One of the surest signs that the Church is indeed flirting with suicide in our day (as foretold by the future Pope Pius XII in reference to the warnings issued by Our Lady of Fatima) is the view of the priesthood so often put forth by high ranking prelates, up to and including the pope.
Before addressing the sad state of current affairs directly, let’s begins by considering the portrait of the priesthood painted by Pope St. Pius X in the Apostolic Exhortation, Haerent Animo, wherein the Holy Father makes his intent quite clear:
Our first and chief concern is that all who are invested with the priestly ministry should be in every way fitted for the discharge of their responsibilities.
As for the nature of those responsibilities, Pope St. Pius X is equally clear:
Whether your immediate task be to assist, to protect, to heal, to make peace, let your one aim and most ardent desire be to win or to secure souls for Christ.
While exhorting his priests and bishops to strive for the sanctity necessary to perform their duties well, the Holy Father touches on the essence of priestly identity, and he does so in such way as to indicate that this fundamentally important aspect of our Catholic faith was already most surely known and embraced by all concerned as he wrote.
For instance, while urging those in the clerical state to keep watch over their own souls, Pope St. Pius writes:
These grave words apply, no doubt, to all who have authority in the Church, but they apply in a special way to us who, despite our unworthiness, by the grace of God exercise supreme power within the Church.
Here we find the Holy Father referring to the hierarchical structure of the Church; speaking as if it is simply a given that the priest is an authority figure in his own right, while the bishop is charged in a particular way with the exercise of supreme power.
This power is given to the bishops by God so that they may:
…devote themselves unceasingly and efficaciously to the formation of Christ in those who [the priests], by their calling, have the responsibility of forming Christ in others.
Again, one notes that the Holy Father writes as if it is simply common knowledge that the priesthood exists for the purpose of forming Christ in others; namely, the laity.
Pope St. Pius X expounds on the manner of this formation further, saying:
As his envoys, we must win the minds of men for his doctrine and his law by first observing them ourselves; sharing as we do in his power to deliver souls from the bondage of sin, we must strive by every means to avoid becoming entangled in these toils of sin.
Notice that no sense whatsoever is conveyed in Haerent Animo that priestly sanctity alone has an attractive power capable of drawing souls to Christ, much less forming them in His image.
Rather, it is clear that Pope St. Pius X considers priestly sanctity as but a “first” necessary step that enables the priest to carry out the work of “securing souls for Christ” as he uses his God-given authority to impart His saving truth.
The Christian people rightly look to them [priests] for a genuine model of Christian virtue … The priest then is the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Everyone knows that he fulfills this function chiefly by the teaching of Christian truth…
Pope St. Pius X is at pains in Haerent Animo to urge his priests to make time to fortify themselves for ministry by way of, “prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, examination of conscience,” all unto the formation of “priestly virtues.”
Not surprisingly, the saintly pope points to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the offering of which lies at the very heart of sacerdotal identity, as central to the priests’ striving.
But it is particularly as the ministers of Jesus Christ in the great sacrifice which is constantly renewed with abiding power for the salvation of the world, that we have the duty of conforming our minds to that spirit in which he offered himself as an unspotted victim to God on the altar of the Cross.
At this, let’s briefly recap what we has been conveyed in just these few excerpts from Haerent Animo :
The priest is an avenue of grace for God’s people; it is he from whom authority, right doctrine and virtue is imparted to the laity whose salvation is the priest’s “one aim and most ardent desire.”
Pope St. Pius X leaves no room for doubt that it is entirely necessary for the priest to detach from the secular order in sufficient measure as to make time for forming himself in holiness, that he may be well prepared to form those in his care, and the offering of Holy Mass is central to his efforts.
In other words, the priest must labor to attain the odor of sanctity for himself, lest he be found lacking and unable to impart it to others.
Pope Francis, by contrast, has frequently urged priests to depart from the parishes, often exhorting them to spend more time in the bowels of society among the dangers that lurk therein; to go to the “peripheries” in order to “take on the smell of the sheep.”
This program is well in keeping with his legacy in Buenos Aries, where as Cardinal Archbishop he encouraged his priests to take up residence in the favelas (slums) where drugs and sex are treated as commodities, to “serve” the poor in the midst of their misery.
That no small number of these “slum priests” are said to have fallen into grave sin along the way would come as no surprise to Pope St. Pius X who wrote:
A priest cannot avoid daily contact with a corrupt society; frequently, in the very exercise of pastoral charity, he must fear the insidious attacks of the infernal serpent. Is it not all too easy even for religious souls to be tarnished by contact with the world?
The inverted model of priesthood espoused by Pope Francis is such that it is imagined that even the heathens and heretics have something to offer that the priest desperately needs.
… In the awareness of being called to bravely guard the faith entrusted, he [the bishop, priest, and deacon] shall listen to the people. He is in fact cognizant of always having something to learn, even from those who may still be far from the faith and from the Church. With his confreres, then, all this must lead to taking on a new attitude marked by sharing, joint responsibility and communion. (Pope Francis, General Audience, 12 November 2014)
So impoverished is the view of the priesthood espoused by Pope Francis that the world, her peoples, and her cultures are imagined to take on the animating role of Christ and the immutable doctrines of the faith.
The same Spirit who inspired the Gospels and who acts in the Church also inspires the preacher to hear the faith of God’s people and to find the right way to preach at each Eucharist. Christian preaching thus finds in the heart of people and their culture a source of living water, which helps the preacher to know what must be said and how to say it. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium)
In keeping with his desire for a “new attitude” wherein members of the sacred hierarchy actively seek a relationship with the laity that is “marked by sharing, joint responsibility and communion,” it should come as little surprise that Pope Francis is also eager to promote a new attitude concerning Holy Orders itself.
