Friday, February 9, 2018

You are a Priest Forever: Four Books with Frederick Blonigen

'Parish Priest' by Jack Butler Yeats
(brother of the famous poet)

The Catholic priesthood has been under demonic attack ever since Christ instituted the sacrament of Holy Orders and ordained His Apostles as the first priests. Satan fears the priesthood because he knows Christ endowed spiritual authority in the men He called: authority to administer the sacraments, authority to make Christ fully present in the Mass, authority to forgive sins, authority to preach and teach the Word of God. Priests are given a specific mandate to drive out demons. The Evil One understands the Apostolic communal body as the living foundation stones of the New Temple. The Great Deceiver will do anything to undermine and destroy Christ’s holy priesthood. In our own time, Satan’s attack against the priesthood has intensified, most obviously in the reappearance of the Judas priest as a sexual predator. This scandal of desacralization has been fed by allowing homosexual men to be ordained priests. Nothing so disrupts the ordered public love of brothers under the Father as the perversion of that love by incest masquerading as intimacy. The holiest of the sacral brotherhoods has been once again betrayed by a kiss. Over 80 percent of the sexual abuses cases involved homosexual priests abusing teenage boys.

The damage done to the priesthood is incalculable. Despite the enormous suffering endured by abuse victims, the billions of dollars of parish contributions paid in law suits to lawyers and victims, and the tremendous loss of confidence in clerical authority that has ensued, the homosexual network within the priesthood and episcopacy continues to do the devil’s work of corruption. A great cleansing is still needed to eradicate this diabolical network. Through the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the courage of bishops within the Church, the disorder can be removed. The Catholic priesthood can again be the sacral brotherhood Christ instituted on the night before He died.

Today’s fractured fraternity makes it more important than ever to remember the indispensable role of the Catholic priesthood and the countless holy, brave, and dedicated priests who served God’s people in a spirit of selfless love. Four recent books renew our love and reverence for the priesthood established by the Eternal Priest, Jesus Christ.

Since its inception, Ignatius Press has published the translated works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. A recent publication, Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today, is a beautiful and inspiring collection of homilies delivered by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) over a period of sixty years on the nature and purpose of the priesthood. Reading these insightful homilies, one immediately senses a man of deep prayer. Pope Francis begins his forward: "Every time I read the works of Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI, it becomes clear to me that he pursued theology ‘on his knees’ and still does: on his knees, because we see that he is not only a preeminent theologian and master of the faith, but a man who really believes, really prays."  Distinguished Catholic historian Dr. James Hitchcock argues that Pope Benedict XVI was the single greatest theologian ever to sit on the Chair of St. Peter, and that includes such magisterial popes and Doctors of the Church as St. Leo the Great and St. Gregory the Great and the recent papacy of St. Pope John Paul II.  At the Chrism Mass on April 11, 1979, in Munich, in a homily entitled “Becoming ‘Spiritual Clergymen’ in the Breathing Space of the Spirit,” the future pope says, “The priest must first and foremost be a man who believes. This is the center of all his activity, and if it is not present, then nothing really happens anymore.... People expect above all a priest with deep faith, a priest who prays, a priest who lives according to the program of the Beatitudes.”

                                              Benedict with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew                                           
(Istanbul 2006)

At another Chrism Mass in Munich (April 15, 1981), in a homily entitled: ”Eucharist and Pentecost as the Origin of the Church,” Joseph Ratzinger preaches on the priest with the Holy Spirit: “And finally: the Holy Spirit is mission. At the end of the Mass come the words, ‘Ite missa est’. ‘Go it is mission! And it is not wrong that this key word in tradition gave the name ‘Mass’ to the whole event, because this whole thing is mission, because all of God’s deeds always exist for others. The Holy Spirit always works under the banner of "For"; he never merely comes to someone privately; rather, he always comes so that something can be handed on. He is always the mission, the appeal to hand on. And so we should take into ourselves anew this law of "For". It is depicted in Sacred Scripture when the Holy Spirit appears in the image of the fiery tongue. Fire is the power that warms and brightens. ‘Did not our hearts burn within us...while he opened to us the Scripture?’ ( Lk.24:32) Only someone who himself is burning can kindle. We must become burning Christians. We must make that journey of the disciples of Emmaus with him, in which we let him make us burn with his word, in which we submit to and expose ourselves to the fire that makes separated elements molten and combines them and creates unity.”

