The Apostles were clothed with the powers of Jesus Christ. The Priest, as the successor of the Apostles, is clothed with their power. This fact reveals to us the eminent dignity of the priestly character.
The exalted dignity of the Priest is derived not from the personal merits for which he may be conspicuous, but from the sublime functions which he is charged to perform. To the carnal eye the Priest looks like other men, but to the eye of faith he is exalted above the angels, because he exercises powers not given even to angels.
The Priest is the ambassador of God, appointed to vindicate His honor and to proclaim His glory. "We are ambassadors for Christ," says the Apostle; "God, as it were, exhorting by us."[II. Cor. v. 20.] If it is esteemed a great privilege for a citizen of the United States to represent our country in any of the courts of Europe, how much greater is the prerogative to represent the court of heaven among the nations of the earth! "As the Father hath sent Me," says our Lord to His Apostles, "I also send you."[John xx. 21.] "Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, ... teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you. And, behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world."[Matt. xxviii. 19, 20.] The jurisdiction of the earthly representatives is limited, but the authority of the ministers of God extends over the whole earth. "Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel," says Christ, "to every creature."[Mark xvi. 15.]
Not only does Jesus empower His ministers to preach in His name, but he commands their hearers to listen and obey. "Whosoever will not receive you, nor hear your words, going forth from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city."[Matt. x. 14,15.] "He that heareth you heareth Me; and he that despiseth you despiseth Me; and he that despiseth me despiseth Him that sent Me."[Luke x. 16.]
God requires not only that His Gospel should be heard with reverence, but that the persons of His Apostles should be honored. As no greater insult can be offered to a nation than to insult its representative at a foreign court, so no greater injury can be offered to our Lord than to do violence to His representatives, the Priests of His Church. "Touch not My anointed, and do no evil to My prophets."[Paralip, xvi. 22.] God avenged the crime of two and forty boys who mocked the prophet Eliseus by sending wild beasts to tear them in pieces. The frightful death of Maria Monk, the caluminator of consecrated Priests and Virgins, who ended her life a drunken maniac on Blackwell's Island, proves that our religious institutions are not to be mocked with impunity.
When an ambassador is accredited from this country to a foreign court, he is honored with the confidence of the President, from whom he receives private instructions. So does Jesus honor His ambassadors with His friendship and communicate to them the secrets of heaven: "I will not now call you servants; for, the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth. But I have called you friends, because all things whatsoever I have heard of My Father I have made known to you."[John xv. 15.]
What a privilege to be the herald of God's law to the nations of the earth! "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings and that preacheth peace: of him that showeth forth good, that preacheth salvation, that saith to Sion: Thy God shall reign."[Isaiah lii. 7.] How cherished a favor to be the bearer of the olive branch of peace to a world deluged by sin; to be appointed by Heaven to proclaim a Gospel which brings glory to God, and peace to men; that Gospel which strengthens the weak, converts the sinner, reconciles enemies, consoles the afflicted heart and holds out to all the hope of eternal salvation!
I have often reflected on a remark made to me by Senator Bayard of Delaware: "You of the clergy," he said, "have a great advantage as public speakers over us political men. You enjoy the confidence of your hearers. You can speak as long as you please, you can admonish and rebuke as much as you please, without any fear of contradiction; while we are constantly liable to interruption."
O! what a tremendous power is wielded by the Catholic preacher! Hundreds of souls are hanging on his words; hundreds are sustained by him in spiritual life, and leave the Church depending on him whether they go forth fortified with the Bread of life, or famished and disappointed. I can say of every Priest what Simeon said of our Lord, "This man is set for the fall and the resurrection of many in Israel."
Not only are Priests the ambassadors of God, but they are also the dispensers of His graces and the almoners of His mercy. "Let a man so regard us," says the Apostle, "as ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God."[I. Cor. iv. 1.]
How can he be called a dispenser of God's mysteries whose labors are confined to preaching? But he is truly a dispenser of Divine mysteries who distributes to the faithful the Sacraments, the mysterious symbols and efficient causes of grace.
As St. John Chrysostom observes, it was not to angels or archangels, but to the Priests of the New Law that Christ said: "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven." To them alone He gave the power to forgive sins, saying: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven." To them alone He gave the power of consecrating His Body and Blood and dispensing the same to the faithful. He has empowered the Priests of the New Law to impart the grace of regeneration in Baptism. He has assigned to them the solemn duty of preparing the dying Christian for his final journey to eternity: "Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil, in the name of the Lord."[James v. 14.]
As far as heaven is above earth, as eternity is above time, and the soul is above the body, so far are the prerogatives vested in God's ministers higher than those of any earthly potentate. An earthly prince can cast into prison or release therefrom. But his power is over the body. He cannot penetrate into the sanctuary of the soul; whereas the minister of God can release the soul from the prison of sin, and restore it to the liberty of a child of God.
To sum up in a few brief sentences the titles of a Catholic Priest:
He is a king, reigning not over unwilling subjects, but over the hearts and affections of his people.
His spiritual children pay him not only the tribute of their money, but also the tribute of their love which royalty can neither purchase nor exact.
