Holy Orders

Author: Francois Mauriac


Chapter Five of "Holy Thursday: An Intimate Remembrance" by Francois Mauriac.

The priest in whom the sacred character conceals the human aspect disturbs by his mere presence the dark and secret things that lurk within us. The earth trembles under the foot of Jesus Christ.

The ferret has been put into the warren....

Paul Claudel

The Eucharist must not prevent us from considering the other sacrament which was instituted on Holy Thursday: Holy Orders. "Do this in remembrance of me." "Do this, as often as you drink [the cup], in remembrance of me."

The twelve apostles are the first twelve priests; Judas is the first bad priest. They were themselves so keenly conscious of being no longer men like others that their first task, after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, was to replace the traitor, Judas: "Therefore, of these men who have been in our company all the time that the Lord Jesus moved among us, from John's baptism until the day that He was taken up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of His resurrection." "And the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles."

Now they are ordained, the first members of an innumerable family. Holiness entered the world with Christ. The Church is holy and what matters to us the wretchedness of individuals, their falls, their betrayals? "The great glory of the Church," writes Jacques Maritain, "is to be holy with sinning members." Until the end of the world, the hands of a few chosen men will never cease to lift up "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It was through the imposition of hands that even in those early days Stephen was made deacon-Stephen whose face, as it is recorded in the Acts, appeared to the Sanhedrin "as though it were the face of an angel." That light which shone on the face of Stephen has never been extinguished through the ages; and, in spite of all denials, it has never ceased to bathe the faces of lowly priests; it shone on the humble visage of the Cure d'Ars.

The grace of Holy Thursday will be transmitted unto the end of time, unto the last of the priests who will celebrate the last Mass in a shattered universe. Holy Thursday created these men; a mark was stamped on them; a sign was given to them. They are like to us and yet so different-a fact never more surprising than in this pagan age. People say that there is a scarcity of priests. In truth, what an adorable mystery it is that there still are any priests. They no longer have any

human advantage. Celibacy, solitude, hatred very often, derision and, above all, the indifference of a world in which there seems to be no longer room for them-such is the portion they have chosen. They have no apparent power; their task sometimes seems to be centered about material things, identifying them, in the eyes of the masses, with the staffs of town halls and of funeral parlors. A pagan atmosphere prevails all around them. The people would laugh at their virtue if they believed in it, but they do not. They are spied upon. A thousand voices accuse those who fall. As for the others, the greater number, no one is surprised to see them toiling without any sort of recognition, without appreciable salary, bending over the bodies of the dying or ambling about the parish schoolyards.

Who can describe the solitude of the priest in the country, in the midst of peasants so often indifferent, if not hostile, to the spirit of Christ? We enter a village church; we find only an old priest kneeling in the sanctuary, keeping a solitary watch with his Master. The words of Christ concerning priests are proven every day: "I am sending you forth like sheep in the midst of wolves.... You will be hated by all for my name's sake." For centuries, since the first Holy Thursday, some men have chosen to become objects of hatred, without expecting any human consolation. They have chosen to lose their lives because once Someone made them the seemingly foolish promise: "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." And elsewhere: "Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in Heaven."

But if they did not find their joy even in this world, would they persevere? "What are you going to do?" said Abbe Perreyve to Christ, the day before he was ordained. "You are delivering Yourself; You are abandoning Yourself to me. You surrender Your Body to me. I shall use it for my needs and for the needs of other souls.... I shall touch You, I shall carry You, I shall handle You and You will allow me to do it; I shall place You on the lips of whom I will; You will never refuse...." Indeed, priests, holy priests, are repaid by an immense love.

For every Christian who tries to live according to his belief, inevitable scandals count for little when one considers the holiness of the Catholic priesthood as a whole. Let the heretics boast of not needing anyone to reach God. Do they believe that worthy Catholics do not enjoy the delight of solitude in contemplation and union with the Father? But it is because of its conformity with our fallen nature, with our wounded nature, that Catholicism shows itself to be the true Church. Only in her bosom is kept the promise that Christ made to His disciples, on that Thursday: "I will not leave you orphans." From the very beginning of His public life, He had testified to the power given to the Son of Man to forgive sins. And this power was transmitted to His priests: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them."

Protestants see in the Sacrament of Penance a means of easy forgiveness, but only so that one may sin again. One is helpless against such a distorted notion. Let us not cease to repeat to them that, in order that absolution be valid, one must first hate one's sin, a prerequisite which, in certain cases, is very difficult to achieve. Next, we must resolve never to sin again-and this is not only a matter of words but an inner determination of which God is the only judge. Last, the fear of punishment does not suffice if it is not inspired by love of God. No one can be forgiven without a beginning of love.

Through the visible priest, the invisible Christ forgives our sins and opens again His heart to us. That is why those faithful who are eager to make some progress in the spiritual life not only confess but agree that a priest direct them in this difficult path: "I will not leave you orphans." Spiritual paternity, which the world deems hateful, is nevertheless the token of salvation. Even if it requires a great effort for human pride to submit to its fruits are admirable. No action in the world gives us, to the same degree as does this voluntary subjection, the certainty of our own freedom. This light yoke, to which we are not compelled to submit, we must desire, we must accept, through an act of free will unceasingly renewed. The faithful subject themselves in order not to be slaves. They submit in order to remain free.

It will be objected that, nevertheless, the faithful suffer from it; that saints themselves have suffered from it; that direction was for some a source of great distress, and even that they sometimes found in it an obstacle much more than an efficient aid; and, on the other hand, that some souls were able outside of Catholicism to reach a high degree of perfection without any such help.

But perhaps those souls lacked precisely this resemblance with the Christ of Holy Thursday, obedient even unto death: this last defeat which consummates the Christian's victory. The submission of the penitent to his spiritual director puts it within the power of the most humble of the faithful to make that complete renunciation which is demanded for the slightest progress in the following of Christ.

Furthermore, there does not exist any other means of looking at oneself full in the face; for it is not with our own eyes that we can see ourselves: "If thou knewest thy sins," said Christ to Pascal, "thou wouldst lose courage." No one can judge oneself impartially; we have to know ourselves, but at the same time we must not lose courage. It is this balance that the faithful Catholic obtains from spiritual direction. Those who are reckless lose exaggerated confidence in themselves; those who are timid are reassured, and, at last, they understand fully the words spoken by St. John: "If our heart blames us, God is greater than our heart."

No, it is not to a man that we submit, but to Jesus Christ whose place he takes. And it is admirable to know how the most common priest, as soon as he has put on the stole and lifted his hand above our bent heads, is stripped of his own personality, is changed for us into another person who is infinitely greater than himself. Besides, this man, this priest, is himself submitted to another priest. The Pope is penitent and is directed. The man before whom we kneel, kneels in his turn-he who judges is judged. He hears our sins but he confesses his own. Confession, penance, contrition, constitute the sacred patrimony shared by all priests and all the faithful.

We receive three inestimable treasures:< the certainty of being forgiven> through the words of Jesus to the paralytic, repeated expressly for us: "Thy sins are forgiven"; a kiss of peace received in the very depths of our miserable hearts; a blank page upon which the most infamous man, having become once more like a little child, can begin writing his life anew...for it is never too late to become a saint.

Such is the immense stream of grace which has its source in the first priestly ordination of this sacred Thursday.

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