A third homily from a sixtieth priestly jubilee Mass for a priest-friend in Munich in 1983 is entitled “The Great Venture of Priestly Service. ” This service though is not waiting on tables but offering the sacrifice of praise and prayer.  Pope Benedict says, "Only someone who enters into Christ’s solitude with the Father can get to know him. Someone who does not go in will, like the people then, take him for a prophet, a social revolutionary, or for whatever else fits his world view. Only by entering into his inmost being by praying with him does it dawn on us who He is: the Son of the living God. Therefore part of being a priest is being one who personally prays, who in the beautiful prayers of our tradition— the Way of the Cross and the Rosary—as it were, lets his heart be filled with God and in the Divine Office prays along with the prayer of the millennia and thereby, so to speak, becomes Catholic and broadens himself into the prayer of all ages. Only in this way can he prepare to be the voice of Jesus Christ in the Mass, to speak with the I of Jesus Christ, to say, ‘This is my Body.’ No one can do this on his own, and thank God the validity of our sacraments depends, not on our sanctity, but solely on the Lord’s mercies, which are always present. And yet how could we represent him, dare to give him a voice, if we have not become close to him."

This collection of homilies by Pope Benedict XVI on the priesthood is almost 400 pages long. The relatively short addresses are best read one or two gems at a time. It is a perfect gift for your parish priest, for a priest friend, for a seminarian or for anyone who wants to read profound and timeless reflections on the vocation of the Catholic priesthood.

A second recent book, The Joy of Being a Priest: Following the Cure of Ars, is written by  Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna. It is based on six talks given by Cardinal Schonborn to an international group of priests in the French village of Ars made famous by its holy pastor John Vianney (1786-1859). Topics include: Understanding  the priesthood in light of Vatican II; Prayer and spiritual combat; The Eucharist and pastoral charity; Being an instrument of God’s mercy in the confessional; Preaching the Word of God effectively; and The role of Mary in the life of the priest. Sprinkled throughout these splendid talks are memorable stories, anecdotes, and famous words from the Cure of Ars himself. For example, St. John Vianney’s definition of the priesthood: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus... Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die , not of fright but of love.” To a priest friend, St. John Vianney explained how he often did penance for those who came to him for confession: “I will tell you my recipe: I give sinners a small penance and the rest I do in their place.” There is also the wonderful story of St. John Vianney’s arrival at Ars. Unable to find his way to Ars the first time because of the fog, he asked a young boy taking care of sheep the way to Ars. The young boy showed him the road to the village and in turn St. John Vianney said to him: “My young friend, you have shown me the way to Ars; I shall show you the way to heaven.”

The parish church of Ars

Schonborn’s insights on the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist are especially memorable. Cardinal Schonborn is struck that on the evening of Easter when Christ appears in the upper room to the fearful Apostles, He greets them with a message of peace. He does not reproach them for their sins over the weekend but gives them the power to forgive sins. To quote Cardinal Schonborn: "Is this not the central point in rediscovering the sacrament of Reconciliation: his pardon, his mercy! Actually, Jesus has pardoned us in advance! His mercy precedes all our sins. This really turns all our ideas upside down. We suppose that God pardons us if we change our lives. The contrary is true: it is because we encounter the stunning pardon of Jesus that we convert and change  our lives. How difficult it is for us, sometimes, to enter into this logic! ‘He first loved us’(1 Jn. 4:19)."

In his talk on the Eucharist, Cardinal Schonborn reminds his retreatants that at the very heart of their priestly life is the Holy Mass. It is, he says, “the measure, the nucleus, the source of our ministry as priests.” The Cardinal comments on the great joy St. John Vianney always demonstrated when he prayed the Mass. It was a special moment to see the Cure of Ars look with such tender love at the host after he had consecrated it. Routinely, Fr. Vianney’s sermon at Mass was simply to point to the tabernacle and say to the people, “Jesus is really there and if only you knew how much he loves you.” The cardinal’s message is that all priests imitate their patron saint, John Vianney, and demonstrate the joy of following Jesus by Eucharist-centered lives. That simple priest was the Church's response to the bloody guillotines of the Enlightenment's French Revolution.  He renewed the great Catholic cultural institution by which we think globally and act locally. For it is only a holy priest who can collect scattered sinners into a coherent household of love centered on Penance and the Eucharist. Only the priest can give us the Catholic parish.      

