On the especial necessity of prayer for persons engaged in the sacred ministry.
All persons who are consecrated to God in the sacred ministry have renounced the deceitful joys of this world, and taken God for their only inheritance. Speaking to the priests of old, who were but a shadow of those of the new law, our Lord said to them, that He had chosen and separated them from the rest of the people, that they might be entirely His own; and for this reason, whilst He assigned to all the tribes of Israel a portion of the promised land, He would not allot any to the tribe of Aaron, because He Himself was to be their possession, their glory, their happiness, their every good. This high prerogative, which belonged to the priests of the old law, is in a still stricter sense bestowed on the ministers of the Gospel,— on the priests of Jesus Christ, who excel in dignity those of the old law as much as heaven surpasses earth, as the reality exceeds the type. Hence it is that from the very moment a person is ascribed among the clerical host, in his first step towards the sacred ministry, he promises in a most solemn manner to take God for his only possession in these words: 'The Lord is the part of my inheritance and of my cup ; it is Thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me.' From these simple reflections it is clear that the priests of the new law, — the ministers of Christ, * who are taken from among men, and ordained for them in the things that appertain to God,' are persons set apart from the rest of mankind, and appointed to the high privileges of a regular and continual intercourse and communication with their sovereign Lord. But how can this be accomplished, — how can such intercourse he carried on, except by the practice of constant and fervent prayer? Another reason which causes the ministers of God to stand in further need of holy prayer is, the great purity and holiness of life which is demanded of them by the sublimity of their character and their elevation to the rank they possess. We read in the Holy Scripture that even the priests of the old law were expected to be holy: 'They shall be holy to their Lord, and shall not profane His name; for they offer the burnt-offering to the Lord, and the bread of their God, and therefore they shall be holy.[Levit. xxi. 6.] Now, if the priests of the old covenant, whose highest charge was to offer only calves and oxen, were commanded to he holy, what shall we say of the priests of the new covenant, who are appointed to offer up to God by their own hands a victim of infinite value, the real body and blood of the Son of God! Who can describe the degree of holiness which is demanded from them! 'Priests should be so holy,' says St. John Chrysostom, 'that all may look on them as models of sanctity; because God has placed them upon earth that they might live like angels, and be luminaries and teachers of virtue to all around them.' 'Great is the dignity of the priesthood,' says St. Laurence Justinian, 'but great also is the burden which it imposes. The priests being raised to a high degree of honour, must also excel by a high degree of sanctity.' And St. Thomas teaches that the priestly state requires a degree of virtue still higher than that which is required from the religious state. For a simple religious is only obliged, in virtue of his vocation, to aspire after the attainment of perfection, but is not bound to be already in the actual possession of it; whereas a priest, before being admitted to his sublime profession, is already required to be a man actually holy. In another place he says, that, in order to perform worthily the functions of the priestly office, it is not sufficient to have only an ordinary degree of virtue, but it is necessary that he be endowed with an excellent virtue, Ad idoneam executionem ordinum non sufficit bonitas qualisctimque, sed requirilur bonitas excellens' Those who are engaged in the celebration of the divine mysteries, says he in another place, must be perfect in virtue. Interior perfection is necessary to the worthy performance of the priestly functions. From these and similar passages it is manifest that it is expected of priests to possess a firm and well-grounded virtue, and that they should greatly excel the faithful in point of holiness; they ought to he shining luminaries in the house of God, that they may so enlighten and edify by their bright and virtuous examples all around them. But how shall they be able to effect this without the help of frequent and fervent prayer?
