The Priests’ Convention
Philadelphia, April 29-30, 1924
From The American Church Monthly, June, 1924, Vol. XV, No. 4.
Edited by Selden Peabody Delany, D.D.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
SPIRITUAL sloth is a common pitfall for the clergy. In these progressive days a priest is apt to become so immersed in the hurry and rush of living that he has little time so much as to eat, to say nothing of saying his prayers. Today, when a premium is placed on executive ability and "mixing," little stress seems to be laid on holiness of living and the cultivation of the knowledge of God.
It is an easy matter to make excuses for oneself. If a rector can point with pride to an office arranged like that of a successful broker, if he has the latest filing system and an abundance of card catalogues and if his days are passed in running from committee meeting to committee meeting and he is spending his energies upon the many civic interests which lie at his door, he may well say that the ability to leap nimbly into his Ford car is of much greater importance than the saying of his prayers. We complain oftentimes of pressure of work and the distracting details of parochial organization, but the truth is that we take a subtle pride in our multitudinous activities and find them much more stimulating than the cultivation of the spiritual life. We spend our time in striving to emulate the great ones of the business world, and as many of us have neither the temperament nor the ability for such things we usually make a mess of it. Humbly must we confess that there are many laymen (and laywomen for that matter) who are far better fitted to invent a complicated system of parochial machinery than ourselves. A fact that most of us are loath to acknowledge. But my dear brethren of the priesthood, these things should not be our chief cause for anxiety.
The priest is called to a life of leadership in things pertaining to the spirit. It follows, inevitably, that he must have knowledge if he is to impart knowledge and a deep spiritual experience if he is to direct others in the path of holiness. If he is to preach Christ Crucified he must be one with the Crucified. This involves a life of discipline. The Way of the Cross is a narrow way—just the width of the Cross—and for a priest it must be straighter and narrower than for any other. Are we treading [367/368] this narrow way? This is the question that should give us pause.
Keeping a Rule of Life is based upon this principle of self discipline. Slipshod and neglected prayers, a desultory reading of Holy Scripture, infrequent and unsystematic study, can result only in a spiritual flabbiness which will make itself felt in every department of priestly ministration. One may set it down as fundamental, that just in proportion as a priest is faithful in the keeping of his rule, will he accomplish lasting results in the directing and spiritual upbuilding of his people. If he is to grow in holiness and guide others to holiness he must labour as diligently in the things of the spirit as in any sort of parish activity.
For guidance in making such a rule for ourselves we turn quite naturally to the Ordination service. In that solemn moment when we were set apart by the laying on of hands "for the office and work of priests on the Church of God," we pledged ourselves to be "diligent in prayers and in the reading of Holy Scripture and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world, the flesh and the devil." If this promise is to be fulfilled, it is evident that there must be some sort of regularity in our daily lives. With this thought in mind let us consider some suggestions as to a possible Rule of Life.
Prayer according to our Ordination vow must hold first place. The highest act of prayer is the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. It would seem to follow logically, that the priest should wish to begin each day by saying mass. If we are to be Cross bearers, going before our people in the Way of the Cross, we must of course be made one with our Lord at the beginning of every day. We shall desire every morning to plead the offering of Calvary and to offer up to Almighty God ourselves, our souls and bodies as living sacrifices. It may be impossible in every case to accomplish this, but it should be unquestionably the ideal of every priest to begin his day at the Altar. He will then go forth to his various duties, filled with the Power of Life of the Master Whom he serves. The strength that he has gained in his Communion will enable him to meet whatever problem or difficulty may lie in his way.
 But the daily reception of the Body and Blood of Christ implies constant vigilance and a sincere preparation of heart and soul for the coming of the Divine Guest. The priest will not, therefore, rush hurriedly from his bed to the altar, but will rise in sufficient season to say his preparation quietly and devoutly. The time of his rising must, of course, be determined by the hour scheduled for the mass but he should allow, not less than half an hour for his prayers before celebrating. When the whistle blows which calls labouring men to work in factory or shop the priest should be standing at the Altar ready to commence his work with theirs, and not turning on his pillow, drowsily congratulating himself that he is a toiler in Christ's Vineyard and not in the vineyard of the world. Nothing is more contemptible than a lazy priest.
