Praying for Priests
(Biography: Father Gerald Fitzgerald)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Father Gerald was too familiar with the Scriptures not to know how important is prayer in the apostolate to priests. What he read in the New Testament convinced him that priests must personally be men of prayer, but others must -- imperatively must -- pray for them. St. Luke tells the story of King Herod's persecution of the early Church; how after he beheaded James the brother of John and saw that this pleased the Jews he decided to arrest Peter as well. "He put Peter in prison, assigning four squads of four soldiers each to guard him in turn. Herod meant to try Peter in public after the end of Passover week. All the time Peter was under guard the Church of God prayed for him unremittingly."(Acts 12:2-5).
In like manner, St. Paul, in what is considered his first inspired letter, closed the epistle to the Thessalonians with the earnest plea, "Pray for us, my brothers" (I Thessalonians 5:25). Here we have the revealed teaching of the Holy Spirit, as a practice (for Peter) and a petition (by Paul) that among the duties of a Christian is to pray for priests. Surely if Peter, the first Pope, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, needed prayers, how much more their successors in the papacy, episcopate and the priesthood.
And most recently, when Pope John Paul II was elevated to the papacy, the day after his election he preached at the Mass he concelebrated with the College of Cardinals. The highpoint of his homily was an urgent request for prayers. "After praying to the Lord," he said, "we feel the need of your prayers to gain that indispensable heavenly strength that will make it possible for us to take up the work of our predecessors from the point where they left off." (Homily of Pope John Paul II, October 17, 1978).
All of this and more is part of the Church's unbroken tradition, since the earliest Christian times. The faithful pray for their priests, from the Bishop of Rome to the least known curate in some mapless village on the other side of the world. They are all "the anointed of the Lord".
We have already seen how plainly the founder of the Paracletes and Handmaids saw this need. In fact we might say this was the main reason he established the two religious institutes; that their members might pray for priests and they, in turn, might inspire other thousands of the faithful everywhere to do the same. On a personal note, this was also the main reason why the present author wrote this book on Father Gerald: to motivate people to pray, as they have never done before, for priests. In my estimation here is the principal neglect in Catholic Christianity today; even as praying to God for priests unremittingly, offers the greatest hope for the Catholic Church of tomorrow.
As we begin to ask ourselves, "Why should the faithful pray for priests?", the first response is also the fundamental one. Since all the faithful, priests included, are members of the same Mystical Body, all should cooperate with one another for the upbuilding of this Body and the greater glory of God.
Each of us has a different task to perform in the Church of Christ, and each has his or her own responsibility, according to their state of life. We should pray that fathers and mothers be good parents; wives and husbands good spouses; that children be good children; that the unmarried and widows serve God in their respective positions; that religious be good religious and faithful to their vocation.
So, too, priests deserve to be prayed for, just because they are priests and therefore part of the visible society, which is the Church. She is made up of many, and different members, each needing the other and each depending on the others for prayerful support.
But priests have been chosen to serve a unique and specially exalted role in the Mystical Body. They are to perpetuate the sacrifice of Calvary in the Mass, make present the living Christ on earth in our day and, in the power given them by Christ, they are to absolve the contrite of their sins. Yet all the while they remain human, very human beings, and therefore in need of divine assistance in the form of actual grace. To obtain this grace and sustain them even in God's friendship, they themselves must pray, and no one can substitute for this primary law of our faith. Either priests pray, or like anyone else, they will fall into temptation. Yet that is not enough. They also need the supporting prayers of others, and they have a special claim on this support because of what their ministrations mean to the people.
The faithful are rightly enamored of the Church's great treasures and of the blessings that she brings to her children. But who mainly dispenses these gifts of God to His people?
In all this glory and all this throbbing vitality that leads souls to eternal life -- in this beautiful door, we have the mystical Christ. But who gives us the mystical Christ? It was the priest who baptized me and through this door I will pass into eternity. So the priest plays such a vital part, we might say if a priest understands and is true to his vocation he is Christ in the world today. (J-9, p.41).