The necessity of prayer for priests may be enforced further by the following reason:
The office of priest being one of the greatest dignity, demands a high degree of purity and holiness from all those who are called to it, but is, at the same time, encompassed with many dangers; and the individuals who fulfil its duties meet with continual occasions of sin. Thus if, whilst labouring in Christ's vineyard, their undertakings are blessed by God with a prosperous success, they are in danger of yielding to the spirit of pride; and if their labours prove unsuccessful, and fail to produce the desired effect, they are tempted to give way to anxiety and despondence, and to abandon the good work. If their occupation in the sacred ministry is but light and easy, they are in danger of falling into idleness and sloth, to the great prejudice of their own souls; and if they have abundance of external work, they have to dread the danger to which they are exposed, of leading a life of constant distraction. But the greatest danger to which priests are exposed in the performance of their office arises from their intercourse with the world, from their necessary communication with sinners.
The priests are set by God over His people, that they may destroy and build up; namely, that they may remove scandals from the midst of the people, heal their wounds, cleanse their souls, remedy their evils, and lead them to the port of salvation. Nothing can be more noble, nothing more meritorious, than such an office. But it is at the same time surrounded with so many dangers, that a person must be as it were always on the defence, to be able to overcome them. As he who undertakes to rescue a person on the point of drowning must be careful that he be not himself carried away by the water and destroyed; so those who undertake the office of curing the spiritual maladies of the people, and of healing their wounds, must be on their watch, and take great care lest, instead of effecting their cure, they should become infected by the same evils, and bring ruin upon their own souls.
Thus we see that the priestly office, notwithstanding . all the blessings and advantages which belong to it, is encompassed with many dangers, and that the persons who are engaged in it must use the greatest diligence to shield themselves from them. And where shall they find a better and more efficacious means to guard and strengthen themselves against such dangers, than the practice of frequent and fervent prayer? Ah, woe to the anointed of God, who in the midst of their labours neglect to raise their minds and hearts to their sovereign Lord! Woe to them, if, satisfied with the exterior performance of their duty, they neglect to feed their souls, increase their piety by bumble and fervent prayer! Woe to them, if, in the hour of danger, in the time of temptation, they fail to oppose the shield of prayer against the enemy, and neglect to shield themselves against his fiery darts!
The fourth reason which shews the special obligation under which priests lie of applying themselves to prayer is, the office which they have, by virtue of their holy vocation, of making atonement to God for the sins of the people, of appeasing His wrath against them, and of obtaining for them His mercy and propitiation. The ministers of Christ are placed between God and the people, as Moses was; and it belongs to them to mediate in their behalf, and to arrest, by their humble prayers and supplications, those awful visitations which they deserve for their sins. "Before the porch and the altar," says the prophet Joel, "the priests, the Lord's ministers, shall weep, and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people; and give not Thy inheritance to reproach." ['Joel ii. 17] As the High Priest of the new covenant who sitteth at the right hand of God never ceases to pour out prayer and supplication to the throne of His Father in behalf of sinful men, so His holy ministers should be animated by the same spirit; and, prostrate before the face of God, they ought to offer up their warmest prayers and supplications in behalf of sinners.
The last reason which proves the especial obligation which priests have of practising the holy duty of prayer is, that they may labour successfully in their appointed office. Natural undertakings may certainly be executed by natural wisdom, without the help of supernatural strength; but not so with regard to those sublime enterprises which the ministers of Christ are called on to perform for the glory of God and the salvation of souls; for these, being of a far higher character, and possessed of a supernatural value, require superior wisdom and superhuman strength; and that wisdom which will enable them to perform these sublime works with success is not a mere dry knowledge which can be derived from books, but it is the wisdom of Christ,—the science of the Saints, which is acquired by humble and fervent prayer. The priest of God who sincerely wishes to render his ministry fruitful to the glory of God and the good of souls, ought to be able to say with St. Paul, "I judge not myself to know any thing amongst you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified; and my speech and my preaching was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in the shewing of the spirit and power [1 Cor. ii. 2].