The Priest Barracks: Dachau, 1938-1945 by French journalist Guillaume Zeller. Dachau, in the heart of Bavaria, was known as the "priests’ concentration camp." This Nazi camp had thirty barracks and three of them were occupied by clergy from 1938 to 1945. The vast majority of the Catholic men in the three barracks were the 2,579 priests, monks, and seminarians from all over Europe but especially from Poland and Germany. More than a third of the those inmates in the “priest block” (1,034) died at the hands of their Nazi captors. This book is an extraordinary account of brutality encountering holiness. The intense hatred of the Nazi regime for Christianity was manifested with special ferocity in the priest barracks at Dachau. Precisely because they were priests, many of the prisoners were treated with additional cruelty by both the guards and fellow prisoners. Suffering was intense: long hours of grinding work, a starvation diet, rampant disease, and prisoners being used in ghoulish medical experiments. Dachau, like all the Nazi concentration camps, was a veritable hell on earth. Yet even amidst such suffering and evil the light of God’s grace penetrated the dark. The priests secretly administered the sacraments, especially penance and anointing of the sick, and amazingly were allowed to have a makeshift chapel in the camp where the Eucharist was celebrated under the strict surveillance of the camp guards. Because there were bishops imprisoned at Dachau, some of the priest prisoners even organized a secret ordination of a deacon to the priesthood.

Heinrich Himmler on an inspection tour of Dachau in 1936
(three years after it opened)

One priest prisoner at Dachau said of his stay at the camp: "Three years of experience that I would not have missed for anything in the world.” This statement seems shocking but it was shared by many of these chosen ones -- the priests of the camp. Enduring such evil, they bore much fruit. An amazing brotherhood among the priests was forged: they upheld the dignity of the priest and of man in the crucible of Dachau. This book is an important addition to literature on the Holocaust. It is a powerful account of priestly sacrifice and courage proclaiming the Gospel in an environment of unspeakable evil producing profound purification. The camp enkindled in those who survived a renewed lifelong desire to build God’s kingdom through word and sacrament.

A  final book is the recently published Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—And Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization by William J. Slattery. To call this book a masterpiece is an understatement! I consider this the Catholic Book of the Year 2017. Praise for this amazing work abounds. Catholic historian and economist Thomas Woods has said, “Father Slattery’s book is the final blow to the Enlightenment’s version of Western history, in which the Church was nothing but an obstacle to progress. I heartily recommend it.” Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, President Emeritus of the Vatican Committee for Historical Sciences, says of Fr. Slattery’s book, “Heroism and Genius will open windows to unknown vistas of history—and in a delightful way. As one travels through the chapters there is a sensation of climbing a mountain and being exposed to ever vaster panoramas of thrilling landscapes.” And the Canadian Catholic novelist and artist Michael D. O’Brien says of Fr. Slattery’s work, “This extraordinary book is an essential read for anyone desiring to understand where we have come from and where we presently are, what we were saved from and what we are in grave danger of losing.”

Fr. William Slattery was ordained to the priesthood in 1990 by St. Pope John Paul II. He has given Ignatian retreats in both English and French throughout North America and is presently working on a book on priestly formation.

In the introduction to Heroism and Genius, Fr. Slattery explains the three-part structure of the book: “Part I ...sketches an overview of recent conclusions among historians regarding the Church’s role in the forging of Western explains that Catholic priests were its constructors...and it lays out the milestones in the saga from 200 through 1300 A.D.  Part II, comprising chapters 2 through 5, describes the gradual shaping from 300 to 1000 A.D. of the embryo of medieval Christendom: the sociopolitical-cultural unity that was the heart of Western civilization... Part III, comprising chapters 6 through 10, shows the decisive role of priests in  building social, artistic, and economic institutions that mark Western civilization as both original and originating in the Catholic matrix.”

