The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 2, Chapter 2

The Priest in Union with Christ as Priest

Chapter Two


Summary. By virtue of his priesthood every priest is bound to strive for this union with Christ because of his ordination, because of his duties towards the sacramental body of Christ, and because of his duties towards the mystical body of Christ.

Consequent on the degree of union existing between the priest and Christ there are different ways of celebrating Mass: sacrilegiously, hurriedly, with external correctness, worthily in a spirit of faith, and after the manner of the saints.

By virtue of his priesthood every priest must be closely united to Christ

All the faithful, while they are here on earth, are obliged to make continual progress in observing the supreme commandment of love of God and their neighbour, since this precept is not confined to any particular degree of charity—it is not limited to the ten commandments, for example. Where is there mention of any limit in this command: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole strength, and thy whole mind; and thy neighbour as thyself" (Luke x, 27; Deut. vi, 5) ? The charity of a traveller on the way to eternity must for ever be increasing, as it is by growth in charity—by the steps of love—that he advances towards God.1

This perfection of charity does not fall under the precept as something to be realized at once, but as the end towards which everyone must tend according to his own condition in life, whether it be in the married state, or in the priestly life, or in the religious state as a lay brother or as a sister.2 A soul not desirous of growing in charity would sin against the supreme commandment which does not place any limit to the virtue. Such a person would no longer be striving for his goal in life, but acting as though he had already reached it—which he certainly has not. So all the faithful without exception are affected by this general obligation based on the supreme precept to tend towards the perfection of charity, which is, in fact, the perfection of the Christian life, since it is charity which unites us to God and commands all the other virtues. But the priest has an additional obligation of striving for this perfection in view of his special vocation.

It is commonly taught that even a secular priest is obliged by reason of his ordination and priestly office to tend to perfection, properly so called; in fact, a greater interior holiness is demanded of him for the celebration of Mass and the sanctification of souls than is required of a religious who is not a priest —such as a lay brother or a sister.

This special obligation is founded on his ordination, on his duties towards the sacramental body of Christ, and on his duties towards the mystical body of Christ. This is of faith, at least according to the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church as expressed in the Pontifical.

In the first place, therefore, his ordination binds him to strive for perfection. This is stated in the Roman Pontifical during the ordination of a priest: "The Lord chose the seventy-two and sent them forth in pairs to preach before him, thus teaching both by word and deed that the ministers of the Church should be perfect in faith and action; that is, well-grounded in the virtue of the two-fold love of God and their neighbour."3

This is evident from the conditions required prior to ordination and from its effects.

Priestly ordination demands the state of grace, a special aptitude for the priestly life, and a higher virtue than that required for entering the religious state. Cf. St. Thomas, Summa, Ha Ilae, q. 189, a. 1, ad 3: "Sacred orders presuppose holiness, whereas the religious life is a series of exercises for acquiring holiness." Furthermore, tradition would seem to imply that all that is required for entering religion is that the postulant should have reached the spiritual age of beginners— the purgative way; for priestly ordination, the appropriate spiritual age is that of proficients—the illuminative way; whereas bishops should be in the state of perfection—the unitive way (see St. Thomas, Summa, Ila Ilae, q. 184, a. 7 and 8). In the eighth article St. Thomas says: "By holy orders a man is appointed to the loftiest ministry, to serve Christ himself in the sacrament of the altar. This demands greater interior sanctity than that required for the religious state"; for example, in a lay brother, or sister, or professed novice.

The effects of ordination also show that a priest has a special obligation of tending to perfection. In this sacrament the priest receives a character which gives him a permanent share in the priesthood of Christ, enabling him to consecrate and absolve validly. A saint who was not a priest—such as St. Benedict Joseph Labre—would be able to pronounce the words of consecration and the formula of absolution, but the bread and wine would remain unchanged, and sin would not be forgiven. The same would be true of an angel and of Our Blessed Lady (although she herself did give to the second person of the Trinity something more—his human nature, and she offered with him a sacrifice accompanied by a real and not merely a mystical shedding of blood). In addition, at the moment of ordination the priest receives the sacramental grace of Holy Orders to carry out with increasing holiness his priestly functions. St. Thomas writes, in IV Sent., dist. 24, q. 2: "They who belong to the divine ministry assume a royal dignity and ought to be perfect in virtue"; this is also repeated in the Pontifical.4 And thus priestly ordination is certainly superior to religious profession. This sacramental grace of Holy Orders is a modal reality added to habitual grace, which gives the priest a right to receive all the actual graces he needs for an increasingly holier celebration of the Mass. Cf. The Imitation of Christ, bk. iv, c. 5: "Thou art made a priest and art consecrated to celebrate; see now that faithfully and devoutly, in due time, thou offer up the sacrifice to God, and that thou show thyself blameless. Thou hast not lightened thy burden, but art now bound by a stricter bond of discipline and obliged to greater perfection of sanctity. A priest ought to be adorned with all virtues and set the example to others of a good life."

