Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange
THE PRIEST IN UNION WITH CHRIST AS VICTIM. Pt. 2 Ch.3
When considering the priest’s union with Christ we saw that he was bound to strive for an intimate friendship with Christ by reason of his priesthood—that is, by reason of his ordination and his duties towards the sacramental body and the mystical body of Christ.
Furthermore, the priest is ordained primarily to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. If he humbles himself during the Mass in order to exalt Christ, he is surrounded with the praise and honour befitting a vicegerent of Christ. And the Saviour invites the priest to the same intimate friendship with himself as he offered to St. John the Evangelist to whom he gave his heart, his mother, and his cross.
But something more is necessary; the priest must be in his own way a victim. Why? Because Christ in offering himself during the sacrifice of the Mass offers also his entire mystical body, and especially his minister who is celebrating Mass. Therefore every priest has his own individual vocation to be a victim in order to become like to Christ.
The truth of this becomes even more evident if we consider the opposite error. Take the case of a priest who shares in the priesthood of Christ by virtue of his ordination and yet refuses to share in his state of victim. Such a priest is refusing the obligation laid on all the faithful of taking up the cross; and this obligation presses all the more urgently upon a priest in view of the fact that he is intended to be another Christ amongst the faithful.
Every priest must be a victim to the degree determined for him by Providence, and in the following pages we will develop that truth by considering the following points: the doctrinal basis of this teaching; examples taken from the lives of saints who were priests; the effects consequent on the non-fulfilment of this obligation; confirmation of this teaching from a comparison with the saintly priests of the Old Testament; how it determines the sterility or fruitfulness of the priest’s ministry; the different degrees of union with Christ as victim dependent on the priest’s progress in the spiritual life; St. Paul’s teaching on the fruitfulness of the cross in the priest’s life.
The doctrinal basis of this teaching
Christ is at the same time both priest and victim, and in offering himself to his Father in the sacrifice of the Mass he offers his mystical body also—every individual who belongs to the Church on earth, in Heaven, or in Purgatory. Consequently he also offers his minister.2 He offers with intense love all his followers no matter what their state in life may be—the children, the poor, the sick, the high and the low, those who rule and those who belong to the lowest classes of society. He offers too those specially consecrated to his service, the just that they may progress further towards perfection, sinners that they may turn aside from their evil ways. Not a soul is forgotten—no one who is in his own individual way a member of Christ’s mystical body.
All these souls must carry the cross each according to his own condition of life and thus share in the Saviour’s state of victim— in the same way as all are called to the peak of charity in virtue of the supreme commandment, each according to his own condition. The Saviour’s invitation is urgent and insistent: “If any man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink; yes, if a man believes in me . . . fountains of living water shall flow from his bosom” (John vii, 38).
Everyone is offered to God, but especially the minister of Christ when he says in the name of Christ: “This is my body.” Therefore every priest has a special and individual vocation to be a victim in order to be like the figure of Christ. To this call there ought to be a practical response, so that Christ may be able to carry out his desires in our regard. A priest is not merely an orator, an eloquent exponent of doctrine or history, an exegete, or a canonist, but first and foremost he is meant to be a genuine priest.
Examples given by saints who were priests
In the Collect of the Mass for the feast of St. Vincent de Paul we pray to God: “God, who gave to blessed Vincent while daily celebrating the divine mysteries the grace of imitating that which he handled, listen graciously to our prayers that we also while offering the immaculate Victim may become a holocaust wholly acceptable to you.” Father Liberman when asked what was the best way of celebrating Mass replied: “In the Mass Jesus immolates himself: let us make ourselves one and the same victim with him. I do not know any better way of celebrating Mass.” Similar examples are to be found in the lives of St. John Vianney, St. John Bosco, St. Joseph Cottolengo, Fr. Charles de Foucauld, and many others. The author of the Imitation of Christ writes (Bk. iv, c. 10): “Blessed is he who offers himself up as a holocaust to the Lord, as often as he celebrates or communicates.” Blessed, indeed, is that priest because he is a source of consolation to the Saviour and will be more richly rewarded and strengthened in his priestly vocation. The fruits of his ministry will never disappear. Pius XI wrote in his encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor: “The immolation of priests and of other followers of Christ must be united to the august sacrifice of the Eucharist.”