Gratitude, therefore, should prompt us to pray for those who have been such benefactors in our lives. Father Gerald was addressing the Handmaids but, through them, he was speaking to everyone.
Therefore -- and keep this as a memory when we are far apart -- since Christ, Who is Eternal Wisdom and Eternal Love, has deliberately chosen to use men for such a vital role, anytime anyone strengthens that priest or all priests, strengthens the very Hand of Christ -- the Heart of Christ -- the Lips of Christ -- the Eyes of Christ. Now this is the reason and it should be the inspiration of your particular vocation. If a priest goes promptly on a sick call tonight, see the value of your vocation. If your prayer is universal, he is a priest strengthened by your prayers -- the graces that have come from your prayers to him. You have helped Christ on that sick call if you are praying for priests and praying according to their needs in the Heart of Christ, you have helped today, the poor shivering ill-clad priest in Siberia, you have helped the faithful hiding in their hideouts in China. (J-9, p. 41).
Then an astounding statement, but based on the faith. "All the vocations, everything stems through the priesthood of Christ." But this priesthood is not only a memorable fact of past history. Certainly Christ died and merited our salvation on Good Friday. Yet His priesthood continues today. He is even now communicating the graces He won for us on the Cross. And the principal channel of this communication is the Sacrifice of the Mass in which He uses human beings, His priests, to distribute the blessings of Calvary. "Christ Himself at the altar comes to Mass by the hands of a priest." What follows? Consequently, "in strengthening the priest you strengthen the whole Church." In other words, "strengthen the priest and you strengthen the whole foundation", from one viewpoint, or "the whole roof', from another viewpoint. In a word, "you strengthen everything in the Church." (J-9, p. 41).
Years before he founded any religious community, Father Gerald was already telling people the same thing. "Hour by hour," he said, "somewhere the Mass is always being offered. And wherever the Mass is being offered, because of the One Who is offering it, God through the Mass is attaining at every moment a greater glory than all the rest of us adopted children could take away from Him." This offers a second powerful motive why the faithful should pray for priests, to insure that God be continuously, and in the highest degree, glorified by the re-enactment of Calvary.
How will prayer contribute to this divine praise? By warding off the evil spirit who sees in the Mass the greatest hindrance to his demonic activity. "Therefore, it is the Mass that counts, and that is why the arch-enemy of God tried to destroy it as far as he could at the time of the Reformation, and still tries to eliminate the Mass and the priesthood, the priesthood and the Mass." (B,139 #566).
The devil knows that every Mass gives immeasurable glory to the Divine Majesty, which he hates. So he does everything in his power to seduce priests into his camp so they will not offer Mass, or offer it less often, or less devoutly; anything to prevent God being given the glory and souls from receiving the graces that flow from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
That is why believing Catholics are not surprised to be told, "you must always in your secret espousal of God's cause, in working for God's cause, always carry a special place in your prayers and in your heart for the sanctification of the priesthood and the sacredness of the Mass." (B,139 #566). The two go together. Every prayer for the sanctification of priests, to protect them from the malice of the devil, is a prayer for the greater glory of God through the Mass which priests alone can offer to the Heavenly Father.
A moment's reflection should tell a believer that "the priesthood is a terrifying exaltation." That is why, "you can do nothing more consoling to His Sacred Heart than to pray for His priesthood; for by the institution of the priesthood God has committed His stainless honor, His deepest interests, to the keeping of created clay." Among the saints, "St. Teresa of Jesus knew this and that is why she made prayers for the priesthood the first duty of her Carmelite family. A faithful priest is God's greatest consolation, an unfaithful priest the source of His deepest sorrow." (L.O.F.P., p. 228). Then speaking for himself, Father Gerald asked, "I would beg one decade of the Rosary each day, thanking Mary for my vocation and asking that I may be each day nearer and dearer to her Heart and to her Son Divine." (L.O.F.P., p. 228).