In the second place, the duties of a priest towards the sacramental body of Christ show even more clearly his special obligation of tending to perfection. The priest celebrating Mass stands in the place of Christ; he is, as we say, another Christ. Therefore, in order to lie a minister fully conscious of his position and to offer the sacrifice worthily and holily, the priest should unite himself mind and heart to the principal priest, who is at the same time the sacred victim. To approach the altar without a firm determination to grow in charity would be hypocrisy, and this would be at least indirectly willed because of the priest's negligence, since no one is exempt from making that progress in charity which corresponds to their condition in life, by reason of the supreme commandment of limitless love: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart . . ."

The purity of soul required for the celebration of Mass—or, at least clearly suited to it—is well described in The Imitation of Christ, bk. iv, c. 5: "The priest, clad in sacred vestments, is Christ's vicegerent that he may suppliantly and humbly pray to God for himself and all the people. He has before and behind him the sign of the Cross of our Lord, that he may always remember the passion of Christ. Before him he beareth the cross 011 the chasuble, that he may diligently behold the footsteps of Christ and fervently endeavour to follow after them. Behind him he is marked with the cross, that he may mildly suffer for God's sake whatsoever adversities befall him from others."

And finally, the priest's special obligation to tend to perfection is confirmed by his duties towards the mystical body of Christ. He is called upon to sanctify others by preaching the word and by spiritual direction both inside and outside the confessional.5

This intimate union between the priest and Christ has important consequences for the life of the priest.6 He must look on himself as having been ordained primarily to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, which should guide both his study and the external works of his apostolate. For his study must have as its aim a deeper understanding of the mystery of Christ's priesthood; his apostolate must draw its inspiration from the union existing between himself and Christ the principal priest. So close is the union between the offering of the Mass and the continual offering made by Christ the eternal principal priest that the celebration of Mass is far superior to the functions of the guardian angels, and takes second place only to the unique mission of Our Blessed Lady, who gave the Son of God his human nature and offered with him the sacrificial outpouring of his blood on Calvary.

Theologians have wondered how it is possible for the ministry of a human priest to exceed the ministry of angels, seeing that they are of a higher nature. The answer is found in drawing a comparison between man and the eagle. The eagle, although of a lower nature, possesses wings and a keener vision. Now, as the eagle is superior to man in both these respects, so is the priest celebrating Mass and absolving from sin superior to the angels.

St. Ephraem in his work De Sacerdotio (Opera, Antwerp, 1619, p. 19) says: "The splendour of the priest's dignity is beyond all understanding and reason. He finds himself at ease in the company of angels. . . . And even with the Lord of the angels he is on terms of familiarity; and his authority entitles him to receive in some form or other whatever he desires as soon as he asks for it."

Is it surprising, therefore, that the author of the Imitation writes, bk. iv, c. 5: "If thou hadst the purity of an angel, and the sanctity of St. John the Baptist, thou wouldst neither be worthy to receive nor to handle this sacrament. . . . Great is the mystery, and great the dignity of priests, to whom is given that which to the angels is not granted."

A second practical consequence of the priest's union with Christ is that the priest should unite himself closely and humbly to the principal priest at the moment of consecration. If he effaces himself as much as possible in order to bring Christ to the fore, then he is invested with the honour and glory befitting a true representative of Christ: "He must become more and more, I must become less and less" (John iii, 30). Just as the humanity of Christ which lacked its own personality was surrounded with all possible honour and glory in virtue of its hypostatic union with the person of the Word, so also the priest who does not consecrate in his own name is exalted to the highest glory of heaven by becoming another Christ. If the humanity of Christ had been separated from the divine personality of the Word and had received a human personality, it would thereby have lost the infinite value attaching to all its acts. Something similar would happen in the case of a priest who acted in his own name and not in the name of Christ; he would lose his dignity and be unable to perform the act of consecration.7 St. Paul expresses well how the humility of a priest is actually his greatest glory, II Cor. iv, 7: "We have a treasure, then, in our keeping, but its shell is of perishable earthenware; it must be God, and not anything in ourselves, that gives it its sovereign power." The same idea is conveyed by the words of the liturgy: "God who exaltest the lowly and didst enthrone thy confessor blessed Francis of Paola in glory among the saints: grant we beseech thee . . ."

