It is unfortunate that the priesthood is associated- almost exclusively -with parish life; having very little to do with society. To be sure, the parish is thought to be a world set apart from real life, the public square or the culture at large. Although there is certainly some truth in this stereotype, history bears witness to a much bigger picture. If people only knew the bigger picture…
As recently as the early 20th century the Catholic Church took it for granted that the priest of the parish was also a man of the streets. Indeed, several pastoral theology books published a century ago admonished the man of the cloth to be a man of the people; this, by preaching the Gospel outside the parish, by making his voice heard in municipal affairs and by finding ways to engage non-Catholics. It was not expected, therefore, that the only contact a priest had with people was within the confines of his own parish. No. He was charged with the duty to make disciples even of those who did not come to him for his blessing. Yes. In ages past the priest was more than a pastor to his flock; he was also a Christ-bearer to the community. Impressed upon the soul of every priest is the sacramental seal of Holy Orders. Instrumental in building up the parish, the township and civilization was that seal.
In 1935 Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical on the Catholic priesthood. He reminded the world that the Church “sends everywhere as unwearied heralds of the good tidings which alone can save and advance true civilization and culture, or help them to rise again.” Pius XI takes the reader outside of the parish in order to show that whatever is praiseworthy in society can be traced back to the Catholic priesthood. He said, “All the good that Christian civilization has brought into the world is due, at least radically, to the word and works of the Catholic priesthood.” To be sure, what gave birth to Christian civilization is the very thing needed to restore it. But it needs to be applied; it needs to come in contact with that which needs saving.
It just so happened that Pius XI made the case for the seminal role of the priesthood just as Europe was preparing for World War II; just as the concentration camps of the Third Reich and the gulags of the Soviet Union were beginning to liquidate scores of innocent human lives; and just as the seeds were being planted for the Sexual and Cultural Revolution that would abruptly emerge some thirty years later. Although the world had forgotten, Pius XI was at pains to remind Catholics just how important the Catholic priesthood was in building up the greatest civilization to ever have existed. But sadly, because Europeans had forgotten that the priesthood had civilized their ancestors from the mire of barbarism, they were at risk of returning to that barbaric existence again. As Fr. Thomas Jenkins wrote in 1886:
“Four hundred years ago Europe was one great school- house under the tutelage of a grand Teacher and Mother, who, having brought forth all nations from the darkness of barbarism, had gathered them about her knee to teach them the arts of peace and the sweets of a Christian home. Far advanced were many of her pupil nations, and she had sent them forth from her nurseries instructed with Christian wisdom, able to frame their own laws and found their own commonwealths under her more distant, but still necessary, superintendence.”
It was necessary, then, that the Catholic priesthood be seen in its former light…as it really existed in history…as the chosen instrument used by Christ to sanctify souls and build-up a civilization where the dignity of each person was recognized. If people only knew that Christian civilization is the heir of the Catholic priesthood…
Certainly, the nucleus of priestly ministry is in the parish. But if society is to be fertile soil where the Culture of Life can flourish, then the consecrated voice and hands of the priest will have to extend beyond the borders of the parish once again. The laity can assist but they cannot do it alone; nor should they. The whole Church ought to be represented on the mission field. The notion that the world is the mission turf exclusively reserved for the laity- and the notion that bishops and priests belong only in the safe haven of basilicas and churches -is a false one. In fact, it was the bishops and monks that led the way in creating a Christian Europe. And besides, the preaching of the Gospel is the “pride of place” among all the duties of a bishop. Naturally, preaching is delegated to priests as well. In any case, by its very nature, the duty to preach bids the preacher to take the Gospel to the unbaptized in addition to the already baptized! The Catholic priesthood is too good and too valuable for it to be confined within the sanctuary.