Consequences of refusal
What would happen to a priest already sharing in the priesthood of Christ by reason of his ordination, if he refused to share in Christ’s condition of victim?3 He would certainly be falling away from the priestly ideal: his life would become disordered, disturbed, and confused. He would remain a minister of Christ but without a sincere love for his affectionate Master. No longer a man of God but a man of the world, a man whose life has become vain, superficial, barren. This deplorable state of sterility reveals in an even better light the fruitfulness of a genuine apostolate, just as it is easier to appreciate the value of justice when we see the suffering resulting from injustice. Every priest should ask for the grace to be a victim in the way God wants him to be, to suffer patiently whatever God has willed for him from all eternity, so that he takes up his cross each day not simply as a faithful follower of Christ but as a priest standing in the place of Christ himself. He must undergo a mystical death before his physical death.
Confirmation from the Old Testament
The doctrine outlined above is confirmed by comparing the priests of the present dispensation with the saintly priests of the Levitical priesthood. In the book of Numbers we read that the Levites were offered to God as the chosen section of the people of Israel: “Aaron will offer them (the Levites) to the Lord on Israel’s behalf, to do him service” (Numbers viii, 11).
This is also evident from their office, as they were called upon to offer to God sheep and calves—irrational victims incapable of divine worship. Hence their immolation was intended to be an expression of the immolation of the humble and contrite hearts of priest and people. When this interior sacrifice was lacking, God rebuked them: “This people does me honour with its lips, but its heart is far from me” (Isaias xxix, 13; Matt, xv, 8).
Therefore the priests of the Old Testament were in virtue of their consecration victims of prayer, praise, atonement, and thanksgiving. William, bishop of Paris in the thirteenth century, in his book De Legibus, c. 24, places the following prayer on the lips of the good Levite: “It is to you, Lord, that I offer sacrifice and I acknowledge you as the author of all holiness. … As it is within my power to kill or not to kill this animal, so also are we in your power to be condemned through your justice because of our sins, or to be spared through your mercy. . . . May the death of this animal signify the death in me of sin through this sacrifice, so that my soul may devote its life to you.” Those priests of the Old Testament who understood the meaning of their vocation and carried it out with joy were richly rewarded for being true harbingers of the sacrifice of Calvary.
This was especially true of the sacrifice of Abraham, who was fully prepared to offer his own son Isaac as the victim. Here, in the commencement of this sacrifice, we can see a faint resemblance to the lofty sacrifice of the future Redeemer.
If these upright priests of the Old Testament were victims each in his own way, what are we to think of the priests of Christ who are ordained to be other Christs for the sanctification of the people? The priest of the present dispensation is no longer holding in his hands a mere lamb or dove, but a victim of infinite worth, the victim of love to whom he should be closely united. He himself must be both priest and victim: otherwise he is not another Christ. The priest cannot refuse to make this offering of himself.
If he limits his co-operation with the offering of Christ to pronouncing the words of consecration and the prayers of the Mass, he resembles a body without a soul, a corpse without life. In fact, he can be likened to the executioners of Christ who lent their physical assistance to his crucifixion, or to the nails fixed in his hands.
Any priest, especially a priest of the New Law, ought to recognize with joy and lasting gratitude that the state and dispositions of a victim represent the perfect fulfilling of his priestly vocation. Pope St. Gregory writes in his Dialogues, bk. iv, c. 59: “We who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion should imitate what we are doing. If we look for benefit from the victim which we offer, we must offer ourselves to God as a victim.”
