Priestly vocation, holiness and service

Can the desire "to become perfect," to grow in holiness, be one's motivation for being ordained a priest? On first consideration, this might seem totally inappropriate, as the priesthood is not given in the first place for a man's personal perfection, but in order for him to serve Christ, as his representative. Thus, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, while he describes the right motivation for religious life as "to bind oneself more closely to God, or to correct the transgressions of one's past life, or to fly from the dangers of the world," describes the right motivation that is a sign of a vocation to the priesthood differently, saying that one should desire "to serve God, to spread his glory and to save souls."

This difference between religious life and priesthood, namely that religious life is directly ordered to a personal and real conformity with Christ, to perfection in love of Christ, and thereby to the service of the community and building up the Church in love, while the priesthood is directly ordered to a sacramental and representative conformity to Christ, to the service of the community in Christ's name, is a real difference, and does imply that one's motivation for the priesthood in a certain sense cannot be primarily for one's personal perfection in the Christian life.

However, this sharp division (personal perfection in Christian life, service of the Church, etc.) is not the concrete way in which a vocation is usually experienced. The Apostles did not know in all specificity what they were being called to when Christ said, "Come, follow me." They were attracted by his person or inspired by his mission, and they followed him both to be with him and to accompany him on his mission. In most cases, a person perceiving a vocation cannot define his motivation to embrace that way of life in terms of a very precise single goal. He chooses the way of life as a whole, with all that is included in it.

Now, is a special call to perfection included in the priesthood? It is. John Paul II, in Pastores Dabo Vobis, says that priests "are called not only because they have been baptized, but also and specifically because they are priests, that is, under a new title and in new and different ways deriving from the sacrament of holy orders" (n. 19). And Vatican II says, "Since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ himself, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 12). The awareness of this special calling and grace, often concretized by experience of holy priests, can be included in the discernment and decision to offer oneself for the priesthood, to seek ordination. Whatever the special aspects of priestly life that initially attract one to it, what is essential is that it be embraced in its totality. E.g., one person might, prior to any thought of the priesthood, be drawn to celibacy, to devote his life to the things of God, and through this desire come to desire the priesthood in particular. Another person might not at first be particularly drawn to celibacy, and first find his vocation to it in his desire to serve others in the ministerial priesthood, which in the Roman Rite is connected with celibacy. (In this latter case it is nonetheless important that he come to appreciate the proper value of celibacy and to embrace it freely, and not only as a extra obligation he has to submit to in order to be a priest. But that's matter for another post.) Similarly, the "path to perfection" of the priesthood might be for one person an important aspect of his initial aspect desire for it, while for another person it is not, and only in his desire for and commitment to living a good priestly life that he sees in that way of life his path to perfection.

Related: Priesthood and Perfection and The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange

Judging, Part 3 (Therese of Lisieux)

To apply the principles mentioned in the previous posts, of judging doubtful cases positively or favorably, without being negligent to remedy problems (which presupposes at least a tentative judgment), it is helpful to bear several things in mind: (1) our knowledge of ourselves and of others is always limited; (2) there is always some good to be found in everything; (3) recognizing this good is good for ourselves and for others; St. Therese of Lisieux says “We should always judge others with love, for often what seems to us to be negligence, is an heroic deed in God's sight.” (CS 107) And again:

Yes, I know when I show charity to others, it is simply Jesus acting in me, and the more closely I am united to Him, the more dearly I love my Sisters. If I wish to increase this love in my heart, and the devil tries to bring before me the defects of a Sister, I hasten to look for her virtues, her good motives; I call to mind that though I may have seen her fall once, no doubt she has gained many victories over herself, which in her humility she conceals. It is even possible that what seems to me a fault, may very likely, on account of her good intention, be an act of virtue. I have no difficulty in persuading myself of this, because I have had the same experience. (MsC, 12v/13r)

Regarding the second and third point, the possibility of seeing good in things, and the value of doing so, St. Therese says, speaking about circumstances generally, “I always see the bright side of things. There are people who always take everything from the most painful point of view. I do just the opposite. If I am faced with pure suffering; when heaven is so black that there is no bright spot to be seen anywhere, I then make that itself a source of joy” (DE 215/27.5). And about persons, “There is nothing sweeter than to think well of one’s neighbor,” (CS 25) and “Charity consists in disregarding the faults of our neighbor, not being astonished at the sight of their weakness, but in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice.”

