FOR apt definitions it is often prudent to seek the counsel of children. They have a way of making a concise statement which may take wise men pages to arrive at. Once I asked a child, "What is the Church?" He replied without hesitation, "The Church is Christ." Could there be a more adequate or resplendent statement of what the Church is? It would not be erroneous to say that the Church was born at Bethlehem, was wherever Christ was, was commissioned at Ascension, and consummated at Pentecost. The Church is Christ. It was not simply created by Him except in the same sense that He created His own human body taken of the Virgin Mary; it has no being apart from His Being. Its origin is divine, and it is divine. Mortal man could not create a Church.
So our Lord used terms of tremendous significance to describe our living relationship to Him, and to one another in Him, when He employed the exquisite figure, "I am the vine, ye are the branches."
It is no surprise then when St. Paul boldly, emphatically, and repeatedly insists that the Church is the Body of Christ, not metaphorically, but organically, really in the sense that only spiritual things are real, inasmuch as only spiritual things are indestructible, are eternal.
Jesus Christ did not come into the world to desert the world. He did not suffer on the Cross simply to redeem the world. His explicit intention was to continue among men, to draw men into the ship of His salvation whenever and wherever men would let Him, for the purpose of glorifying the Father. The body in which He has chosen to continue to dwell on earth is His Church.
At this point it is well for us to recall that Christ was betrayed by His own, forsaken by His companions, despised by the crowd, despitefully and venomously accused by the spiritual authorities, misunderstood by the worldly, condemned by the powers, and yet was not annihilated. In the end the very powers themselves had to acknowledge Him and His power by nailing the superscription over His Cross, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."
So it is with His Church, His Body: She is often sold out and betrayed from within, she is often forsaken by her members who grow weary in the battle, discouraged and despondent, she is held in contempt by men, ridiculed by the worldly, falsely accused and misrepresented, bound and gagged by authorities, condemned, she has been nailed to the cross time and again in the nineteen hundred years of her history. Yet she ever emerges gloriously with the rising of the sun. And her very murderers have to nail over her head for all the world to read, "This is Jesus." "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it." She is indestructible; she cannot be killed because man cannot kill God, and she is the Body of God. Look over any cross upon which she has suffered and you will find her very foes have inscribed in letters of Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin--the languages of theology, and philosophy, and law--"This is Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," thus confessing that she is indestructible. The Catholic Church lives because it is the Body of Christ.
Over the doorway of an old convent in Nevers, France, a crown of thorns is carved and these words, "Deus est Amor"--"God is Love." Love is the fundamental qualification for priesthood. And in love there is bound up sacrifice, for there is no true love where there is no sacrifice.
As man's instinct prompts him to seek the good, the beautiful, the true--God; likewise his instinct is to make God an offering. Further, his instincts cause him to seek to make a common offering, a corporate offering, in company and with his fellow man. This offering they must make because men love, for love begets sacrifice. Priesthood has grown up among men because of this insistence upon corporate worship. In time an official priesthood always appears. Every religion, however debased, appoints its representatives to make that formal offering.
The God of Love is a sacrificial God because He is Love, and He must give. So under the Old Dispensation He appoints official representatives--a priesthood--to act as a medium between Himself and man. Thus the priesthood that man has created by instinct and the priesthood appointed by God combine, and the priest becomes the representative of God to man and the representative of man to God. We can, therefore, see how our Blessed Lord not only did not condemn the sacrifice of the Temple, but understood it, and announced that He had come to fulfill it, to give that which had been hitherto but a shadow reality. It is, then, that we find in the Babe of Bethlehem, True God and True Man, the perfect Priest, One who is perfectly fitted to re-present a wronged God to a rebellious race, and One who is perfectly equipped to re-present man to a longing God.
In Jesus Christ we find at once the Church and the Priest: we find a perfect corporate medium through which to approach God, and a perfect Priest capable of taking our imperfect offering, perfecting it, and making it wholly acceptable to the Father. All that Holy Scripture has to say about priesthood finds in Him a supreme fulfillment. "This indeed," says Father Baverstock, "is one of the main lessons of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with its sublime insistence on the priesthood as fulfilled in Him who is Pontifex noster, 'our High Priest', and on the eternity of whose priesthood such striking emphasis is laid on the words, 'Thou art a priest forever,' which form the keynote of whole sections."
The priesthood of Christ is eternal. That is, it is from eternity as well as abiding forever. Our Lord was predestined to be not only the victim but also the priest, for I think we may safely say that the Incarnation is the climax of Creation and not a mere consequence of the fall of man. Our Lord's own words summarizing His life, "Father, I have glorified Thee on the earth," would seem to indicate that He became incarnate primarily to glorify the Father and not to exist solely for the good of man. The Church is not, therefore, an institution for the convenience of man, but a spiritual temple for the worship of God. Christ, then, is essentially not only a priest, but the Priest, the one and only Priest, our great High Priest.
