by Fr. Alphonsus M. Sutton, FI, STD
The teaching “all things work together unto good” applies specially in the case of the new priest who has wisely accepted his vocation, plans his work and expends all his efforts for God’s glory, in imitation of the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep (cf. Rom. 8:28). He who seeks his joy in pleasing God escapes many hazards, for he takes attentive care of his spiritual life, is sensitive about having a good spiritual director and following him; he reads daily the lives and writings of the Saints, especially priest-Saints. He has learned how to make mental prayer profitably, and does so every day for at least a half-hour— or more, according to what his spiritual director advises who knows his other duties. He does not pass his time in worldly amusements or idleness or unprofitable reading; he abides by a wise rule of life approved by his director (and according to his religious rule, if he is a religious). The maxim “shun in horror every sin and near occasion” has made him like those good souls described by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1), who would rather be cut to pieces than commit even a venial sin, and at every confession he renews his struggle against semi-voluntary sins (knowing that absolutions will leave them unpardoned if he does not, nor could he gain for himself any plenary indulgences).
He is attentive to prepare for every holy Mass, which is to him the highlight of his day, and which he celebrates with edifying devotion; and he always makes a thanksgiving after it for 15 minutes at least. If Satan tempts him with difficulties regarding the faith, he studies the matter, if need be, so as to be able to help others with such problems.
We trust that worthy formators, by instruction and testing, will have already enabled him to measure up to the requirements of the Contract of Faith, approved for catechists by the Cardinal President of the International Council for Catechesis. (That Contract was published in order to be a partial guide line in essentials for all who must form and test future evangelizers and professional witnesses for our faith.) Thus his mind is not disturbed by subtle or open agitation within the Church; for his studies (and continued studies) enable him to judge with certainty that this is from the devil.
He knows well the teaching of Saints (St. Anthony Claret for example) that any voluntary compromise with chastity destroys all hope of progress in the spiritual life (2), and thus he has cultivated promptness in shunning the danger of such sins.
He is conscientious to refresh his memory often about difficult cases in moral theology, following what is best accredited— which everyone must always do who acts with the pure intention of pleasing God. In selecting opinions, he has bias neither for the more lenient nor for the stricter positions, and his spiritual life makes him aim only to arrive at the true will of God. For such a priest Christ’s yoke is sweet and His burden light, as he enjoys the special protection of a Providence “reaching from end to end mightily and ordering all things sweetly” (Wis. 8:1). Humbly on his guard against them, he escapes the principal perils facing young priests today, which we will now discuss in detail.
We know that much of what we have said will draw a reaction of wonder or skepticism from some. Yet all of it expresses what superiors in the little new Institute (Franciscans of the Immaculate), now publishing the journal (Christ to the World), endeavor to achieve in preparing and testing men for the missionary priesthood. The writers are in no position to state with exactness the measure of success in this attempt, but they are sufficiently acquainted with the results to know that they do have new priests measuring up to the above description, showing great promise of becoming instruments of grace for others.
The principal perils facing new priests, are, we believe, the following:
1. Self-direction. If ever there be a time when a man needs a qualified spiritual director, it is when he becomes a new priest, especially in this present world, which “is seated in wickedness” (I John 5:19). Some will disagree, saying that in an ordinary Providence, where, suitable direction is available, rightly trained priests need no spiritual director. This was not the mind of St. Alphonsus Liguori; for, besides his own example as one who submitted to be led when his heroic proficiency in wisdom, prudence and priestly virtue might have suggested that he could as well direct himself, we also have his teaching in Dignity arid Duties of the Priest, where, speaking of diocesan priests, he declares: “Let him not fail to have his own particular director on whom to depend in all spiritual under takings as well as all temporal affairs which can help or harm the spiritual life” (p. 434 of 1927 English ed.), and we read that he wanted each of his own religious to take direction. (3)
2. Poisonous and profane reading. “A single bad book will be enough to cause the destruction of a monastery,” writes the same holy Doctor (La Vera Sposa, cap. 17). St. Pius X, after pointing out the need of good reading for priests, adds: “Sad to say it has often happened in our days that men of priestly rank become gradually blinded by clouds of doubt and follow the wayward paths of the world, especially in view of the fact that they prefer every sort of book to sacred books, and read a mass of periodicals full of attractive error and corruption.
Beware, dear sons! Do not rely on your mature and advanced years. Do not let yourselves be tricked by a false hope that by this reading you can more aptly provide for the common good… For once someone has drunk this poison into his soul, rarely in deed will he escape the ruin he has prepared.” (Haerert Animo, ASS 41, pp. 570-571.)
Even in those Catholic communities where harmful or worldly literature is carefully excluded (but especially in places where it is not), any wise priest or seminarian will read only what he knows a competent spiritual director approves of as beneficial. It is a tragedy when a seminary or other Catholic institution makes the poison described by St. Pius X available in their reading rooms.
Satan wants the journals, books and lecturers he uses to bring about ultimately not material heresy, in which men err in good faith, but formal heresy, in which they err in bad faith. Therefore he wants men to have sufficient clues that there is error, so that they will come to be deceived because they want to be deceived: that is, Satan would have it that the motive to please God and find His truth will not be what moves them to select their literature, but rather the craving to criticize (and doubt) in order to feel free to act with greater liberty.