Regarding the first point, the limitation of our knowledge, which never extends to a person's responsibility before God: “Even when there doesn't seem to be any excuse, we always have the possibility of saying: 'this person is obviously wrong, but she does not know it.'” (CS 107)

(4) A fourth point to keep in mind: love can be visible even in correcting, rebuking, etc., and we should strive to make it thus visible. St. Therese did not hesitate to speak the truth, even when it was not necessarily pleasant to hear: “I say the whole truth. If someone doesn't want to hear it, they shouldn't come to me.” (DE 203/18.4.3) Correcting in a loving manner does not mean that one does so in a “soft” manner, but that one does so not merely for the sake of abstract “rightness,” but of the person one corrects. St. Therese says:

In order that a reprimand bear fruit, we must give it dispassionately. When we have scolded a person, within the bounds of justice, let us stop there and not become soft-hearted, tormenting ourselves because we realize we have inflicted pain on someone. To run after the one we have thus afflicted, to console her, is to do her more harm than good. But when we leave her to herself, we force her to expect nothing from the human side, but to have recourse to the good Lord, recognize her faults, and humble herself. Otherwise we shall make her accustomed to being consoled after we have administered a deserved reproof, and she will then act like a spoiled child which jumps with rage and cries, knowing that this will make his mother come to him and wipe away his tears.I know, my Mother, that your little lambs consider me severe… The little lambs may say what they please. Fundamentally they feel that I love them with a genuine love.

This remark of St. Therese can be taken as complementary to the point mentioned in the previous post about St. Catherine, and the identification and sympathy with a person that helps us to form judgments in the appropriate loving manner. Love and correction are not contraries, as though love were the counterbalance to the correction of another person; rather love is to be shown in the very act of correction, and the act of correction is to be moved by and ordered to love. If that is not possible at a given moment, perhaps because we have strong feelings about an issue, we should if at all possible wait before speaking.

Judging, Part 2 (Aquinas)

This post continues the last one, which spoke of “judging” in Scripture and the inseparability of truth and love.

In this connection I would like to look at an article of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, has an article on judgment in cases of doubt. The question as a whole (question 60) concerns judgment as an act of justice, as in a court, but in this article (the fourth article) he treats the more general question of judging, which concerns all people, not only judges. The question is whether we should interpret cases of doubt in the way that is more favorable to the person concerned. (Read the complete article of Aquinas: On Charitable or Favorable Judgment)

The first objection he raises against this concerns the truth of judgment. The objection is that we should judge in such a way as to be correct as often as possible. But since men are more often inclined to evil—according to Ecclesiastes 1:15 (Vulgate), “The number of fools is infinite”, and Genesis 8:21, “the imagination and thought of man's heart are prone to evil from his youth”—we will be more often right if we interpret doubtful cases on the worse side rather than on the better side.

The second objection similarly is that we should simply judge according to the truth, and not be more inclined to one side then another.

The third objection concerns love. As far as we are ourselves are concerned, we should suppose the worst (According to Job 9:28, Vulgate, “I feared all my works”). But we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and so we should also suppose the worst of them. Therefore in doubtful cases we should be more inclined to judge on the unfavorable side.

In his response to the question and these objections, Thomas sets forth two principles. First, a false judgment by which someone thinks something bad about someone else, is contrary to love of neighbor. Secondly, (and this becomes clear in his response to the objections), a false judgment by which one thinks something good about someone, which is not actually so—e.g., when someone thinks that a person has a good motivation when he does not—is not something very bad and that we definitely need to avoid, but is only a minor evil, very slight in comparison to a false judgment about someone's badness.

That all seems clear: easy to understand, even if not always easy to put into practice. But things get more complicated with Thomas's response to the third objection. There he says, on the one hand, insofar as a judgment is necessary or helpful in order to improve something bad, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is worse. On the other hand, insofar as a judgment does not lead to action, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is better about a person.

In both respects the judgment is to be made in favor of love, but in one respect in favor of love in itself, so to speak, and in the other respect in favor of love as effective, as a principle of action. Love, in order to be love, must also act against what is bad and evil. In a famous passage (In Tractate 7 on the First Letter of John), St. Augustine says, “A father beats his Son, a slave-dealer caresses him…. Many things can be done that seem good, but do not spring from the root of love, and in contrast, many seem hard, aggressive, which are done for the sake of discipline, at the command of love. Once for all, therefore, a short commandment is given: Love, and do what you will.”

I believe this is more or less the direction of the entire Christian tradition. To the extent a hypothetical judgment is necessary as principle of action, one should try to judge accurately, even when the judgment is in a certain sense “against” someone or his action. But insofar as a completely definitive judgment is not necessary for that, we should make no definitive negative judgment about someone or his action, unless we cannot avoid such a judgment, because the matter is perfectly evident, which as regards interior motivations, is never the case. In this sense St. Paul says, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor 4:5).

But the question, to what extent negative judgments are necessary in order to act rightly, and how these negative judgments, which should never be definitive, are to be kept provisional, is a practical question, not one that can be solved purely theoretically, but is answered through experience, in community with others, and through the impulse of the Holy Spirit.