Priests in Sin
If prayer is so important for priests in general, it is urgently needed for those who have strayed from their high calling. True to his own injunction, not to discuss the sins of priests without real necessity, Father Gerald said very little publicly about the failings of those whom he was so zealous to bring back to the path of virtue. Yet when it came to moving his own followers or others to pray for priests, he did not hesitate to point out, in stark terms, how absolutely indispensable was prayer, much prayer if the shepherds of the flock were to be restored to their priestly life and dignity.
Statements abound in which Father Gerald makes no secret of the malice of sin in a priest, and of the harm he does to the Church by his infidelity. "Who has struck the beautiful spouse of Christ? What has disfigured the spouse of Christ? The sins of priests." (D-130).
Unworthy priests are more than a source of scandal to the faithful. They renew the mockery of the Mystical Christ today, even as the Roman soldiers mocked the physical Christ during His Passion on Holy Thursday night.
Those poor soldiers, all they thought was that Jesus was a poor dreamer, a poor seer and perhaps, a half-wit, a poor victim of the mob who was given to them that they might have some fun according to their ideas of fun. As cruel men sometimes cast a poor little rabbit to the hounds after they have caught it, or a poor little mouse to the cat to be played with, they did not know that this was the King of Kings.
But, when I or another priest of God do anything unworthy, I step up to Him and bow my knee in mockery, and make the world laugh. The world who hates Christ and does not believe. They smile and say, "There is your priest for you." I set the crown back hard and deep into the Sacred Seat of Divine Wisdom. Oh, this is a mystery of suffering that is especially continued through time.
How Christ suffers in being mocked in the person of His priest! It is too late for a priest to make a decision, would to God it was not, it is too late for a priest to turn back and be something else. (J-4, p. 38).
But they cannot be anything else. They are ordained forever. And even if they try to forget, the world never forgets. It knows, as by supernatural instinct, what a priest should be and if he shows himself unfaithful, the whole Church suffers by the counterwitness he gives to everyone who enters his life.
It follows, then, that the sins of priests are particularly offensive to God.
There is a passage in the Psalms that applies especially to sin in a priest. The Psalmist says I was wounded in the house of a friend. If ever there is a place that should be the house of a friend, it should be the soul of a priest. It should be a house that is given over as a true friend gives over his home when a friend comes to him; so before all else a priest's soul belongs to Christ. It should be the house of his friend. And there the wounds that He receives by the sins of a priest all represent a special depth of anguish; they have a special poignancy to Our Lord because He loves so much. (D-127).
Not everyone is aware of the sins of priests. And it is just as well. Those who are aware may in one sense be said to be privileged; but what is more important, they assume a grave responsibility.
If we become aware of the infidelities of priests, the ingratitudes of priests, the coldness and sinfulness of priests, we have the privilege of being invited, as it were, into the very depths, the deepest sorrows of the Sacred Heart, the sorrows that He will not reveal to the world.
Think of all the millions of devout Catholics who are not even aware - as I practically up to my ordination -- was unaware that there was any such thing in the world today, as a priest who was unfaithful to his obligations. So wholesome, so healthy, so faithfilled was the little parish where I was brought up and the parishes in which I was brought up that I was not aware that a priest today could wound the Sacred Heart as I now know the Sacred Heart is wounded. (D-128).
No doubt the press and media have in recent years publicized the sins of priests on a scale that was not known, or even knowable, before. Nevertheless, no matter how notorious grave public sin may be in a priest, it is still such a "terrible scandal." Why? Because people look to their priests to be holy; indeed they have a right to expect as much.
Given the fact that the deepest sorrows of Christ's Heart are the scandals that involve His "other selves," His priests whom He has so loved and has so desired to draw into the highest sanctity, "How then shall we respond?" It should be the response "that a son or daughter would make; would go over and take the mother's hand and say, 'Never mind, mother, I'll make up for the one that has hurt you. I'll make reparation. I'll pay that bill. I'll take up that burden. I'll lighten your cross." In a word, the evidence of infidelity in priests should arouse in the hearts of Christ's faithful the wish to expiate.