The same idea is expressed by St. Gregory of Nanzianzen, Orat. ii, Apolog.: “No one can approach the infinite God, our high priest and victim, if he himself is not a living and holy victim, if he does not offer himself in spiritual sacrifice, seeing that this is the sacrifice demanded by him who gave himself up entirely on our behalf. Without it I would not dare to bear the name or vestment of a priest.” St. John Baptist Vianney used to say that a priest is most effective when he offers himself daily in sacrifice. Peter of Blois writes in his 123rd letter: “Only when a priest has the intention of offering himself in all humility by imitating that which he does will the victim of salvation be of benefit to him.” On the day of ordination the Bishop warns the future priest: “Consider what you do: imitate that which you handle.”
This victim is always imperfect but Christ will make up for our deficiency.
The effect on a priest’s ministry
The fruitfulness or sterility of our ministry depends on our acceptance or rejection of this state of victim. (Cf. Fr. Giraud, op. cit., II, pp. 405-407, 411-414. A priest who offers himself as a victim is capable of feeling for the faithful in their humiliations (cf. Heb. iv, 15). And by carrying the sorrows of others he becomes more intimately united with Christ. But this likeness to Christ is not the result of a short period of concentrated effort in the spiritual life: there is only one way of acquiring it—through grace, after years of self-denial.
The priest should offer himself as a victim together with Christ at the moment of consecration and when he recites the words: “Through him, with him and in him is all honour and glory to you, God.” (Cf. Fr. Giraud, op. cit., II, p. 414.) The priest who fails to grasp this teaching in any practical form is wasting much of his time, he is being deceived in numerous ways and understands nothing of the profoundness of the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation. He is building on sand and, in the words of St. Peter, “he is no better than a blind man feeling his way about; his old sins have been purged away, and he had forgotten it” (2 Pet. i, 9); that is, he forgets it was only through the cross of Christ that he was purified from his guilt. “The priest only reaches the summit of his priesthood in the state of victim whereby he is conformed to Christ. Without this spirit of immolation, if he does not carry his cross, the priest fails to understand the full import of his vocation.” (Fr. Giraud, op. cit., II, 414.) ” He cannot say the offertory prayer with any depth of meaning: “Receive holy Father this unblemished sacrificial offering … for my countless sins, offences and neglects.”
Neither can he say with sincerity the prayer at the end of the Canon: “To us also thy sinful servants, who put our trust in thy countless acts of mercy, deign to grant some share and fellowship with thy holy Apostles and martyrs. . . . Into their company we pray thee to admit us, not weighing our deserts, but freely granting us forgiveness . . .”
In contrast, priests who have taken more than a mere speculative interest in this teaching and have become both priests and victims have met with enormous success in their ministry. (Fr. Giraud gives ample proof of this in his book Prêtre et hostie, I, pp. 573-593. Refer also to the works of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists.). This truth cannot be repeated too often since the modern world has little or no time for the cross, and our own human nature encourages us to avoid it.
St. Gregory the Great (Homil. xxxii, 2) says: “Unless a man ceases through humility to think of himself, he never approaches the Being who is above himself; unless he knows how to sacrifice what he is, he cannot grasp what is beyond himself.” Without the sacrifice of self no man can possibly attain to a close union with Christ. His love for the Saviour must become so intense that its ardent strength destroys the main obstacle to union— his inordinate love of self. The German mystic Tauler was most insistent on that point. But the Old Testament had already implied the same, when setting out the rite to be followed in the sacrifice of a holocaust: “This is the rule which governs burnt-sacrifice. It is to be burnt on the altar all night till morning comes, with the altar’s own fire. . . . The fire on the altar must burn continually; each morning the priest will feed it with fresh logs”, in order that the victim should be altogether destroyed by the fire, and the smell of its burning would rise towards God.4 The outward sacrifice was intended to signify the inward sacrifice of reparative worship, petition, and thanksgiving. This was certainly true of Christ’s shedding of blood in the sacrifice on Calvary and it is no less true of the bloodless immolation in the Mass. Joined to this holocaust are all the saintly priests whose lives are, so to speak, a perpetual sacrifice. St. Augustine writes: “There is no need to look outside of yourself for a sheep to offer to God: you have within yourself that which you can kill.”5 The victim is always to be found within yourself.
