studying the person of Our Lord as our role model in virtue and then requests of his priests that this beautiful and fervent prayer to Our Lord be upon their lips: “I will do of my utmost to resemble Thee, O Lord, so that I may inspire my people to imitate Thy life and that I may be able to have the right to say to them – imitate my life, just as I imitate the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” In another place in his work, the Cardinal prolongs this thought: “By the vocation to which he is called, the priest must be a living example of the holiness of God. The people of God, with their simple and deep Faith, look upon us as ministers of Our Lord.” He reminds us of the age old and well know saying, ‘If the priest is holy, his people will be fervent; if the priest is virtuous, his people will be good; if the priest is merely good, his people will be lukewarm; if the priest is only lukewarm, his people, whom he should be leading in the paths of holiness, will barely be lukewarm or even fallen away’. 

Commentating upon the words of the Pontifical in the ceremony of ordination ’the priest must lead’…, the Cardinal highlights that this leadership is essentially a leadership in the ways of perfection. “Our Lord is the Way, the Truth and the Life and we are his representatives here upon the earth; consequently, we fall far short of the mark if we are not able to say with sincerity both to beginners in the spiritual life and the spiritually advanced, ‘follow my example, as I follow the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ’.”

In his work The Interior Life he reminds us of this sublime vocation to holiness of life of the priest. He talks about the general loss of Faith which is happening in the modern world but goes on to declare that there are two essential ways which can be employed by the Church to re-Christianise the modern world: the preaching of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the propagation of the Catholic Faith through the example of the holiness and exemplary lives of the ministers of Christ, in imitation of the Apostles and their successors. Many souls were converted to the Faith, in early Christian times, by the good example of the first Christians. “The same effect can still be produced today, if we who are called to evangelise, can be seen to be truly living a life of the counsels which Our Lord gave in the Gospels.” 

To Communicate to others the things which we have contemplated

The apostolic life of the priest is the highest form of Christian life in this world, from the point of view of being a synthesis of both contemplation and apostolic activity. Its’ essential element is to communicate to souls the superabundance of the love of God acquired by the priest in his own life of communication with God through prayer. ‘To transmit to others the things which we have contemplated’.

This way of looking at the apostolic life of the priest is directly inspired by the example of the Apostles who spent three years contemplating their Lord and Master. In this perspective, the life of the priest is to know and love Our Lord, first and foremost. This is the key to success in his apostolic ministry, as is shown so clearly in the life of the holy Cure of Ars, St John-Marie Vianney. So, the priest must be a man of prayer. 

Cardinal Mercier mentions in particular the need for prayer to inspire the preparation of the priest’s sermons: “recollect yourself and meditate upon the theme of your sermon before Our lord, mull it over in your mind and heart, believe in it and live it and when this Truth of the Faith about which you will preach will be in your heart and soul, then write your sermon; thus you will have the right dispositions of zeal for God and you will be animated with the upright intention of inspiring souls to seek Him.”

When he addresses the question of the right conditions for success in the priest’s work, he points to a “heavenly wisdom” nourished by a healthy prayer life as being the most important condition. He returns again and again to the importance of prayer as being the most important means to obtain those necessary graces so indispensable to a fruitful apostolate; and the daily practice of meditation as being one of the major means of priestly perseverance. 

The central theme of his work The Interior Life, is the participation in God’s life through grace and the union of mankind with God by Charity. The most perfect state of life in which one can live this Charity being the apostolic life. This consists in communicating the life of God’s Divine Charity, received from the Holy Ghost, in the form of all the apostolic labours of the priest’s ministry. This priestly pastoral work amongst souls will only be able to reach its fulness and perfection if the priest’s own life is truly animated by the spirit of God, obtained through the spirit of prayer and contemplation.

It is the Priest’s role to offer the Sacrifice

One cannot talk about Cardinal Mercier’s treatise on the priesthood without mentioning how highly he places the importance of the Sacrifice of the Mass in the priest’s life. His thoughts are inspired by the best theological sources and his elaboration of the doctrine is inspired by his own profound Faith in the mystery of Redemption by the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross, which is the supreme act of the Incarnate Word of God, priest and victim of the New Law. The Sacrifice of the Mass is the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross and as such, the offering of the Mass at the hands of the priest is his primary function. It is all of this and also the primary means for the priest to maintain his priestly spirit. He must offer the Sacrifice for himself and for his people; whence comes the importance of the Sunday parish Mass. 

In The Interior Life, the Cardinal points out that it is this power to consecrate which pinpoints the place of the priest in the Mystical Body of Christ: “Your priesthood unites you to Christ and the exercising of your priestly functions makes you identify with him.” He mentions in particular the moment of consecration, in which the priest is the living instrument of the High Priest.

According to the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, the mission to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice is the main reason for the necessity of a greater holiness than that of the simple lay person, even if they are religious. The Cardinal writes: “The calling to a great holiness of life for the priest is of great urgency due to the intimate contact which he has with the sublime mystery of the most Holy Sacrament of the altar. To celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass associates us with an act of the highest moral order, which is the event par excellence in the universal order of events established by God. If it had been God’s will that the ordination to the priesthood would lead to the priest offering only one unique renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary during his life, then a lifetime of preparation would still not be enough preparation for that one dramatic act of offering. 

Five days before his own death, Cardinal Mercier dictated a letter to his priests in which he declared: “you have become priests in order to celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass. To live your priesthood is, above all else, to celebrate the holy sacrifice of the mass and to administer the sacraments which flow from it.”