Only in the consecration and elevation of the body and blood of Christ does the priest exercise fully the power of his priesthood.

From all that we have said it is evident that the celebrant must continue to develop the intimacy of his union with Christ by a vigorous faith enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, by unlimited confidence, and by love which daily becomes more pure and perfect.

Different ways of celebrating Mass

It must always be remembered that the principal priest in the sacrifice of the Mass is Christ, and that the celebrant must be striving for an actual and closer union with him. There are, however, different ways of celebrating Mass: the sacrilegious Mass, the hurried Mass, the Mass which is outwardly correct but lacks the spirit of faith, the Mass which is celebrated worthily and holily, and the Mass of the saints. That was the picture presented to me during a conversation with the founder of the congregation known as the "Fraternité sacerdotale", and it is a picture which merits our careful consideration.

In the sacrilegious Mass the celebrant's mind and heart are at enmity with God and with Christ the principal priest. Such an unworthy celebration of the Mass is a heinous mortal sin. Nevertheless, the sacrifice will retain its infinite value because of the victim and principal offerer; so it will not be deprived of the infinite act of adoration, reparation, petition, and thanksgiving, which perseveres in the theandric act of the principal offerer who lives on still to make intercession on our behalf.

But, in the event of the interior state of this priest becoming known to the faithful, it is impossible to say how much harm will be caused by such a grave scandal.

"Corruptio optimi pessima." The whole meaning of the priestly life is distorted and falsified. The result is a simulated charity and prudence, hypocrisy, wrong counsel, unrighteous example. St. Catherine of Sienna often speaks of this scandal in her Dialogue, saying that the Church appeared to her as a virgin whose lips were being slowly eaten away with leprosy.

These acts of sacrilege demand reparation from the priest who commits them. Sometimes it is offered to God by specially favoured contemplative souls who undergo tremendous suffering for the conversion of priests who have sinned so wretchedly.

Then there is the Mass which is said hurriedly, which is celebrated with excessive speed in fifteen minutes, and sometimes with a doubtful conscience. This also, in its own way, is a cause of scandal. St. Alphonsus, as bishop, wrote about this way of celebrating Mass and forbad it in his own diocese.

This haste in saying Mass shows that the priest has lost sight of the true importance and seriousness of his life. For him it is no longer the Mass that matters most, but outward activity and a pseudo-apostolate. With the disappearance of almost every vestige of an interior life, there has disappeared also every hope of a fruitful apostolate, since that is the heart and soul of any genuine apostolate.

What a difference between this Mass and the Mass described by St. John Fisher, when addressing himself to the Lutherans of his day: "The Mass is the spiritual sun which rises every day to spread its light and heat to all souls."

A Mass offered in haste is a scandal, in so far as the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and Sanctus are recited mechanically without any spirit of faith: not even the words are pronounced correctly owing to the excessive speed. The prayers of the Missal are read as though they were of no importance, whereas they are pregnant with such meaning as will only be fully grasped in the light of the Beatific Vision.

The Mass becomes a mere formula of words, rendering contemplation impossible. And yet, if there are any words which ought to be recited with the utmost care and contemplative insight, they are the words of the Missal—the Kyrie, the Gloria, and the Credo. But in the hasty Mass they are recited mechanically in order to finish the Mass more quickly. Genuflections are made with equal haste—empty gestures, devoid of the spirit of worship. How much harm may be inflicted on souls drawing near to the Catholic Church and looking for the genuine priest with whom they can freely discuss their conscience, in order to discover the truth. Baron von Hügel, who wrote a life of St. Catherine of Genoa, used to say: "Some priests have as much religion as my shoe."

After these hurried Masses thanksgiving is usually omitted or else reduced to the barest minimum.

We next turn to the Mass which is outwardly correct but lacks the spirit of faith. In this Mass the priest pays careful heed to the external rite, to all the rubrics—perhaps he himself is a keen rubrician—but he offers the Mass as though he were nothing more than a mere ecclesiastical official, seemingly devoid of any spirit of worship. He knows the rubrics and observes them, but he pays little regard to the infinite worth of the Mass or to the principal offerer whose minister he is. Such a priest is another Christ in outward appearance only, in so far as he possesses the priestly character enabling him to offer Mass validly, but he displays no signs of the true spirit of a priest. It would appear that since the day of his ordination sanctifying grace and the sacramental grace of Orders have not increased to any appreciable extent, although they were given as a treasure to yield rich dividends.8

True, the priest who celebrates in this way will think he is saying his Mass extremely well by reason of his scrupulous regard for the rubrics, but that is the limit of his aspirations. The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, the words of Consecration, and the Communion prayers, are said without any spirit of belief.