Different degrees of union with Christ the victim
The desired union between the priest and Christ the victim varies according as the priest has reached the spiritual age of beginners, of proficients, or of the perfect. If he is a beginner, his life should already exemplify the words of St. Paul: “Those who belong to Christ have crucified nature, with all its passions, all its impulses” (Gal. v, 24); and: “If you mortify the ways of nature through the power of the Spirit, you will have life” (Rom. viii, 13). This should be true even of the perfect, because in the present life, though avarice can completely destroy charity which is lost through any mortal sin, charity never completely destroys avarice—our inordinate love of self—which finds a willing accomplice both in the world and in the devil. Therefore St. Thomas says (Summa Ilia, q. 84, a. 8): “The internal spirit of penitence whereby we are sorry for sin committed must endure until the end of our life.” Only in this way can we preserve ourselves against committing sin in the future. “Internal penitence has its place even in the proficient and in the perfect” (ibid., ad 2). St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome (Rom. xii, 1): “And now brethren I appeal to you by God’s mercies to offer up your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated to God and worthy of his acceptance; this is the worship due from you as rational creatures.”
More especially should the priest offer himself as a victim when God gives him a special cross to bear, such as he laid on the shoulders of Christ. An occasion in question would be a time of persecution when God makes an extraordinary intervention in order to consecrate his priest more fully, so that he becomes at the same time a perfect victim. Also regarded as crosses are the various trials of life—for example, aridity of mind or heart, periods when the soul is incapable of prayer, temptations against chastity or patience or faith or hope or charity, mental desolations which can become a spiritual agony in the night of the soul described by St. John of the Cross. Very often these spiritual trials are accompanied by physical trials—bodily infirmity and sickness—and also by the desertion of friends, loss of good repute, opposition, persecution, contempt, poverty. God either deliberately wills or at least permits these trials for a greater good, as David well understood when he was cursed by Semei: he said to his servants: “Let him (Semei) curse as he will; the Lord has bidden him curse David, and who shall call him to question for doing it?” (II Kings xvi, 10). And thus the king made reparation for his sins.
A cross carried cheerfully is a great blessing from God; it is a sign of our predestination, since it is the cross which makes us like to Christ. “If we are his children, then we are his heirs too; heirs of God, sharing the inheritance of Christ; only we must share his sufferings, if we are to share his glory” (Rom. viii, 17). The author of the Imitation of Christ writes (bk. ii, c. 12): “In the cross is salvation; in the cross is life; in the cross is protection from enemies … in the cross is height of virtue; in the cross is perfection of sanctity.” So the cross is far more necessary for us than we normally think. St. Paul reiterates the truth in his second Epistle to Timothy (iii, 12): “And indeed, all those who are resolved to live a holy life in Christ Jesus will meet with persecution.” St. Augustine in the course of his commentary on the 55th Psalm says: “If therefore you do not suffer any persecution for Christ’s sake, see whether you may not yet have begun to live holily in Christ. When you begin to live in this way, you have entered the winepress of suffering; prepare yourself for the pressings, but take care not to be so spiritually dry that nothing comes forth from the pressing.”
The saints lived up to this teaching—especially St. Paul of the Cross, who at the age of thirty had already reached the union of transformation into Christ, but he had still to found the Order of Passionists, who were to dedicate themselves to a life of reparation, and he did not die until he was eighty-one. So for forty-five years he was carrying a cross so heavy that it became a common saying in Rome: “Deliver us, Lord, from the way of Paul.” But never for one moment did he lose his charity and meekness towards everyone.