The next duty is the recitation of the Divine Office. Mattins and Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer should be said daily. In advocating this one is quite cognizant of the fact that he is laying himself open to the suspicion of being an old fogy. There are those in our midst who look upon these offices with lofty disdain. Our Fathers of the American Church, a generation or so ago dealt very tenderly with us. They omitted from our Prayer Book the rubric as to the obligation of the clergy to say Daily Mattins and Evensong, together with the fasted vigils. One fears that there are many of us only too ready to jump at this opportunity to lay aside "every weight." One feels quite sure, however, that to those who are sufficiently old fashioned to read the Prayer Book offices, they prove helpful and edifying. However this may be, those clergy who call themselves Catholic will desire to link themselves with the priests of past ages by reciting some portion of the psalter every day.
Let each priest then say Mattins after his preparation and before mass. After his thanksgiving Prime may well be said, the lesser hours of Terce, Sext and Nones may be recited at convenient times during the day, Evensong later and Compline just before retiring. This may be easily accomplished and the time consumed not great.
It would seem an impertinence in such a gathering as this to urge upon the clergy the duty of reading the Word of God. But those among you who have any knowledge of the examination [369/370] of Candidates for Holy Orders, may perhaps lend a sympathetic ear. The appalling ignorance of those who come out from our Seminaries as to the contents of Holy Scripture, and the answers, ludicrous were they not deplorable, that are given to the simplest questions concerning the events recorded in the Old and New Testaments, lead one to conclude that the stressing of the daily reading of the Bible as of primary importance may not prove untimely. We must, necessarily, be familiar with the results of modern criticism, but surely a man is incapable of understanding any criticism of a book he has not read and of the contents of which he is profoundly ignorant. I would make an appeal therefore for more constant devotional study of the Word of God. One fears that our Bible study for the most part, has degenerated into a hurried skimming through of the Prayer Book lessons (when Mattins and Evensong are said at all) or a flurried search through a Concordance at the last minute, in the frantic hope of locating a verse that may serve as a text for an ill-prepared sermon. This seems a strange attitude toward a Book in the inspiration of which we have declared our belief and which is for us a means of approach to the Heart and Mind of Almighty God. It has been the boast of the Anglican Communion that the Bible is enthroned in her Churches, supposedly a symbol of its enshrinement in the hearts of her people. Today it would appear to be occupying a rather lonely throne and a somewhat dusty shrine.
We should be endeavouring each day to familiarize ourselves more and more with the text of Holy Scripture. Those of us who have not impaired our mental powers by a too consistent laziness, should memorize some portion of it daily. We should set apart a definite time for meditation upon God's Holy Word. Meditation, as we all know, is no easy task but a half hour spent each morning in a sincere endeavour by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to open one's heart and mind to God's message, will bear fruit abundantly in our spiritual life.
Perhaps the best time for meditation is immediately after mass when the mind is clear and the worries of the day have not clouded the joy of our communion. The priest who tries earnestly and sincerely to spend this time with God, will find it a much more profitable introduction to his day's work than [370/371] the luxurious loafing after breakfast, when, from the depths of his easy chair he scans the headlines of the morning paper, smoking his favourite pipe and twiddling his toes in his antique slippers.
If possible the morning should be given to study. We need a learned as well as a pious priesthood. Here again nothing can be accomplished unless a regular scheme of study be mapped out and adhered to. It is probably too much to hope that Latin, Greek or Hebrew will form any large part of the curriculum. In these modern times, these subjects are chiefly useful to Bishops in giving them opportunity to exercise their Catholic prerogative of dispensation. We should, however, keep abreast of the times theologically. The priest should see to it that his library does not consist wholly of those volumes for which in his enthusiastic and intellectual seminary days he ran up a bill at Gorham's. If he is to hear confessions he will be doing some consistent work in casuistry, if he is to combat Modernism he must have some intelligent notion of what it is all about and Biblical criticism cannot be an unexplored field.