In Part II entitled “Laying the Foundations of a New Civilization", (circa A.D. 300-1000), the author begins by quoting  G.K. Chesterton’s classic defense of Catholicism, Orthodoxy: “The most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have heard said of it. How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.” With the Fall of Rome in the early 5th century and the invasion of the many barbaric tribes from the north, the Western world did, indeed, enter what could be accurately described as the Dark Ages. Too often the phrase "the Dark Ages" is used to label everything medieval or pre-modern: it was a phrase made popular during the so called Enlightenment which ushered in secular modernity. The rationalist myth of that era considered those who lived before the 18th century as marked by abysmal ignorance, superstition, and irrational religious beliefs. But which age strayed farther from reality?  Basil Wiley in his literary history of the 18th century described the "Enlightenment" as a historical period that was "dark with excessive light." The shrinkage of wisdom and Spiritual Blindness that marked the 18th century might more accurately be called the Age of Endarkenment. The bloody 20th century replete with scientific Marxism, racial Darwinism and atheistic feminism has borne its fruit. Humanity is still recovering.

During the correctly described Dark Ages (two or three centuries) after the fall of Rome, it was the Catholic Church and her leaders who saved Western civilization. Fr. Slattery focuses on four great Catholic bishops who stand as giants of thought and action. These men helped lay the foundations of the new Christian order. We know them as the four "Great Fathers of the West": St. Ambrose (d 397), St. Augustine (d 430), St. Leo the Great (d 461), and St. Gregory the Great (d 604). As the author points out, in the vacuum of civil leadership after the Fall of Rome, it was the bishops who shouldered responsibility for society and helped establish and maintain social order. Slattery presents four brilliant portraits of these great early bishops.

Especially impressive is his portrait of St. Augustine of Hippo and his dramatic change upon ordination. Fr. Slattery says, “The priesthood forged Augustine because its mission of teaching, sanctifying, and governing in the Church vigorously thrust him away from any tendency to make culture an end in itself, remote from the urgencies of the moment, and from the overarching purpose of life. It perfected his ardent, turbulent power for love, transforming it into energy at the service of the people since the priesthood exists not for the fulfillment of the individual who receives it but for the benefit of those whom he shepherds.” Later in his long essay on Augustine, the author provides this beautiful summary of Augustine’s greatest work, The City of God: “Systematically, Augustine’s work unfolds the idea that Christianity is no mere ‘religion’, a purely private relationship between the individual and God hidden within the conscience, but rather a revolutionary force capable of transforming society in all its dimensions—the answer to all the great questions about the purpose of history, human nature, marriage, family, education, justice, and the relationship of the individual and the state to the Church. In the measures in which civilization is built according to the divine blueprint offered it by Catholicism, it will be a society eminently worth of man. But the efforts to build will occur in wartime, for history is essentially a great drama, an unending battlefield until the world’s last night, on which the visible and invisible forces of good and evil fight for the conquest of man’s soul. Each individual must decide on which side he will combat, which city he will construct: ‘Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to contempt for God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.’ ”

In chapter 4 entitled “Creative Minorities: the Benedictine and Irish Monks,” Fr. Slattery opens the reader to the foundational contribution of the monks and monastic life. “Benedict and his monks can rightly be called ‘The Fathers of European Civilization,’ for during the Dark Ages, their monasteries became ‘the storehouses of the past and the birthplace of the future,’ fortresses in which civilization sheltered beneath the banner of a saint: all that was noblest in learning and in culture was preserved in them...The monastery, in order to be ‘a school for the the Lord’s service’, was a community, a micro state, self-sufficient and agrarian, with its chapel, refectory, dormitory, workshops, mill, garden, guesthouse, and library. Self-contained it might well be, but it was certainly not designed to create men with 'ingrown eyeballs.' The Benedictines, like their Celtic and Egyptian brothers, were supposed to be men who entered the monastery not only for their own salvation but for the salvation of their fellow men.”

The Irish monastery of Skellig Michael (founded 7th century)

Fr Slattery paints a vivid portrait of these republics of prayer, study, work, and protection. The great achievements we will find in the cities and nations of Europe, we find first in the monasteries. These fraternities of work, prayer, and study are the seeds of the universal male suffrage and male citizenship movements that will emerge centuries later within the nations of Europe. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the monks gave status to prayer, study, and to manual labor. Unlike the hereditary rulers of Empires, the monks built their social structure on fraternities of equals who elected their abbots. Artisan craftsmanship and agricultural innovation would emerge from their free labor. This communal immersion in the tasks of local community for the greater glory of the God of the Universe will forever mark the Catholic genius.