But even more important- and no less marvelous -is the blessing that the priesthood brings forth for the individual person. In his encyclical, Pius XI also takes the reader through the panorama of his ministry and how it affects every aspect of human life. Indeed, the blessing of a priest is spiritually totalitarian in nature. He writes, “[F]rom the cradle to the grave the priest is ever beside the faithful, a guide, a solace, a minister of salvation and dispenser of grace and blessing.” To be sure, he is the guide of the soul throughout the journey of life. “Thus the priest accompanies the Christian throughout the pilgrimage of this life to the gates of Heaven.”
Step by step, Christ, through the priesthood, touches the soul, raising it up towards her final destiny. Pius XI explains how the Catholic priesthood is made to benefit the whole itinerary of life:
• "Scarcely is he born before the priest baptizing him, brings him by a new birth to a more noble and precious life, a supernatural life, and makes him a son of God and of the Church of Jesus Christ.
• To strengthen him to fight bravely in spiritual combats, a priest invested with special dignity makes him a soldier of Christ by holy chrism.
• Then, as soon as he is able to recognize and value the Bread of Angels, the priest gives It to him, the living and life-giving Food come down from Heaven.
• If he fall, the priest raises him up again in the name of God, and reconciles him to God with the Sacrament of Penance.
• Again, if he is called by God to found a family and to collaborate with Him in the transmission of human life throughout the world, thus increasing the number of the faithful on earth and, thereafter, the ranks of the elect in Heaven, the priest is there to bless his espousals and unblemished love…
• [A]nd when, finally, arrived at the portals of eternity, the Christian feels the need of strength and courage before presenting himself at the tribunal of the Divine Judge, the priest with the holy oils anoints the failing members of the sick or dying Christian, and re-consecrates and comforts him."
What power is invested in the priest who can forgive and retain sins in the name of Christ? It is a power that is scandalous to the world but one that is real nevertheless. Indeed, it is the greatest power on earth; one that unleashes God’s mercy far and wide. “[T]he God-Man,” Pius XI writes, “who possessed the ‘power on earth to forgive sins’ willed to hand it on to His priests; to relieve, in His divine generosity and mercy, the need of moral purification which is rooted in the human heart.” Without exaggeration, the forgiveness of sins and to hear the words of absolution in the confessional is liberation at its best. “What a comfort to the guilty, when, stung with remorse and repenting of his sins, he hears the word of the priest who says to him in God's name: ‘I absolve thee from thy sins!’” As one Catholic observed: “When a sinner has absolved a sinner; we, who rise from our knees before him, feel we have done nothing debasing. . .We have been at the feet of a man who represented Jesus Christ, . . . we have been there to receive the dignity of free men and of sons of God."If people only knew how the Catholic priesthood ennobles the soul…
Not only does a priest forgive the sins of individual souls. Through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and through his personal sacrifices, he can help satisfy God’s justice for mankind. As Pope Pius Xi asked, “Who can tell how many chastisements priestly prayer wards off from sinful mankind, how many blessings it brings down and secures?” Even St. Pio remarked that it would be better that the sin didn’t shine than that the earth would be without the Mass.
When all is said and done, the bottom line is this: More people need to hear the words of priests. The civilization in which we now live needs a power from on high to rouse us to new and heroic virtues. The words of bishops and priests have a special anointing by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. As Pius XI said, their words have the power to “awakens heroism of every kind, in every class and place, and inspires the self forgetting deeds of the most generous hearts.”
Rightly and generously applied, the Catholic priesthood can save what it gave birth to; namely, Christian civilization. “[T]he Church rises up like a bright lighthouse warning by the clearness of its beam every deviation to right or left from the way of truth, and pointing out to one and all the right course that they should follow. Woe if ever this beacon should be -- We do not say extinguished, for that is impossible owing to the unfailing promises on which it is founded -- but if it should be hindered from shedding far and wide its beneficent light!”
If they only knew…if people only knew what the Catholic priesthood has meant for sinners, the needy and civilization throughout the centuries, it could once again save what is being lost.