If these priests die in the state of grace, they must bitterly regret in Purgatory their lack of care in offering sacrifice. How eagerly must they look for a Mass offered with genuine devotion as an act of reparation on their behalf.

In contrast, the Mass which is faithfully and worthily celebrated is a Mass offered in a spirit of faith, of confidence in God, and of love for God and one's neighbour. In such a sacrifice we witness the impulse and guidance of the theological virtues which inspire the virtue of religion. The Kyrie eleison is a genuine prayer of petition; the Gloria in excelsis Deo is an act of adoration of God on high; the Gospel of the day is read with keen belief in what it contains; the words of Consecration are pronounced by a minister in actual union with Christ the principal offerer, by one who realizes to some extent the wide diffusion of the spiritual effects of his offering and sacramental immolation to the souls in this world and to those in Purgatory. The Agnus Dei is a sincere request for the forgiveness of sin; the priest's Communion leaves nothing to be desired—it is always more fervent and more fruitful than the day before, because of the daily growth in charity produced by this sacrament of the Eucharist. The distribution of Holy Communion is not approached in any perfunctory spirit, but is treated as the means of bestowing on the faithful superabundant life, of giving them an even greater share in the divine life. The sacrifice is then brought to its conclusion with a simple but effective contemplation on the Prologue to St. John's Gospel. Afterwards the priest will make his private thanksgiving which, if time permits, will be prolonged on certain feast-days in the form of mental prayer. There is no more suitable time for intimate prayer than when Christ is sacramentally present within us, and when our soul, if recollected, is under his actual influence.

Finally, we must consider the Mass of the saints. The eucharistic sacrifice offered by St. John the Evangelist in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary was, indeed, a sacramental continuation of the sacrifice of the Cross, which remained indelibly printed on the minds of Our Lady and her spiritual son. Then again, the Mass offered by St. Augustine after the hours of contemplation expressed in his works De Civitate Dei and De Trinitate must have been celebrated in the closest union possible with Christ the priest.

The same was true of the Masses celebrated by St. Dominic, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, who composed the thanksgiving prayers still in use to-day. St. Philip Neri was frequently rapt in ecstasy after the consecration, so intense was his contemplation and love of Jesus, the priest and victim.

Many of the faithful who witnessed St. Francis of Sales celebrating Mass held him in the highest veneration.

St. John Baptist Vianney used to say: "We would certainly die if we understood the real meaning of the Mass. ... In order to celebrate worthily, the priest would have to be a saint. When we are in Heaven, we will then appreciate to the full the value of the Mass, and our own lack of reverence, adoration, and recollection during the Mass."

The author of the Imitation says that the disciple of Christ should always unite the personal offering of his own sufferings to the offering made by Christ himself, the priest and victim of the Mass. Fr. Charles de Foucauld, when offering Mass in Africa amongst the Mohammedans, used to offer himself to God on their behalf in order to pave the way for their future conversion.

The Mass of the saints is, so to say, the prelude or beginning of that unending worship in heaven, which already finds expression in the words at the end of the Preface: "Holy, holy, holy."

Think of the influence of such Masses on the faithful. There they learn to recognize the dignity of our priesthood which is the continuation of Christ's priesthood. They gradually come to look on Christ not merely as a figure of history who once walked the streets of Palestine, but as the God-man who lives on still to make intercession on our behalf.

They begin to realize that they themselves are living members of Christ's mystical body. They give God heartfelt thanks for all the benefits they have received since the day of their Baptism, and earnestly desire a fervent and fruitful Communion.

They appreciate better the infinite value of the Mass. They find it easier to understand how one Mass can provide as much light and life for a thousand souls as for one, provided that they are well disposed. In this the Mass resembles the sun, which radiates its light and warmth to any number of people in the open. The Mass is in its essentials the continuation of the sacrifice of the Cross, which can be as profitable for all men as it was for the repentant thief, since Christ died for the whole world. Every Mass has an infinite value because of the principal offerer and the victim offered. But the faithful should be able to grasp this limitless worth of the Mass from the way in which it is celebrated.