The teaching of St. Paul
The fruitfulness of the cross in the priestly ministry is admirably described by St. Paul. During these times of affliction, humiliation and death, not only is the sufferer made like to Christ but he is suffering also for the whole Church. “I am glad of my sufferings on your behalf, as, in this mortal frame of mine, I help to pay off the debt which the afflictions of Christ leave still to be paid, for the sake of his body, the Church” (Coloss. i, 24). This is well explained by St. Thomas in his commentary on that Epistle: “On the surface, these words are capable of a false interpretation. They could be taken to mean that the Passion of Christ was insufficient for the redemption of the world and that the sufferings of the saints have been added to make it complete. This is heretical, because the blood of Christ is sufficient for the redemption of many worlds. ‘He, in his own person, is the atonement made for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the sins of the whole world’ (I John ii, 2). But it is essential to understand that Christ and the Church are one mystical body of which Christ is the head and the just are the body; everyone who has been justified is, so to say, a member of this head. Now just as God has predestined the number of the elect, so also he has foreordained the amount of merit there must be throughout the whole Church, both in the head and in the members. And amongst these merits are numbered the sufferings of the saints. The merits of Christ as head are, indeed, infinite but every saint contributes his own particular amount of merit. And so St. Paul says: I help to pay off the debt still to be paid . . . that is, I contribute my own share. . . . Likewise do all the saints suffer for the Church, which is strengthened by their example.” St. Augustine comments in a similar vein on Psalm LXI, n. 4.
The individual’s cross is, as it were, the extension of Christ’s Passion and the means of applying the merits of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary: she herself merited (de congruo) with Christ the redemption of the human race and not merely its application.
St. Paul expresses this very vividly in his Epistle to the Galatians (ii, 19): “With Christ I hang upon the cross, and yet I am alive; or rather, not I; it is Christ that lives in me.” And St. Thomas comments: “The old habit of sin is taken away by the cross of Christ and the new habit of the spiritual life is conferred . . . together with the strength to perform good actions.” Then it is that the words of Christ are amply fulfilled in the priest: “It was not you that chose me, it was I that chose you. The task I have appointed you is to go out and bear fruit, fruit which will endure” (John xv, 16).
Conclusion. It should now be evident that the priest must be a victim in order to be like Christ and in order to labour according to his capacity for the salvation of souls with the same means as Christ himself used. Therefore every priest from the day of his ordination onwards must accept generously all the crosses marked out for him from all eternity by the providence of God, whether they be directly willed or merely permitted, so that his work of saving souls may be fruitful and that he may fully respond to his own individual vocation as determined by God. Priests are the chosen section of Christ’s people, the section which has a special duty of conforming to Christ as priest and victim.
A practical application of this doctrine to the priest’s life
The characteristic virtue of a victim is patience inspired by love of God. As St. Thomas points out, it is far more difficult to bear with suffering for some time than to attack an enemy in a moment of daring. Now the priest has to be extremely patient even with those who are most troublesome and with those who are down and out, doing for them all that he can to preserve them from despair and to save their souls. Even when obstacles are put in the way of good results from his apostolate, he must still be patient and pray much. Neither must his patience diminish when his capabilities seem to be out of all proportion with the work he has to do. The Apostles themselves were not blind to their limitations, but with the help of God’s grace they laboured for the conversion of the world, even to the point of martyrdom.
The venerable Father Chevrier, a friend of St. John Vianney, wrote out the following scheme for his followers to remember.
Fr. Chevrier gathered together, in Lyons, large numbers of children who had been abandoned by their parents, and made excellent Christians of many of them. He laid down three conditions for attendance at his catechism class: “to know nothing, to possess nothing, to be worth nothing.” And, through the grace of God, this priest succeeded on several occasions in bringing about a complete reformation of their character.6
Its practical application to-day. Mortification, penance, and reparation.
There are at present in the world many people who wish to suppress all forms of mortification, penance, and reparation; they are anxious to destroy the cross and the spirit of sacrifice as being opposed to the modern spirit of so-called liberty or licence and uncontrolled pleasure.
Consequently their lives have become completely barren, because no one has ever been known to scale great heights without a spirit of sacrifice. The modern spirit of unbridled pleasure leads inevitably to destruction, as is only too evident from the past two wars. No genuine peace has resulted, precisely because men have refused to see the meaning of divine chastisements and to return to a life which is both naturally upright and Christian. And so the Holy Ghost has implanted in many souls the seeds of genuine and fruitful reparation.
