On 3 May 2009, at the Ordination to the Priesthood of nineteen deacons in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI gave a momentous teaching on prayer in the life of the priest. In my own service to priests, I find that a recurring question is how best a priest can go about praying . . . praying in such a way that his life is prayer, and that prayer is his life. This is precisely the question that the Pope Benedict addressed five years ago. My own comments follow each section.
Prayer and Priestly Service
Here I would like to touch upon a point that is particularly close to my heart: prayer and its link to service. We saw that to be ordained priests means to enter, in a sacramental and existential way into the prayer of Christ for “His own.” Out of this, for us priests, flows a particular vocation to prayer, in a strongly Christocentric sense: we are called, that is, to “abide” in Christ — as the Evangelist John loved to repeat (cf. Jn 1, 35-39; 15, 4-10) — and this is realized especially in prayer. Our ministry is totally bound up with this “abiding”, which equals praying, and from this derives its efficacy.
There is an extraordinary density in this excerpt. First of all, the Holy Father confesses that the relationship of prayer to service (diakonìa) is particularly close to his own heart. Then, like the Johannine eagle, he rises to the heights of the mystery of priestly prayer; it is nothing other than an ongoing entrance — or “passing into” — the prayer of Christ for His own, for all whom the Father has given Him. “I came,” He says, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
A Particular Vocation to Prayer
Pope Benedict XVI then affirms that priests have a particular vocation to prayer. “Wait just a minute,” I can hear some of my brother priests saying, “I thought that monks had a particular vocation to prayer. My vocation is to ministry.” (A tired old slogan!) Throughout his pontificate Pope Benedict sought to close the artificial gap between monastic spirituality and ministerial spirituality. The facile affirmation, “We are not monks” has been used to justify slacking off in a multitude of ways. The Curé of Ars was not a monk — he was the quintessential parish priest — and yet his life surpassed in prayer and in austerity that of the most observant monks in their cloisters.
Without Leaving the Father’s Side
The priest, before being sent forth to minister, is called to abide in Christ. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his hymn for Lauds of Corpus Christi, has us sing:
Verbum supernum prodiens,
Nec Patris linquens dexteram,
Ad opus suum exiens,
Venit ad vitæ vesperam.
The heavenly Word proceeding forth,
Yet leaving not his Father’s right side,
And going to His work on Earth,
Has reached at length life’s eventide.
Just as Christ, on His mission of salvation, came into this world from the bosom of His Father, without leaving the Father’s side, so too does the priest go forth on His mission from the Side of Christ, and without leaving the Side of Christ or, if you will, the tabernacle of His Sacred Heart. The priest is called to “abide” in ceaseless prayer, to go forth enveloped in prayer and to bring the sweet fragrance of his prayer wherever he goes. “But thanks be to God,” says the Apostle, “who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor 2, 14-15).
The Priest’s Daily Rule of Prayer
In such a perspective we must think of the various forms of the prayer of a priest, first of all daily Holy Mass. The Eucharistic celebration is the greatest and highest act of prayer, and constitutes the center and wellspring from which all the forms receive their “lifeblood”: the Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic adoration, lectio divina, the Holy Rosary, and meditation. All these expressions of prayer have their centre in the Eucharist, and together bring about in the day of the priest and in all his life the fulfillment of the word of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd, I know My own and My own know Me, as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (Jn 10, 14-15).
Concretely, how does a priest go about abiding in Christ, remaining in His Heart, just as He abides in the bosom of the Father? By persevering in prayer. “Pray constantly,” says Saint Paul (1 Th 5,17). Pope Benedict XVI presented priests with a Rule of Prayer: note well that this represents the daily minimum requirement. If you are too busy to do this, you are simply too busy. If you are too tired to do this, you are simply too tired. If you have no interest in doing this, your vocation is in danger and you are cheating your people of the “fragrance of Christ” that only a priest who prays always can spread.
What is Father Everypriest’s daily Rule of Prayer according to Pope Benedict XVI? Here are the elements of the Rule in the order in which the Holy Father presents them.
1) Daily Holy Mass. Daily. Not 6 days week, not 5, or 4 days a week, but daily. The liturgical cycle in its hourly, daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms is given us precisely to facilitate our “abiding” in Christ hour by hour, day by day, week by week, and year after year. Integral to the liturgical cycle is daily Holy Mass. The Eucharistic Sacrifice sends the divine lifeblood coursing through one’s spiritual organism. Without daily Mass, the priest will succumb to spiritual anemia.
2) The Liturgy of the Hours. The Hours give rhythm and grace to daily life. They are a school of discipline (discipleship), a supernatural system of irrigation channeling grace into every moment of the day, a privileged way of offering thanks in communion with all who, “in heaven, on earth, and under the earth,” confess the Name of Jesus and bend the knee before Him. A priest who loves the Divine Office will enjoy an interior life that is sane, and sound, and wholly ecclesial. Fidelity to the Divine Office refines the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, sharpens one’s discernment, and imparts to everything the priest does a certain Eucharistic and doxological quality.