Now our great High Priest is, as St. Paul tells the Colossians, "the head of the Body, the Church." This Body, united to Him by the Holy Ghost, is a priestly Body, worshipping God through Him. Every member of the Body is, then, in a very true sense a priest. But we must avoid the error of supposing that there is no particular priesthood in the Body other than that possessed by all the baptized.
There is a priesthood of the laity, a priesthood so high in importance that it is called by St. Peter "a royal priesthood." I think there is great need that the laity should be made acquainted with their royal priesthood and the responsibilities it entails; and likewise that they should be taught of the priesthood, properly so called, which belongs to a particular class. As members of the Body each member has access to the Head, and, to use their own words, "no man may come between God and Me." But to assume that there is no special priesthood is to forget that the members may not function separately but must function corporately; and that somewhere along the line there is, and has got to be, a part of the Body charged with correlating the offerings of man and the distributions of the spiritual bounties of God. The priesthood of the laity need never fear that the particular priesthood will intrude upon their royal prerogatives, but there is always grave danger of those possessing the prerogatives forgetting them.
Now let us consider the priesthood, properly so called.
As the Church is the extension of the Incarnation so the priesthood of the Church is the extension of the powers and functions of the great High Priest. That God may be properly glorified the High Priest in a special way incorporates men into His priesthood, thus extending to all peoples, in all places, throughout all ages a formal and meet means of corporate approach to God. The mystery of the priesthood is a part of the mystery of the Incarnation. "Can the creature who is nothing but dust and sin," asks Bourgoing, "adore his God, acknowledge Him worthily, and give Him the glory due to His Supreme Majesty? Jesus Christ, our Lord, who came into the world to make good this lack and to give supreme honor and glory in our nature to God the Father, by means of a wonderful device, instituted the order of priests in His Church in order to place Himself in their hands and to perpetuate through their ministry that adoration and infinite glory which is due to an infinite God."
The sacerdotal character of the priesthood is "the type and likeness" of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. When the priest speaks, acts, and consecrates it is Jesus Christ who speaks, acts, and consecrates. Jesus preaches through the mouth of the priest, He forgives sins through the priest, He consecrates His Body and Blood in the Eucharist through the priest. So Pourrat rightly says that there is a kind of identification between Jesus and His priest.
And it is just this identification that the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer makes explicit in the ordering of a priest, for the bishop is made to commission and endow the receiver in this wise, "Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of His holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
An attack is being made today on the historic and apostolic ministry of the Church. The question is being asked, "Is there such a thing as the Apostolic Ministry? Did Jesus Christ intend and establish such a Ministry? Did the Apostles perpetuate such a Ministry?" And, "If there is such a Ministry, is there any necessity for it?" In our consideration of the priesthood it becomes plain that such a Ministry is instinctive and, indeed, imperative; that such an effective priesthood has been created and endowed by Christ Himself; that of necessity such a Ministry cannot receive its authority from men, but must be, and has been, sent and commissioned by the Risen and Ascended Christ himself. The Apostolic Ministry is essential to the very -existence of the Church of the Catholic Faith and of the Christian Sacraments.
The chief and foremost function of the priesthood is well and sufficiently defined by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians, "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." That is but a detailed way of saying, "for the glory of God." It is the priest's part to edify, to build up, to build up the people, the members of the Body; not simply to make them a good offering to God, but an holy and separate offering.
Blessed Richard Meux Benson once said, "In the organism of the Body the priest is the heart, receiving the people and giving forth to them the living Body of Christ, thus building up the Body in his heartship under Christ's headship." It is as the heart of the Body that the priesthood has its vital function, catching up the laity's priestly offerings and presenting them to the Head which is in heaven. Thus it is that our earthly offering becomes a heavenly oblation.
"Now the dignity of the priesthood is of fearful extent and of inconceivable obligation." Bourgoing is led to exclaim, "Who can say what dispositions are required in the ecclesiastical state, with regard to all its objects what virtues should be practised; what abstention, what uplifting, what appropriation to God do not so great a work and so holy a ministry demand of us? All inward perfection and communion with God in his highest eminence is inferior to the holiness demanded by this state." All the great mystics have insisted upon the sacerdotal sanctity of the priest. Indeed, priestly sanctity is ever the primary need of the Church. Continually a cry goes up for more priests. I am quite sure we are not so much in need of more priests as we are of more holy priests. A Cure of Ars could convert every single soul in his atheistic, sin-hardened, ignorant parish, and draw people by the thousands to him in his obscure little village.
It was certainly no learning nor preaching power which was the attraction in him. It was nothing more nor less than his extraordinary sanctity. We priests may not be able to draw other men into the priesthood, but we can fill the larger need, we can make ourselves holy priests.