In view of this widespread sterility in human endeavour many would-be reformers are asserting that what is needed is a new approach to the priestly and religious life, in order to adapt them to the needs of the modern era. So far as the religious life is concerned, they are of the opinion that its austerity ought to be mitigated since it is now out of date: time devoted to prayer should be cut down to leave more time for external activities. They would also adapt the priestly life to the spirit of the times: to them it seems no longer suitable for priests to wear a special dress or the tonsure or any outward sign of their priesthood, or even to recite the breviary—perhaps even celibacy has become outmoded—and so on.
Such has been the attitude adopted by many Protestants, and it is of interest to remember that Luther in cutting himself off from the Church immediately renounced the three religious vows. But surely a more fitting approach would be the following: “The dearth of achievement in recent apostolic work has been due to the fact that many priests and religious have been wanting in a supernatural faith sufficiently strong, active, deep, and infectious. Therefore they have not been able to communicate it to a Christian people distracted by pernicious errors. This modern sterility is due also to the fickle confidence of many priests in divine help, and to their lack of ardent charity—which must be the heart and soul of any apostolate. And why has their enthusiasm for the glory of God and the salvation of souls waned? For want of the spirit of sacrifice. The priest has failed to recognize that he must be a victim in union with Christ, and that he cannot save souls except through the same means as Christ himself used. It is only this spirit of sacrifice which can rectify disorder in the soul of a priest or religious, and thus make way for a genuine charity bringing in its train peace and joy, which spread themselves to other souls. Take away mortification and you immediately take away joy, because once the affections of man are allowed to settle on things of sense they can no longer be raised to God and the supernatural.”
There is certainly no need to remodel the priestly and religious lives and thus imitate the modernist renovation of dogma.
But what is required is a careful study of the actions and ambitions of the saints, whether they were founders of Orders or excellent secular priests; and this study must be undertaken not in any mere historical or theoretical frame of mind but from a practical point of view. Neither must we neglect the perennial teaching of the Church and the Popes about the religious life and the priestly life, which we find contained in the Enchiridion for the training of clerics. We will then discover the real changes that have to be made, in a spirit of faith, trust in God, and self-diffusive charity. Pius X spoke about the spirit of sacrifice in his Letter to Catholic Priests:7 “We do not discharge the priestly office in our own name but in the name of Jesus Christ. St. Paul says: ‘That is how we ought to be regarded, as Christ’s servants, and stewards of God’s mysteries’ (i Cor. iv, i); ‘We are Christ’s ambassadors, then’ (II Cor. v, 20). Because of this, Christ has enrolled us not as servants but as friends: ‘I do not speak of you any more as my servants ; a servant is one who does not understand what his master is about, whereas I have made known to you all that my Father has told me; and so I have called you my friends. … It was I that chose you, and the task I have appointed you is to go out and bear fruit’ (John xv, 15, 16). We priests, as Christ’s representatives, must bear him in ourselves, and, as his ambassadors, we must go wherever he wills. As his friends, we must let that mind be in us which was in Jesus Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled’, since the sure and only sign of true friendship is to will and not to will the same thing. As his ambassadors, we must win men over to belief in his teaching and law, we ourselves setting the example in observing them. Moreover, as sharing his power to free the souls of men from the bonds of sin, we must strive with all the means in our power to avoid being caught in the same fetters. But above all, as his ministers possessing unending power to renew the unparalleled sacrifice of the Mass for the life of the world, we are bound to possess that spirit of Christ which led him to offer himself on the altar of the cross as an unblemished victim.”8
Likewise Pius XI in his encyclicals Ad Catholici sacerdotii fastigium, 20th December, 1935, and Caritate Christi compulsi, 1932, pointed out that if the faithful were to possess the necessary zeal for God’s glory and the salvation of souls, they must do penance not only for themselves but for all sinners, in imitation of the saints who were following the example set by Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” [Emphasis supplied]
If this is the advice given by Pius XI for the promotion of zeal in the general body of the faithful, surely it holds with even greater force for priestly zeal.