3) Eucharistic Adoration. Are you surprised? Eucharistic adoration has known a kind of springtime since The Year of the Eucharist (2004-2005) that was also the year of the death of Pope John Paul II and of the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Two Americans known for loving their brother priests and ministering to them tirelessly — Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and Father Gerald Fitzgerald of the Holy Spirit — insisted on a daily hour before the Blessed Sacrament as a sine qua non of priestly spirituality. The priest who adores the Blessed Sacrament exposes his weaknesses and wounds to the healing radiance of the Eucharistic Face of Jesus. Moreover, he abides before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus as the representative of his people: of the sick, the poor, the bereaved, and of those locked in spiritual combat. The priest who looks to the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, and draws near to His Open Heart in the Sacrament of the Altar, will, just as the psalm says, be radiant, and he will not be put to shame.
4) Lectio Divina. Again — a monastic thing? No, a Catholic thing. The quality of a priest’s preaching is directly proportionate to his commitment to lectio divina. Neglect of lectio divina leads to mediocre preaching. Opening the Scriptures is like opening the tabernacle: therein the priest finds the “hidden manna” his soul craves. The four steps of lectio divina can be accommodated to any length of time: 1) lectio, i.e. the Word heard; 2) meditatio, i.e. the Word repeated; 3) oratio, i.e. the Word prayed; 4) contemplatio; i.e. the indwelling Word. Lectio divina cannot be occasional; it is not a random pursuit. Learn to say, “I am not available.” Get over feeling guilty about taking time for God!
5) Holy Rosary. Yes, the daily Rosary. It’s a spiritual lifeline that has saved many a priest from spiritual shipwreck. The brilliant and holy exegete and founder of the École biblique in Jerusalem, Father Marie-Joseph Lagrange, was observed praying fifteen mysteries of the Rosary each day, and asked, “Why, Father, do you, a great exegete, need to pray the Rosary?” “Because, ” he answered, “it decapitates pride.” I would add that not only does the Rosary decapitate pride; it decapitates each of the seven capital sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. With the passing of the years I have come to appreciate the profound wisdom of an old Dominican priest to whom I used to make my confession years ago. Invariably, after confessing my miseries, Father would ask, “Do you say the Rosary, son?” And invariably I would reply, “Yes, Father.” And then he would say, “Aye, then you’ll be alright.” A priest who prays the Rosary daily will be alright and, almost imperceptibly, will grow in purity and humility.
6) Meditation. Meditation can mean many things, even within our Catholic tradition. It is integral to the prayerful celebration of Holy Mass and the Hours. “it nourishes Eucharistic adoration. It is the second “moment” of lectio divina. It is the soul of the Rosary. In my own experience, meditation is related to “remembering the things the Lord has done.” Saint Gertrude the Great, a model of the mystical life grounded in the liturgy, used to say, “A grace remembered is a grace renewed.” Understood in this sense, meditation, by recalling the mercies of the Lord in the past, infuses the present with hope, and allows the priest to go forward with a holy boldness.
Is it necessary to set a period of time apart for meditation as such? That depends on whom you ask. The Carmelite, Jesuit and Sulpician traditions would hold fast to some form of meditation as a daily exercise. The monastic tradition has, on the whole, taken a more supple approach to meditation. It is a daily practice, but one diffused in every form of prayer, including the liturgy itself. One learns to pace one’s prayer, to pause, to breathe, to linger over a phrase, a word, or an image. Whether one espouses the “modern” methods” or the monastic approach, meditation is an integral to every priest’s daily Rule of Prayer.
The Priest Who Prays Much and Prays Well
In fact, this “knowing” and “being known” in Christ and, through Him, in the Most Holy Trinity, is nothing other than the truest and deepest reality of prayer. The priest who prays much, and who prays well, progressively becomes expropriated of himself and ever more united to Jesus, the Good Shepherd and Servant of the brethren. In conformity with Him, the priest also “gives his life” for the sheep entrusted to him. No one takes it from him; of himself he offers his life, in union with Christ the Lord, Who has the power to give His life and to take it upon again, not only for Himself, but also for His friends, bound to Him by the Sacrament of Orders. In this way the very life of Christ, Lamb and Shepherd, is communicated to the whole flock, through the mediation of consecrated ministers.
“The priest who prays much and prays well” — what a marvelous phrase! It sums up Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on the subject. What is the fruit of praying much and praying well? A progressive, and I would add almost imperceptible, death to self and rising to newness of life in Christ Jesus, for the sake of His Spouse, the Church. The priest who prays much and prays well will, sooner or later, find himself drawn into the mystery of Christ Priest and Victim. He will learn to stand at the altar not only as the one who offers the Sacrifice, but as the one who is sacrificed, becoming one with the immolated Lamb. This is the secret of a fruitful priesthood. “Give your blood,” said one of the Desert Fathers, “and receive the Spirit.” Through the victimhood of the priest, the entire Body is quickened and sanctified. “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17, 19).