At the core of Father Gerald's apostolate to priests was this desire to repair for their sins. And those who were to follow him as Paracletes or Handmaids, he urged them to be "dedicated to reparation." They were told "little by little, learn to disdain the ordinary satisfactions of life." Why reparation? Because "this devil in the priestly heart is cast out only by prayer and fasting." (D-129, 130). Not by prayer alone, but by prayer and mortification. This need not mean extraordinary bodily austerities. But it does mean the patient endurance of whatever trials the Lord may send; or the withdrawal of the pleasures and satisfactions previously had; or the silent endurance of rejection and mistrust; or the quiet bearing up with a painful illness, disability or wasting disease. What form the mortification takes is secondary. What is primary is the will to expiate. And this will should become imperative: "Progressively and always with the restraint that is guided by humble obedience to spiritual direction and to superiors, 'way down deep we must develop a thirst, for reparation; and it will come logically in the supernatural order, as we grow in the love of Jesus Christ." (D-130).
All of this makes sense only on the premises of faith. The more deeply a person believes that all sin demands expiation, and the sins of priests are especially odious to God, the more readily will he want to repair the damage done to the Church and to souls by voluntary reparation. All the while the believer knows that, not only is the divine honor vindicated but the sinner himself, here the priest, is showered with graces of divine mercy to become reconciled with God.
If this privilege of reparation is pleasing to God from everyone, it is particularly welcome when the one who expiates is himself a priest, making up for his fellow priests who are estranged from God. Father Gerald recommended identifying this kind of priest-for-priest reparation with the Sixth Station of the Cross, and associating it with one's daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament.
Then you come to the great beautiful field of reparation. What a privilege! A beautiful symbol of Veronica pushing her way through the lineup as it were, making a special effort, going to Our Lord and lifting her veil and receiving in return the beautiful image of Christ. Lift your soul. O what reparation for the sins of priests. O how precious to Christ is a priest who comes to Him and offers with his bare soul to wipe the terrible spittle and filth that unworthy priests cast each day upon Our Lord. It is true that the physical sufferings of Our Lord are at an end, but the source of those physical and mental anguishes that He bore in the Passion are today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows till the end of time. And it is effectively true that if I make reparation today, Jesus will see that reparation together with Veronica's reparation as He went the Way of the Cross.
Learn the art of reparation and then the very little things that bother you, the little trivia of human limitations around us, the little contradictions and disappointments, can all be gathered up and offered in reparation. They become the myrrh of life. (D-158).
This, in fact, is the essence of devotion to the Precious Blood. It means that we unite our shedding of blood, in spirit if not in body, with the bloody Passion of Christ, and thus effectively draw God's mercy on the sinners, including priests, for whom we expiate.
** Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald: A True Prophet for the Priesthood
A prophet? In what way? Father Gerald had a vital message for priests and about priests: Priests need to pray. Priests need prayers. He explained, “The greatest problem we have in the lives of priests is neglect of prayer. They tell me that they forget—they were so busy building churches, running bazaars, taking care of clubs that little by little prayer went out of their lives.” And he added, “One of the deepest errors that we are witnessing in the Church of God at this time is the attempt to rush into the lives of others before we have lost ourselves in the life of Christ.”
God inspired this luminous and prophetic priest—ordained in the Archdiocese of Boston—to open his heart to his brother priests and do everything he could to help them. As he would say, “A faithful priest is God’s greatest consolation, an unfaithful priest the source of His deepest sorrow.” He therefore offered his life in reparation for the sins of priests and for the intention of renewing priests in their sacred calling. He proposed to all the Bishops in the United States and to those beyond our country, that the most effective way to renew and strengthen priests is through the healing power, “the sunshine” of our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. He insisted on the importance of prayer and sacrifice for our priests, and that priests understand the tremendous grace and responsibility entrusted to them by their ordination. Father Gerald’s message was simple and clear: Priests have been given a sublime and indispensable vocation. They need grace to fulfill their high calling. Grace comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. He is here on earth in His Eucharistic Presence. Go to Him. He will supply and fulfill your every need.