If anyone asks for dogmatic proof that Christ offers not only himself but also his mystical body in the Mass, it is to be found in the prayer which Christ offered previous to the sacrifice of the Cross—which in its essential aspects continues in the Mass: “Holy Father, keep them true to thy name, thy gift to me, that they may be one, as we are one. . . . Keep them holy, then, through the truth . . . that they may all be one . . . and so they may be perfectly made one.” (Cf. John xvii.) See also i Peter ii, 5 sq; Romans xii, 1-2; and the Imitation of Christ, bk. iv, c. 8 and 9.
Margherita, the mother of Don Bosco, said to her son 011 the day of his first Mass: “To become a priest is to commence a life of suffering.”
The vow of victim
Although we have stated that in order to attain to perfection the priest must offer himself daily in union with Christ as a victim, willingly accepting all the afflictions permitted by Providence, we have not been considering the vow of victim. This highly meritorious vow has been made by many generous souls specially inspired by the Holy Ghost to offer themselves either to the Divine Justice or to the Merciful Love of God, in order to accept all the sufferings which Almighty God will deem suitable for making reparation for sinners and for obtaining their conversion—to some extent like St. John of the Cross. In consequence, these souls are often visited with grievous sufferings, sicknesses, and persecution. Hence this vow must never be made except under a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost; otherwise there is the danger of undertaking an extremely painful way of life to which one has no vocation, and so of being unable to bear all the subsequent afflictions. That is the natural result of presumption in making the vow.
On the other hand, if God sees that a person will endure with consummate patience sufferings that are to come his way—for instance, as a result of a very painful illness—he will inspire such a soul to make a special dedication of itself to God as a victim of love. The soul’s patience will then be all the more meritorious in virtue of this vow and all the more fruitful for the conversion of sinners.9
But even without making a vow in the strict sense of the word it still remains possible to offer oneself to the Merciful Love of God by adopting the formula composed by St. Thérèse of Lisieux and approved by the Sacred Penitentiary, 31st July, 1923. A plenary indulgence may be gained each month by those who recite it daily.
“To live in an act of perfect love, I offer myself as a burnt-offering to Your Merciful Love, calling upon you to consume me every instant, while You let the floods of infinite tenderness pent up within You flow into my soul, so that I may become Martyr to Your Love, O my God! . . .
“When that martyrdom has prepared me to appear before You, may it cause me to die, and may my soul hurl itself in that instant into the eternal embrace of Your Merciful Love….
“At every heartbeat, O my Beloved, I wish to renew this offering an infinite number of times, till the shadows retire and I can tell You my Love over again, looking upon You face to face eternally.”10
We can also ask Our Lady to offer us each day to her Son, in the sure hope that her motherly prudence will not allow us to be visited by sufferings which we could not endure, even though aided by grace. At the same time we will ask her not to restrain her zeal in making this offering, so that we may give to God whatever he expects from us while we are on earth. Such an offering made through the intercession of God’s mother will not be wanting in prudence or in generosity. Furthermore, it is not a vow which binds under sin; it is a simple offering, somewhat equivalent in practice to the vow of doing what is more perfect for us.
It is therefore undeniable that every priest has a duty of becoming a victim in his own individual way in order to be another Christ. On this depends the fruitfulness or failure of his ministry—a fact abundantly proved as true during recent years in concentration camps, where priests who generously accepted for Christ and for souls all the opposition and punishment they experienced during their confinement were rewarded by a most fruitful ministry.
1Cf. Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Mediator Dei et hominum; and the Roman Pontifical De ordinatione sacerdotali. Also, Fr. Giraud, Prêtre et hostie, I, p. 270; II, pp. 399, 405-407, 411-414; and Fr. E. de la Croix, Le saint sacrifice de la messe pour le prêtre, Paris, 1936, p. 43 ss.
2Cf. 1 Peter ii, 5 sq., and Rom. xii, 1, where it is stated that Christ offers all the faithful; a fortiori, he offers his priests. Moreover, Christ prayed for his priests at the Last Supper: “Holy Father, keep them (my Apostles) true to thy name, thy gift to me, that they may be one, as we are one. . . . Keep them holy, then, through the truth. . . . And I dedicate myself for their sakes, that they too may be dedicated through the truth” (John xvii, 11—19). This doctrine is well set forth in the Imitation of Christ, bk. iv, c. 9: “That we must offer ourselves and all that is ours to God and pray for all”; that is, we must offer to God “all our good works”, “all the pious desires of devout persons”, “prayers and this Sacrifice of Propitiation” for ourselves and for others.