Saint Benedict is rightly called the Father of Western Monasticism and a Founder of Europe. Saint Columbanus [543-615], Saint Columba [521-597], and the Celtic monks played a major role as well through their monastic schools, their great skill in agriculture, and their ability to turn their monasteries into fortresses of justice by promoting law and protecting the poor from unscrupulous overlords.

A great advantage of historical works over many theological and philosophical tomes is the vivid appearance of personalities in historical contexts who make the Word become flesh. Fr. Slattery paints such priestly portraits: Alcuin, Charlemagne’s mentor and a major figure in promoting Catholic education and culture for the masses; St. Bernard of Clarivaux, a Cistercian monk of enormous influence both in the Church and civil society, called the "Conscience of the 12th Century"; and Pope St. Gregory VII in the 11th century, famous for his rigorous reform of abuses in the Church especially lay investiture, and for his excommunication of Emperor Henry IV of Germany.

A pleasant institutional surprise is his narrative of the genesis of free market economics first in the medieval monasteries and later in the Scholastic thinkers of what is called the School of Salamanca. Cultures forge certain kinds of personalities and personalities express those cultures. In-depth descriptions of the Ancient Rite of the Mass, the Gothic cathedrals, Gregorian chant, chivalry and knighthood, and the Templars set the cultural context that forged the great priests and bishops of these different eras.

In the conclusion of this magnificent history, the author explains why the Catholic Church will forever be the leaven for civilization: “One thing we do know for certain: the divinely constituted Church of Jesus Christ carries within her genes an eternal wisdom and energy that is capable of perennial rejuvenation. Neither persecution, nor inept or corrupt leadership, nor the catastrophes of history will ever succeed in devitalizing her. ’Christianity, remarked Chesterton,’ has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.’ Her vitality, so manifest in the passage from the catacombs to cathedrals in the first millennium, is fully capable of yet another herculean struggle to bring into existence another Christian civilization...The new Christian civilization may begin anywhere. Even, perhaps, once again in the West, in the Americas and Europe. The deeply Catholic culture that will inspirit this new civilization may rise elsewhere: the Church is larger and greater than the West. Her reality and her destiny are not bounded by the West’s frontiers: for she is Catholic, universal, and her future may flourish signally among the vigorous Catholics of Africa or among the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and other Asian peoples who, in increasing numbers, are intrigued by Christianity.”

The priests of a single diocese under a courageous bishop or a reformed religious house under a holy superior or a small Catholic nation under an eloquent statesman could spark the renewal. A single monastery or one truly reformed diocesan presbyterate can become "the creative minorities who will raise the phoenix of Christian social ideals from the ashes."

Heroism and Genius is a work of brilliance and beauty, a work of consummate scholarship written with exceptional intelligence, passion, and love for Christ and His Church. It is the kind of book one would like to put in the hands of every priest to reaffirm him in his priestly vocation. It is this reviewer’s hope and prayer that these books will be a source of inspiration for priests, young and old, and young men who may be discerning a vocation to the priesthood.

The Catholic priesthood today is in crisis. So is our country and so is humanity. It is a crisis that can be overcome by fidelity to Christ, the Eternal Priest, and by a spiritual reform of the brotherhood of fathers which Christ constituted. The great love of Mary for her Son that brought forth His Body is now present in another form of love which has been given the authority to effect the sacramental incarnation. "As my Father has loved Me, so I love you" and "so you should love one another" said Christ in instituting the sacral apostolic fraternity.

It was unwavering faith in Christ and fidelity to His Mystical Body that built Christian civilization. The same faith and zeal will rebuild the City of God. God has called all men into existence. He has called some men from all eternity to be ontologically conformed to Christ in a public love rooted uniquely in the love of the Father for His Beloved Son. These elected men can cast out demons and pray the Holy Mass. They forgive sins and proclaim that Christ has risen from the dead. They fish for men and draw us to eternal life with the Father through His Son. When priests answer their call, the nations will be baptized. They are the template of ordered brotherly love under the Father. Saint John Chrysostom, in his Patristic classic, 'On the Priesthood,' captured the splendor of the joyful priest: "The soul of the priest ought to blaze like a light illuminating the world."

May God grant the Church in our time such men ready to set the world on fire with the light and love of Christ.

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