I made a few more comments on this, and then we discussed it. I will give some of these practical points in the next post.

Judging, Part 1 (Scripture)

The following is taken from notes for a talk I gave last week. I've divided into two parts for this blog.

The theme I've taken for today is that of judging, and the right attitude towards falsehood, bad things, etc. As the point of departure I take two seemingly incompatible demands: the first, the prohibition of judging, the other, the requirement to live according to the truth and to help others to life according to the truth.

The tension between these two demands is not a unique case in Christian teaching. There are a number of tensions in the teaching, tensions that cannot be simply overcome by a deeper understanding. They remain, and they should remain; they help us to keep to the correct mean. For example, St. Augustine is alleged to have said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Act as though everything depended on you.” Whether or not St. Augustine actually said this, similar apparent contradictions can be found in Scripture itself; St. Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith rather than works, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God… to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:2,5), while St. James says that he was justified by works: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” (James 2:21) While there is no real contradiction between the two–since everything we do is both from God, and from ourselves—this tension is necessary so that we may neither become negligent, nor try to live rightly on our own without God's grace, which is impossible.

In the case of judging, Christ says “Judge not, that you be not judged.” This saying is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37). Also in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he was not sent into the world to judge the world (John 3:17), that he judges no one (John 8:15); even when someone hears his words and does not follow them, he does not judge him (John 12:47). This may be seen as the biblical ground for “tolerance,” and in a certain sense is.

St. Paul lays down a similar rule. Regarding the decision to eat meat or not, he says, “How can you judge the servant of another?” (Romans 14:4). It is the Lord who judges (1 Cor 4:4), not we.

St. James says the same: “He that speaks evil against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12) And again, “Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged” (James 5:9).

Is the modern replacement or at least equation of the law of love with the love of tolerance therefore justified? That would be a precipitate claim. There are also many scripture texts which presuppose or require some form of judgment. Immediately before the commandment of love of neighbor in Leviticus is a prohibition of hate: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart”; and immediately following, “but you shall reprove (yakah, which can be translated “judge, rebuke, correct”) your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).

Jesus says “Matthew 18:15-17 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). In order to act when “your brother sins,” one must first make a judgment that he does.

And although Jesus gives as advice, “if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” (Matthew 5:39), when before the high priest “one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, 'Is that how you answer the high priest?'” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:22-23). It is not, then, a matter of never defending oneself, but of being ready not to defend oneself, to be silent before accusation when that is helpful for charity's sake.

St. Paul, too, is not silent when unjustly struck, but says, “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3) clearly speaking on the basis of the judgment that Ananias is acting unjustly. Again he says, “If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). “Restoring him” requires first recognizing the trespass.

This tension arises from an important fundamental principle, the inseparability of love and truth. Love and truth must remain linked, for two reasons: first, a person, in contrast to a thing, is distinguished by the ability to attain truth and to act according to it. If love or a loving relationship is to be really personal, it must correspond to the nature and truth of the persons. In his homily for the beatification of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Pope John Paul II paraphrases or cites her: “Accept nothing as truth, if it is without love. And accept nothing as love, if it is without truth. One without the other becomes a destructive lie.” And St. Paul says that love, “Does not rejoice at the wrong, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6).

The second, and deeper basis for the inseparability of truth and love, is their identity in one person, in Christ. As Christians we believe in a truth which is a person, which is the God who is love itself, and whose love we have the privilege of experience through his giving himself for us.

This necessary connection between love and truth is one of the main criteria by which the Church recognizes whether or not something is from God. St. John says expressly, on the side of truth and acknowledgment, “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2), an on the side of love, “Everyone who loves, is from God and knows God” (1 John 4:7) As we heard in the reading for today, when we live in the darkness, i.e., in hate, we do not do the truth, and do not know where we go. When we live in love, we are in the light, i.e., in the truth, and know where we go.

But although love and truth are mutually complementary, and in Christ are identical, they possess different aspects, and it is not always easy to see in concrete cases how they are to be united. Hence arises the tension that we saw in the simultaneous prohibition of judging and the requirement of “correcting”

To be continued…

Vocation Sunday

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday (so called by reason of the Gospel read at Mass today). Pope Paul VI designated Good Shepherd Sunday as a World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and it still remains this. It is a fitting day for vocations on account of the Gospel for the Mass: The Shepherd knows the sheep, and calls them by name, and they hear his voice and follow him.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for this day, encourages "faith in the divine initiative", which should lead to confident prayer for vocations, as well as inspire the human response of trusting self-abandonment to the shepherd who calls. He sets forth Jesus as the supreme model of complete and trusting adherence to the Father's will, the model to whom every consecrated person must look. Also exemplary is the Blessed Virgin Mary's generous "Amen" to God's plan told her through the angel.

Full message at the Vatican website