3. Precipitously chosen Company and projects. The well-intentioned priest we have in mind avoids devilish snares when he does not regard as too strict this guidance of the Holy Spirit: “Put thy feet into her [divine Wisdom’s] fetters and thy neck into her chains and bow down thy shoulders to bear her. Be not grieved with her bands… Her bands are a healthful binding” (Eccles. 6:25-26, 31). What to some would be a straitjacket is to him a blessed deliverance from perils and attachments. He wants divine wisdom to rule all his decisions— the more fully, the better— including his choice of company. He will resolve doubts as regards this by spiritual direction, and will never link himself with those who— as St. Claret describes them— “raise a party banner” for independence from some regulation of the Bishop, superior, or Pope, or teaching of the Magisterium; though, if the need arises, he might with prudence imitate those Saints, who would appeal from some act of lesser authority to one of higher authority.
4. Culpable ignorance (and error). “Finally… ignorance becomes voluntary and culpable, if a man in his behavior knowingly neglects to apply the consideration which a certain venture deserves. For all errors are rightly imputed to one who, noticing that further consideration should be given, nevertheless chooses to proceed precipitously.” (St. Alphonsus M. Liguori, Theol. Moralis, 5:4.) (4)
Our well-formed priest acknowledges that the popularity of an idea, especially among colleagues, can be an argument for its soundness, but it cannot be considered convincing when he sees equal or stronger arguments for the contrary. For example, consider the question: Are most souls we meet heading for heaven? There is a general presumption of good will in the man before us as to a particular matter at hand (St. Alphonsus, Homo Apostolicus, 1:16). But consider this other question: Can we judge that people are in the state of grace, merely because they show as much interest and care for their salvation as the majority of people do? A catechumen (later converted) once heard his priest-instructor expressing the following view: “God does not damn a majority.” Recalling Jesus’ words, “Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to perdition is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Mt. 7:13-14), he asked the priest, “Are you sure, Father, of what you are saying?” The answer was: “No, I am not. My statement is just a surmise.” (5) We submit that this priest’s undetermined position is not uncommon.
We certainly need and can find a better criterion than “going by majorities” — which I by all means reject — for judging how much interest and care a person must have about his salvation in order to be heading for heaven. A surer one is: Each one must give God and heaven first place in his hierarchy of values. When a soul entrusted to us does not, it is our duty to help him; or we can go to hell too with him. And we should avoid snap judgments in his favor when we are in doubt. What should we think of the physician who slothfully adopts a similar slackness, when a patient has an ailment troublesome for him to treat?
A priest of our circle, years ago shortly after his ordination, found himself working with older priests some of whom had attitudes reflected in the following remarks: “I decided long ago that the only people capable of mortal sin are men well-versed in theology.” “Children in our school (ages 6-14) do not commit sins, certainly not mortal sins.” And so there was no provision for first confession before first Holy Communion for those children, and parents complained that some as old as fifteen— even altar boys— had never yet made their first Confession. (And the unwritten rule was that all altar boys should receive Holy Communion whenever they serve Mass.)
The priest of our circle concluded: “If I had not sought out competent spiritual direction at once, I would have myself become quite irresponsible”. St. Alphonsus states that there were priests back in his day who did not rely on or keep studying the best authors; and after ordination, soon for getting the moral theology they once learned, they became bad confessors (Pratica del Confessore, nn. 17 and 69; Praxis Confessarii, nn. 17 and 77). (6)
6. Demoralizing temptations. One is likely to be wasting time battling with infernal forces, unless he first appreciates Pope Paul VI’s disclosure (made on December 7, 1968) that there is “an internal plot against the Church which threatens her destruction.” (7) Many times in Church history there have been ecclesiastics leading the double life of Judas who said to Christ’s enemies: What will you give me, arid I will betray Him to you? (Mt. 26:15) The scandalous behavior of such men causes great suffering to many of today’s upright Catholic ecclesiastics, and they are a very great hazard to the new priest.
Satan works not to produce mere material rejection of divine doctrine— where one is inculpably misled— but would induce formal, blameworthy error in dogma, morals, and discipline; for that more surely destroys the virtue of faith, without which “it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Indeed many good moderately knowledgeable Catholics facing these snares, point out in lay journals the inconsistency and consequent unreliability of ecclesiastics who, appointed to be professional witnesses to our faith, choose instead to implicitly downgrade it as though it were man-made. Hence, if we seriously doubt, on their word, the divine teachings they challenge —preferring their opinions and testimonies to those of many upright and learned men bearing a consistent witness to positions held traditionally by the Church, would our motives be supernatural— a love for divine truth and heaven— or would we not be precipitously following the lures of human respect, license and sophistry?
Other hazards for the new priest are (a) his being assigned to hear confessions before being sufficiently trained for it (8); (b) the Contagion of an antinomianism (9) emerging from flawed interpretations of Holy Scriptures and rash conclusions drawn from scientific speculations; (c) a lax (10) or rigoristic moral system underrating the charisms of the Magisterium and the holy Doctors and Fathers of the Church; and (d) an illusion that the great Fathers, Doctors and Popes of the past were not as intelligent as men are today, having lived “closer to the [supposed] monkey stage.”
In the face of these hazards, how necessary is it that the new priest have enlightened and uncompromising faith, humble zeal, and that “purity of intention” which “pierces heaven and hell!” (Imitation of Christ)