There are some priests who deem the neglect of prayer a matter of very little consequence, provided they spend their time in study, or in performing works of charity; but they are greatly deceived; for although study and acts of charity are of great merit and value before God, when performed at seasonable times, yet if a person neglects the duty of prayer, to devote his whole time to them, they will prove, in reality, an obstacle to the salvation of souls. St. Laurence Justinian says, that the exterior works of Martha without the interior spirit of Mary cannot be perfect. 'He deceives himself,' says the Saint, 'who expects, without the aid of prayer, to succeed in the work of saving souls,— a work as dangerous as it is sublime; without the refection of prayer he shall certainly faint on the way. 'In prayer,' says St. Paulinus, 'we acquire the spirit which we must afterwards communicate to others.Hence the Apostle St. Paul, writing to Timothy, urges him to attend first to himself, and then to doctrine and learning: "Take heed," says he, "to thyself, and to doctrine." [1 Tim. iv. 6.] Attend first to thyself, that is, to prayer, which is so necessary for securing thy eternal salvation; and then to doctrine, that is, to study, in order to promote the salvation of others. 'Blessed is the man who knoweth God,' says St. Augustine, 'although he be ignorant of every thing else.' If we knew all sciences, and know not how to love Jesus Christ, our knowledge would profit us nothing towards eternal life. Happy, then, the man to whom God has given the science of the Saints, that is, the science of His holy Jove; for a single word from a person who truly loves God will produce more fruit than many sermons of learned men who love God but little. And this science of the Saints is not acquired so much by the study of books as by the practice of prayer, in which the master who instructs is our Lord crucified, and the book which is read that of His blessed life and death. It is related of St. Bonaventure, that being once asked by St. Thomas from what book he had acquired so much learning, he pointed to the crucifix, and said, that there he had acquired all his knowledge. He who tastes honey has a more correct notion of it than all the philosophers who, without tasting it, study and explain its properties. In the same manner, he who tastes God most by the practice of holy prayer, has more knowledge of Him than the wisest men of the world who are strangers to His love. Oh, how much more did St. Philip Neri learn in the cave of St. Sebastian, where he sometimes spent the whole night in meditation, than in all the books which he read! How much more learning did St. Jerome acquire in the solitude of Bethlehem, where he used to spend a great part of his time in prayer, than by his studies whilst in the world! Father Suarez, one of the greatest luminaries of the Society of Jesus, used to say, that he would have preferred to be deprived of all his knowledge rather than lose one hour's meditation appointed by the rules of his Institute. And this has been the common feeling of all truly apostolic men, who have never failed to unite the practice of prayer to their study, and to the performance of works of charity. The holy Apostles laboured more than all others for the salvation of souls, but finding that their exertions for the good of others interfered with their prayers, they appointed deacons for the performance of the exterior works of charity, that thus they themselves might have time "for prayer and the preaching of the divine word ;"' and by this fact they set a most beautiful example to all the pastors of the Church, that they should first attend to prayer, and then to the labours of their sacred ministry. This is what St. Teresa wrote to the Bishop of Osma, who paid great attention to the care of his flock, but devoted little time to prayer: 'Our Lord,' says the Saint, in a letter to him, 'has shewn to me that you are wanting in what is particularly necessary for you, by neglecting mental prayer; from this defect arises the aridity which your soul suffers.' St. Bernard admonished Pope Eugenius in the strongest terms not to omit the practice of prayer on account of external affairs, and added, that he who abandons prayer is in great danger of falling into a fearful insensibility and hardness of heart.8 St. Thomas of Villanova used to say, that in order to inflame the hearts of others with the fire of Divine love, we ought ourselves to burn with its heavenly flames. But how shall we enkindle in our hearts this Divine fire without prayer? It is for this reason that St. Dominic, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis Xavier, and other holy labourers in God's vineyard, set so great value upon prayer, and were so careful to practise it in the midst of their external occupations, for the glory of God and for the salvation of souls. They employed the day in labouring for the people, and spent a great part of the night in prayer, after the example of their blessed Lord, of whom it is written, that " He passed the whole night in the prayer of God."
Taken from - The Way to Heaven. A Manual of Devotion. By The Very Rev. John Baptist Pagani.