The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power “we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.”(ibid.)
Note: Pope Francis is quoting his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, out of context, but we will set those details aside for the present discussion.
In any case, those with sensus Catholicus know perfectly well that the sacramental power of the priest (as well as his authority to teach and to govern) has little to do with mere function and everything to do with the unique dignity derived from his ontological configuration to Christ.
Undaunted, Pope Francis pushes the envelope further still, saying:
The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. (ibid.)
At this, two things stand out in stark contrast to the traditional understanding of the priesthood; namely, its exalted dignity and its actual purpose.
First, one notes that our current pope imagines that the dignity derived from Holy Orders is no greater than that which is imparted at Baptism; something that even the most pertinacious of heretics have received.
Indeed, Pope St. Pius X would likely have shuddered to see such ideas even being entertained by simple laymen, much less promoted by a Successor to the Office of Peter.
In Haerent Animo alone the Holy Father mentions the “high dignity” of the priesthood numerous times, even going so far as to provide a lengthy quote from Saint Charles Borromeo that reads in part:
If we would only bear in mind, dearly beloved brethren [in the priesthood], the exalted character of the things that the Lord God has placed in our hands, what unbounded influence would not this have in impelling us to lead lives worthy of ecclesiastics! . . . How, then, can I be so ungrateful for such condescension and love as to sin against Him, to offend His honor, to pollute this body which is His? How can I come to defile this high dignity, this life consecrated to his service?
Secondly, and perhaps most noteworthy, is Pope Francis’ suggestion that the purpose for which the priesthood was established is “the service of God’s people,” when indeed it exists for the salvation of souls.
While one might argue that “teaching, sanctifying, and governing” God’s people unto salvation is the ultimate service one might render, and perhaps this is what the Holy Father has in mind when speaking of “service,” the tenor of his entire pontificate suggests that Pope Francis has more earthbound endeavors in mind.
On those occasions when “salvation” is mentioned, it is often done in a context stripped of Catholic meaning, devoid of any calls to conversion; with the unique role of the priest in creating members of the Holy Catholic Church, the solitary Ark of Salvation established by Christ, at times, apparently, even deliberately avoided.
In Evangelii Gaudium, for instance, Pope Francis writes:
The Father desires the salvation of every man and woman, and his saving plan consists in “gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). Our mandate is to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15), for “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). Here, “the creation” refers to every aspect of human life; consequently, the mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ has a universal destination.
Here, in the major agenda setting document of his pontificate, Pope Francis refers to both the “mission” and the “mandate” of the Church, and yet curiously missing is any mention whatsoever of “teaching” and “baptizing,” both of which are entirely central to both the mission that was given to the Church by Christ, as well as the identity and the ministry of the priest.
Note very well the Holy Father’s reference to Mark 16:15.
The very next verse reads, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned,” making it perfectly clear that a crucial link exists between teaching and baptism and salvation.
Could it be that Pope Francis deliberately avoided citing this verse because it flies in the face of the “new attitude” that he intends to promote?
Let’s take a closer look at Pope Francis’ treatment of baptism and teaching relative to the identity and ministry of the priest.
As it concerns baptism, recall (as mentioned above) that Pope Francis imagines that the priest finds “living water” in the “heart of people and their culture.”
Is the baptismal language being employed here a deliberate attempt to invert the image of the priest as the avenue of grace used by God to continue the work of redemption by calling men to the waters of baptism?
Consider the sermon Pope Francis delivered to the priests of Rome at his first Chrism Mass:
We need to “go out”, then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the “outskirts” where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters
The baptismal overtones in this twisted scenario are impossible to ignore; Pope Francis’ view of the priesthood is so thoroughly inverted that he desires priests who seek among the laity an “anointing” that supposedly has “redemptive power.”
We find a similar undoing of the priest’s true mission and identity with regard to teaching as well.
Recall, for example, Pope Francis’ insistence (also cited above) that the sacred hierarchy is called to learn even from those “far from the faith and from the Church.”
Lest there be any doubt whatsoever as to Francis’ desire to invert the roles of the priest and the layperson by stripping the former of his exalted dignity, consider very carefully his “prayer” given on the vigil of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops last October:
Above all, we ask the Holy Spirit, for the gift of listening for the Synod Fathers: to listen in the manner of God, so that they may hear, with him, the cry of the people; to listen to the people, until they breathe the will to which God calls us.
The “new attitude marked by sharing, joint responsibility and communion” encouraged by Pope Francis among the members of the sacred hierarchy is coming into sharper focus:
The sheep are imagined to be oracles of God’s will, and the instructors and the anointers of the shepherds.
At this, the inversion is all but complete.
This view of the priesthood is so impoverished that it can hardly even be said that Pope Francis sees those in Holy Orders as equals in dignity with the laity; rather, he appears to imagine that they stand in need of obtaining God’s grace as dispensed from their hands in order just to keep pace! (With this in mind, the deplorable image above perhaps takes on more meaning.)
Many more examples could be cited, but for the sake of brevity (the limits of which have already been well exceeded) I will conclude with the following admonition given by Pope St. Pius X; words that seem to condemn many in the Church today, not the least of whom is his current successor.
There are some who think, and even declare openly, that the true measure of the merits of a priest is his dedication to the service of others; consequently, with an almost complete disregard for the cultivation of the virtues which lead to the personal sanctification of the priest (these they describe as passive virtues), they assert that all his energies and fervor should be directed to the development and practice of what they call the active virtues. One can only be astonished by this gravely erroneous and pernicious teaching.