3Cf. Fr. Giraud, op. cit., I, p. 288.
4Leviticus vi, 8 and 12.
5Enarr. in Ps. L, n. 21.
6A similar example is given in Vita R. mi D. Guiseppe Marello, of Turin, bishop of Acqui, written by Fr. Angelo Rainero, 1937. Pius IX spoke of him as “an illustrious gem” in the Church. Read what is said of his inexhaustible patience, p. 274 sq.
7Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1908, pp. 555-577.
8Letter to Catholic priests written by His Holiness Pope Pius X on the occasion of the golden jubilee of his priesthood: Haerent animo; Acta Ap. Sedis, 1908, pp. 557-558
9Cf. Fr. S. M. Giraud, Prêtre et hostie, where he discusses this vow of victim; also his book on the religious life, De l’esprit et de la vie de sacrifice dans l’état religieux, 4e ed., Lyons, 1879, pp. 20-81, especially the following chapters—
Bk. 1, c. 8: “Various degrees of union with Jesus Victim”; c. 9: “Union with Jesus in his act of offering”; c. 10: “. . . in his act of immolation”; c. 12: “Mary’s maternal help.”
The content of this vow of victim. The person making the vow promises God to accept (or, not to refuse deliberately and voluntarily) any sacrifice great or small, physical or spiritual—for example, loss of sense consolation in prayer, affecting his property or his reputation, whenever God’s will is sufficiently clear in these matters. The divine will is usually revealed through events or misfortunes which are evidently part of the Providential plan—for instance, the death of one’s father or mother or brother or sister or friend—and also, through the wishes of superiors who rule in the place of God.
But it must not be imagined that the vow dispenses with the virtue of prudence. Without going back on one’s word, one can still take reasonable and prudent precautions to ward off possible evils.
The individual making the vow promises God that he will never deliberately and willingly regret having taken this step, no matter what the consequences may be. Herein lies the heroic nature of the vow. And if at any time he does give way with full deliberation and consent to a feeling of regret, he commits grievous sin—although if this momentary lapse occurs without his full consent he is excused from mortal sin. Therefore the vow is of a serious and lofty nature and is not to be made without a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
At the same time certain conditions may be attached to this solemn engagement with Christ the victim; it can be restricted to a period of a few months or, since it is a free act, its content may be limited, with permission from the spiritual director—for instance, the vow can be made with the proviso that no suffering is caused to one’s parents or fellow religious in consequence of the vow.
Thus the implications of the vow make it obvious that it must never be made without the express permission of a prudent spiritual director. And if the person desiring to make the vow is a member of some religious community, permission must also be obtained from the superior—at least to this extent, that the superior does not forbid the vow being made. That is the normal rule for vows made by religious; cf. Billuart, De virtute religionis, de voto (qui possint vovere).
From what we have been saying it follows that once the vow is made and the rules of prudence observed it would be a mortal sin to refuse voluntarily any sacrifice which would have beneficial results or would be the means of avoiding some great evil. If, however, the refusal were not fully deliberate or the content of the vow of little importance, the sin would be venial.
What should be the nature of the perfection for which the person under the vow must strive ? He must try to perform all his actions—even the most commonplace—after the manner of Christ the victim. He must aim at being prompt in the acceptance of every sacrifice. Consequently, he has to regard himself as consecrated to the glory of God in order to make satisfaction—so far as in him lies—for offences committed against God. This entails the peak of charity, of all the virtues and of all the gifts; such perfection can only be found in the mystical life. And so anyone entering upon this solemn engagement is bound to tend continually towards that state of internal and external perfection befitting a genuine victim. The motto of his life must be: “Bear the burden of one another’s failings; then you will be fulfilling the law of Christ” (Gal. vi, 2).
10Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers from The Collected Letters of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (English tr. by F. J. Sheed, Sheed and Ward, London, 1949).
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