Again, if we are to wield any influence among the men and women of the present generation we must prove ourselves men of culture with wide interests. While theology and kindred subjects must of course hold first place we must find time for current literature and the topics of the day. We must do our utmost to dispel the prevailing opinion that the clergy are interested only in the details of their profession and have little knowledge of anything that is going on in the world. Physicians do not as a rule confine their conversation to animadversions on their latest experience in the operating room, neither do lawyers entertain their friends with dissertations upon fine points of jurisprudence. In fact, the introduction of such topics into general conversation is considered a serious breach of good taste and results in boredom. Our social gifts then should not be limited to discussions of ecclesiastical subjects and the petty details of parish rows. We must keep our minds stimulated by wide reading. This means real work and not the occasional skimming of the book reviews in the Literary Digest and New York Times.
As a last consideration, it is doubtless only necessary to suggest [371/372] that a priest who does not make regular and frequent confessions cannot be capable of ministering the Sacrament of Penance and has no possible right to encourage the practice among his people.
Our Rule of Life must be strict enough to exert real pressure upon the Will. Just here lies the secret of its efficacy in the development of the priestly character. In the surrendered will we find the true meaning of the Cross.
"I came not to do mine own Will but the Will of Him that sent me," said our Blessed Lord and that surrendered Will led Him to Calvary. "He became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross."
The priest if he would be as his Master must give himself up in loving obedience. In the keeping of his Rule he finds a very practical means of putting himself to the test. Any Rule that we may undertake will prove irksome at times. It will be found no easy thing to keep to the path we have determined to follow. There will be periods when the spirit will rebel and the temptation assail us to break the fetters with which we are bound and to seek a false freedom in the feverish round of more congenial duties and the enlivening companionship of surveys and card catalogues. Days when even the mass itself will be cold and formal; when prayers are dead and the Word of God holds no message for our indifferent souls. These are the moments of real testing. We are feeling the weight of the Cross and the road to Calvary stretches stony and bleak before our discouraged eyes. But in these seasons of spiritual dryness we shall find tremendous opportunities for perseverance and self surrender. So shall we win deliverance from the crying priestly sins of self will and ugly pride. For we are both self willed and proud. Let us not deceive ourselves. The taunts that are flung at us are not wholly undeserved. Too often are we but sorry examples of the religion that we profess and teach.
The character of the priest preaches a more telling sermon than any word he may utter from the pulpit. What he is, is of greater moment than what he says. To preach high ideals and to fail utterly to realize them in one's own life is soul destroying. We cannot hide our true selves beneath the wrappings of Catholic ceremonial. The chasuble, however richly [372/373] adorned, does not make the priest, and that useful and becoming ornament, the biretta, proves only too often a veritable crown of pride. Frequently do we confuse priestly dignity with "cockiness" and we are prone to impale our congregations upon the spikes of our ecclesiastical hobbies. We love to lord it over God's heritage, and "greetings in the market place" are like balm to our souls. Too many parishes are called upon to "suffer fools gladly"—Can we wonder that their joy is not wholly unrestrained?
Sacrificial love lies at the foundation of the Catholic religion. The priest should be a follower of the Good Shepherd "Who laid down His life for the sheep." Pride, ambition, selfishness and love of ease should find no place in his life. If he would utterly vanquish these temptations, he must live very near to God. Growth in Holiness must be his first concern—the Cross his only glory.
The Rule of Life as we try honestly to keep it, will reveal to us the measure of our weakness and the extent of our self will, but it will prove to be the Royal Way that will lead us to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Let us, my brethren, ponder these things, lest that by any means "when we have preached to others" we shall be found castaways at last.