He is a shepherd, because he leads his flock into the delicious pastures of the Sacraments and shelters them from the wolves that lie in wait for their souls.
He is a father, because he breaks the bread of life to his children, whom he has begotten in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.[I. Cor. iv. 15.]
He is a judge, whose office it is to pass sentence of pardon on self-accusing criminals.
He is a physician, because he heals their souls from the loathsome distempers of sin.
St. John, in his Apocalypse, represents the Church under the figure of a city. "I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband."[Apoc. xxi. 2.] Our Savior is the Architect and Founder of this celestial city. The Apostles are its foundation. The faithful are the living stones of the edifice. The anointed ministers of the Lord are the workmen chosen to adjust and polish these stones, that they may reflect the beauty and glory of the sun of justice that perpetually illumines this city. The Priests are engaged in adorning the interior of the heavenly Jerusalem by enriching, with virtue, the precious souls entrusted to their charge. "God gave some, indeed, Apostles, and some Prophets, and other Evangelists, and others Pastors and Doctors, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ,"[Eph. iv. 11, 12.] which is His Church. What an honor is this to the Priest of the New Law! Surely God "hath not done alike to every nation, and His judgments He hath not made manifest to them."[Ps. cxlvii. 20.]
With how much more force may we apply to the successors of the Apostles the words which God spoke to the Priests of the Old Law: "Hear, ye sons of Levi. Is it a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from all the people and joined you to Himself, that ye should serve Him in the service of the tabernacle, and should stand before the congregation of the people and minister unto Him?"
Our Savior affectionately puts this question three times to Peter: "Simon, lovest thou Me?" And three times Peter answer Him, "Lord, Thou knowest that I love thee." What proof of love, then, does Jesus exact of Peter? Does He say: If thou lovest Me, chastise thy body by fasting and stripes, prophesy, work miracles, lay down thy life for Me? No, but "feed My lambs," "feed My sheep." This was to be the closest bond of Peter's devotion to his Master, and of the Master's affection for His disciple.
And our Lord declares that the reward of His disciples would be commensurate with the dignity of their ministry: "Behold," says Peter, "we have left all things and have followed Thee, What, therefore, shall we have? And Jesus said to them, Amen, I say to you that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of His majesty, you shall also sit on twelve seats, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." And immediately after He adds that the worthy successors of the Apostles shall share in their felicity: "And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name's sake shall receive a hundredfold and shall possess life everlasting."[Matt. xix. 27-29.]
I know that there are many in our days who deny that Priests possess any spiritual power--as if God could not communicate such power to men. I understand why atheists and rationalists, who reject all revelation, should deny all supernatural authority to the ministers of God. But that professing Christians who accept the testimony of Scripture should share in this unbelief passes my comprehension.
Has not the Almighty, in numberless instances recorded in Holy Writ, made man the instrument of His power? Did not Moses convert the rivers of Egypt into blood? Did he not cause water to issue from the barren rock? Did not the prophets predict future events? Did not the sun stand still in the heavens at the command of Josue? Did not Eliseus, the prophet, raise the dead to life? Why do we believe all these prodigies? Because the Scriptures recorded them. Does not the same Word of God declare that the Apostles received power to confer the Holy Ghost by the imposition of hands, to forgive sins, to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ, etc. Is not the New Testament as worthy of belief as the Old? Has not Jesus Christ solemnly promised to be always with the ministers of His Church, "even to the consummation of the world," strengthening them to repeat those miracles of mercy that were wrought by His first disciples? Can the God of truth be unfaithful to His promises? Is He not as strong and merciful now as He was in days of the Prophets and Apostles, and are not we as much in need of the Holy Ghost as the primitive Christians were? If God could make feeble men the ministers of His mercy then, why not now?
But should a Priest consider himself greater than other men because he exercises such authority? Far from it. He ought to humble himself beneath others when he reflects to what weak hands God assigns power so tremendous. He should remember what our Savior said to the seventy-two disciples, who, returning with joy from their first mission, cried out to Him: "Lord, even the devils are subject to us in Thy name." But Jesus checked their vain-glory, saying: "I saw Satan like lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I have given you power...but rejoice not in this, that spirits are subject to you; but rejoice in this, that your names are written in heaven."[Luke x. 18, 20.] The Priest does not forget that "the most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule,"[Wisd. vi. 6.] and that judgment should "begin at the house of God."[I. Pet. iv. 17.] The words of the Apostle are present to his mind: "What hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou has received, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?"[I. Cor. iv. 7.] As well might the vessel that is filled with precious liquor boast of being superior to the vessel that is filled with water. The Priest knows full well that the powers he has received from God are given to him not to feed his own vanity, but to enrich the hearts of the faithful; and that, though instrumental in pointing out to others the way to heaven, he himself, unless adorned with personal virtues, will become a reprobate, like those unhappy Priests of Jerusalem who directed the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem, but did not go thither themselves.
"I have planted," says the Apostle, "Apollo watered, but God gave the increase. Therefore, neither he that planteth is anything, nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase."[Cor. iii. 6, 7.] We perform the outward ceremony; God alone supplies the grace.