How shall we obtain this sanctity so greatly to be desired? Perhaps we would do well to think of that for a minute. First of all our vocation must be founded upon a great love of God, a steady flame of love which consumes all other loves. Secondly, the priest must nail himself on the cross, for he, too, must be a victim as was the great High Priest. If he would share the unspeakable dignity of his priesthood we must also share the excruciating suffering of the Victim. Always the priest and the victim are one, and in a real sense the Christian priest must offer himself in Christ's sacrifice. A renunciation terrible to contemplate from the world's point of view is required of the priest if he would be an holy and living sacrifice. Every moment of his life he must be presenting himself as a victim along and identifying himself with the Sacred Victim. Thirdly, indifference to the world and the opinion of the world is necessary to attain the sanctity desired of God in his priests. He is not to be as other men: he is called to a different state of life, and a different manner of living is expected and demanded of him by God that he may fill his vocation to the full.
This dire necessity in the priest causes me to interrupt my subject and plead for greater spiritual preparation for the priesthood than is customarily given our candidates for Holy Orders. All the time that can be spared for the intellectual training of the priest is necessary, but his intellectual training is not half so important as is the spiritual training of the candidate, to give him the technique of holy priestly living. Oh, the tragedy of it! We go through our seminaries with no further provision made for our souls than is afforded pious laymen. One suspects that it is anticipated that studying exegesis, dogmatics, Hebrew and homiletics is going some way or other to give a man a foundation upon which to cultivate the specialized spiritual life so imperatively needed by the priest. Well, it just doesn't. What is the consequence? When we emerge from our seminaries we are far from possessing our own souls, and we probably never wholly learn the art of the spiritual life suited to our state, which, let it be said to our credit, most of us never cease to long for. Therefore we are apt to be amateurish in the exercise of our office, or possibly merely gentlemanly, lay-like persons who are in favor of religion. I am sure that our seminaries are doing all that they can for their students in the time they have at their disposal, but there is the crux of the matter, not enough time is allowed. Surely the Church needs to take the preparation of her priests as seriously as does the medical profession its aspirants. Another year is needed in preparing our candidates, and that year, the first, should be utilized to drill the candidate in the ascetic life. We need to be taught repentance, the principles of sacrifice, detachment and renunciation, the use of the daily offices, prayer in all its varieties, especially meditation and mental prayer, the study of spiritual literature, simplicity of life. As the matter now stands we must pick these things up if we can, and the chances of our doing so are very much against us. If the material which enters our seminaries could be taught how to live their own spiritual lives by rule our Church would increase its efficiency an hundredfold. Priestly character should govern the whole life of the priest in all his activities. It is that character which sanctifies all his energies. But how can we have it unless we are taught?
"Non possumus" will be the retort to my plea. Not possible! It must be made possible. The whole future of the Church is going to depend more than ever before upon the priestly character of her ministers. It is just here, in this matter, that the Catholic Congress can serve the Church best. We must not be content with holding up an ideal, we must make it possible for men to attain the ideal. We are forever grasping at straws, at makeshifts, to get us over this emergency or that exigency. There should be no use for rafts, much less straws. We must teach our leaders the mastery of their medium at the beginning.
It becomes plain that every priest must have a definite rule of life, ordering his time so that each duty has its own place in it. Not to have such a rule is to take one's sublime vocation less seriously than does the business man, working for gain; or the servant working for an earthly master.
The laity can do much toward upholding us clergy to this high and useful ideal. The average Episcopalian thinks of his priest simply as a minister in the popular sense of the term; he thinks of him as a person chosen by the parish vestry to look after the congregation, a sort of parish worker. Now and again he is treated as just a very desirable social companion. Sometimes he is thought of as a hireling, a handyman, to do the work of the laity. All such activities he may have a part in, but those are functions belonging particularly to the priesthood of the laity. The function of the priesthood of the laity is that of the hands of the High Priest; the function of the priesthood, properly so called, is that of the heart of the Body, to furnish his life-blood for the members, to convey the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the strengthening and sanctification of the members of the Body. The heart can never do the work of the hands and remain the heart. The priest must diligently perform his own function; and the laity must equally diligently perform its function of the hands. It is thus the Body of Christ can accomplish in the world the work set for it to do.
To the uninstructed, the timid, the indolent, all that is required of the members of Christ may look formidable. But, no, rather is it glorious, for in such submission is the full, the rich, the abundant life, the life which He came to give. It is the life which shall conquer the world; it is the life which can capture the world by its very power of selflessness and love. When all the members of the Body lend themselves to the purposes of the Body, when the heart of the Body keeps to the function of the heart, then, and not until then, shall the world fall a willing captive to Christ, and the Kingdom of God come to pass.
Our work is identical with His: The Head is Jesus; the Body is Jesus; the priesthood is Jesus; each member is Jesus. Now Jesus means Saviour. We live to glorify God and ransom the world.
Life has become a Mass.