In practice, therefore, the Mass itself ought to be prepared; for example, the priest should read over the prayers and the Epistle and Gospel of the day slowly and in a spirit of faith, so that he may say them better during the actual sacrifice. He must also ask for the spirit of prayer. And after Mass his thanksgiving should not be curtailed, but ought to last as long as the needs of the day will permit—certainly for half an hour, if he foresees that he is not likely to have any time later in the day for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or for mental prayer.

If priests would only celebrate Mass in this way, their whole life—especially their recitation of the breviary—would become an extension of the Mass, a daily accompaniment to the sacrifice of the altar. Their life would be more in keeping with the spirit of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Eucharist, as the venerable Father Chevrier—a friend of St. John Vianney—used to say to the priests whom he trained.9

The friendship which Christ desires to enjoy with his priests

Bossuet, in his panegyric on St. John the Apostle, describes how Christ's affection for his beloved disciple portrays vividly the friendship which he desires to share with his priests. Christ, he says, showed his love for St. John by drawing him close to his heart at the Last Supper, by giving him his own mother on Calvary, and by offering him his cross in order to make his ministry fruitful.

At the Last Supper the Apostles were ordained priests, and Christ rested the head of St. John close to his own heart. This gesture produced what it signified; at that moment John received the grace of understanding and love, enabling him to appreciate better the love which Christ had shown for us by instituting the Holy Eucharist. So it was that John the Evangelist became the doctor of charity, writing in his Epistles that charity includes all the other virtues.

But Christ favours the priest of to-day as much as he did St. John. Doesn't he give his heart to every priest in the Mass, especially in Holy Communion which brings a daily increase in charity in proportion to the generosity of our present dispositions ? And if our love increases day by day, then each of our Communions ought to be spiritually more fervent than the one preceding.

On Calvary, Christ gave his own mother to St. John to become his spiritual mother, and by her prayers, example, and words she enlightened his understanding to an even greater extent than St. Monica influenced the mind of her son.

Christ continues to make his mother the protectress and spiritual mother of all priests. A confident and humble approach to her is inevitably rewarded by a deeper insight into the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Eucharist. The Mother of God has always lived in close contact with these mysteries, and she is anxious to help us also to penetrate them more deeply.

His heart, his mother—finally, his cross. This was the third gift from Christ to St. John, as is revealed in the question he put to John and his brother: "Have you strength to drink of the cup I am to drink of?" John and his brother replied: "We have." And he said to them: "You shall indeed drink of my cup" (Matt, xx, 23). In fact, both of them were martyred. Although John himself did not suffer physical martyrdom, he was crucified in spirit by his extreme anguish of soul caused by the denial of Christ's divinity which he had so strenuously defended in his Gospel, in his Epistles and in all his preaching. He was also worried by the dissensions amongst his fellow Christians, constantly exhorting them: "My little children, love one another."

Every priest has his cross to bear either in the form of physical suffering or at least in the form of spiritual suffering. The cross is given to make his ministry effective, in the same way as the cross in the life of Christ was a source of unlimited grace because of the immense love which he had for his Father and for us. And thus Christ manifests a special love for his priests by granting them the valuable grace of love for the cross.

* (The Council of Trent recommends great reverence and holiness to all who approach Communion, but declares that even those who have not these dispositions receive an increase, provided they are not in a state of sin. It seems, therefore, that the priest Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange has in mind would, during a lifetime, grow considerably in grace, provided he kept free from grave sin. It is precisely this last condition that would probably not be verified in one who, by definition, was continually so tepid. Positive dispositions are necessary for the secondary effects of the sacrament, such as spiritual refreshment and consolation. Also they increase immeasurably the direct effects of the sacrament; and finally, it would be tempting providence to expect to remain continually without serious sin, if one were so careless.—Tr. note.)

1Cf. St. Thomas, Ila Ilae, q. 184, a. 3, ad 2.

2Cf. The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. I, p. 203.

3St. Thomas, IV Sent., dist. 24, q. 2. The same point is developed by Cardinal Mercier in his book La vie intérieure, appel aux ames sacerdotales, 1919, pp. 140-167.200.

4Cf. Suppl. Summae Theol., q. 35, a. 1, 2, de Ordine, and Summa, Ilia, q. 63, a. 3.

5Cf. The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. 1, p. 221.

6Cf. Fr. S. M. Giraud, Prètre e hostie, 5e ed., 1924, vol. 1, p. 270.

7Cf. Fr. S. M. Giraud, op. cit., vol. I, p. 279.

8See note at the end of this chapter.

9Cf. The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. i, p. 222.