The obligations of the ministry of God are, therefore commensurate with his exalted dignity.
The Priest is required to be a man of profound learning and of solid piety. "The lip of the Priest shall keep knowledge, and they (the people) shall seek the law at his mouth."[Malach. ii. 7.] The Lord denounces the Priests of the Old Law because they neglected to study the Sacred Sciences: "Because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will reject thee, that thou shalt not do the office of priesthood for Me, and thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children."[Osee. iv. 6.]
"To you," says our Lord to His Apostles, "it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, to the rest, in parables." The Priests of the New Law, like the Apostles, are the custodians of the mysteries of religion.
Now we know that the knowledge of God's Kingdom is not imparted to us by inspiration or revelation. Christ does not personally teach us as He taught His Apostles. It is by hard study that the knowledge of His law is acquired by us. He does not lift us up on Angels' wings to the spiritual Parnassus. It is only by the royal road of earnest labor that we can attain those heights which will enable us to contemplate the Kingdom of heaven and describe it to others.
As physician of the soul, he must be conversant with its various distempers and must know what remedy is to be applied in each particular case. If society justly holds the unskillful physician responsible for the fatal consequences of his malpractice, surely God will call to a strict account the spiritual physician who, through criminal ignorance, prescribes injudicious remedies to the souls of the patients committed to his charge.
As judge of souls, he must know when to bind and when to loose, when to defer and when to pronounce sentence of absolution. If nothing is so disastrous to the Republic as an incompetent judge, whose decisions, though involving life and death, are rendered at hap-hazard and not in accordance with the merits of the case, so nothing is more detrimental to the Christian commonwealth than an ignorant priesthood, whose decisions injuriously affect the salvation of souls.
The advocate in our courts of justice feels bound in conscience and in honor to study the case of his client with the utmost diligence, and to defend him before the jury with all the eloquence he can master. And yet the suit may not involve more than a brief imprisonment or even a limited fine.
But the Priest, like Moses, stands before God to intercede for His people, and before the people to advocate the cause of God. He not only ascends daily the altar to plead for the people and to cry out with the prophet, "Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, and give not Thy inheritance to reproach;" but every Sunday he mounts the pulpit to vindicate the claims which God has on His subjects. Certainly, if an attorney is bound to study his client's cause before he defends it, no matter how trifling the issue, how much more imperative is the obligation of the Priest to study well his case, when he reflects that an immortal soul is on trial, and before men who are often the worst enemies of their own soul. He has to convince the people that the narrow road, which their inclinations abhor, is to be followed; and that the broad road, which their self-love and their passions tend to pursue, is to be abandoned. Conviction in this case requires rare tact as well as eloquence and learning.
But the minister of religion has to defend the soul not only against the corruptions of the heart, but also against those doctrinal errors that are daily springing up in every direction, and which are plausibly preached by false teachers, who bring to their support the most specious arguments, couched in the most attractive language. To refute these errors often requires the most consummate skill and a profound knowledge of history and the Holy Scripture.
It is no wonder, then, that the Church insists that her clergy be educated men. Hence our ecclesiastical students are usually obliged to devote from ten to fourteen years to the diligent study of the modern and ancient languages, of history and philosophy, of the great science of theology and Holy Scripture, before they are elevated to the sacred ministry.
It is true, indeed, that, owing to the rapidly increasing demand for clergy in the United States, our Bishops have hitherto been sometimes compelled to abridge the course of studies of the candidates for the ministry; but now that the Church is more thoroughly organized, and that seminaries are multiplied among us, they are happily enabled to extend to their young levites the advantages of a full term of literary and theological training.
If the Priest should be eminent for his learning, he should be still more conspicuous for his virtues, for he is expected to preach more by example than by precept. If in the Old Law God charged His Priests with the admonition: "Be sanctified, ye that carry the vessels of the Lord,"[Isaiah lii. 11.] how much more strictly is holiness of life enjoined on the Priests of the New Dispensation, who not only touch the sacred vessels, but drink from them the Precious Blood of the Lord?
"Purer," says St. Chrysostom, "than any solar ray should that hand be which divides that flesh, that mouth which is filled with spiritual fire, that tongue which is purpled with that most awful blood."
In order to foster in us the spirit of personal piety, we are constantly admonished by the Church to be men of prayer. The Priest should be like those angels whom Jacob saw in a vision, ascending to heaven and descending therefrom on the mystical ladder. He is expected to ascend by prayer and to descend by preaching. He ascends to heaven to receive light from God; he descends to communicate that light to his hearers. He ascends to draw at the Fountain of Divine grace, he descends to diffuse those living waters among the faithful, that their hearts may be refreshed. He ascends to light his torch at the ever-burning furnace of Divine love; he descends to communicate the flame to the souls of his people.
The Church, indeed, considers prayer so indispensable to her clergy that, besides the voluntary exercises of piety which their private devotion may suggest, she requires them to devote at least an hour each day to the recitation of the Divine Office, which chiefly consists of the Psalms and other portions of Holy Scripture, the Homilies of the early Fathers and prayers of marvelous force and unction.