Men Who Specialize in Prayer
What I am about to share reflects, without any doubt, the experience of most priests. It is especially true here in Ireland where, in spite of reports of a distressing loss of faith, people still say with a touching confidence, “Will you say a prayer for me, Father?” The Catholic faithful view their priests, first of all, as intercessors, that is, as men who specialize in prayer.
Prayer the First Order of Business
Since coming to Ireland, I am more aware of what people expect of a priest: they expect him to pray, and to make prayer his first order of business. This expectation is rooted in a profound faith in the mediatorship of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ stands facing the Eternal Father on behalf of all men, just as He stands before all men on behalf of the Eternal Father. To be “in Christ” — as Saint Paul so often says — is, in effect, to participate in His priestly mediatorship. While this participation is given to all the baptized, in the ordained priest it is heightened, confirmed, and divinely endorsed in a unique way by the indelible seal engraved in his soul. Simple Catholics understand this. Venerable Pope Pius XII writes in Mediator Dei:
In the same way, actually that baptism is the distinctive mark of all Christians, and serves to differentiate them from those who have not been cleansed in this purifying stream and consequently are not members of Christ, the sacrament of holy orders sets the priest apart from the rest of the faithful who have not received this consecration. For they alone, in answer to an inward supernatural call, have entered the august ministry, where they are assigned to service in the sanctuary and become, as it were, the instruments God uses to communicate supernatural life from on high to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Add to this, as We have noted above, the fact that they alone have been marked with the indelible sign “conforming” them to Christ the Priest, and that their hands alone have been consecrated “in order that whatever they bless may be blessed, whatever they consecrate may become sacred and holy, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Let all, then, who would live in Christ flock to their priests. By them they will be supplied with the comforts and food of the spiritual life. From them they will procure the medicine of salvation assuring their cure and happy recovery from the fatal sickness of their sins. The priest, finally, will bless their homes, consecrate their families and help them, as they breathe their last, across the threshold of eternal happiness.
Intercessor at the Altar
Nowhere does the mediatorship of the priest in Christ, the Eternal High Priest, shine forth more clearly than when he stands at the altar, with the multitude of the faithful behind him, to plead on their behalf. Just as the Eternal Father sees the priest in Christ, His Beloved Son, so too does He see all the faithful in the priest who enters the sanctuary, and ascends the altar, to bring their needs and their petitions before Him. The widespread practice of Mass “facing the people” has all but obliterated the popular and, I must say, even the clerical, awareness of this mysterious reality.
For both he that sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, are all of one. For which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ] I will declare thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the church will I praise thee. And again: I will put my trust in him. And again: Behold me and my children, whom God hath given me. (Hebrews 2:11-13)
The Divine Office
The intercession of the priest (and a fortiori of the bishop) for all the people entrusted to him — the children whom God has given him — attains its highest and most perfect expression when he offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but it doesn’t begin nor does it end there. The Church imposes upon the priest the daily recitation of the Divine Office as the single most effective means, after the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, of interceding for souls. No one can possibly know or describe in this world the torrents of grace that flood into parishes and dioceses in response to the liturgical prayer of the priest or bishop who recites the Divine Office faithfully and devoutly, day after day. Conversely, no one can possibly no or describe in this world the torrents of graces withheld from parishes and dioceses because a priest or bishop has stopped praying his Hours and, therefore, stopped exercising the mediatorship on behalf of the people for whom God and the Church have set him apart.
Again, consider the teaching of Venerable Pope Pius XII:
The divine Redeemer has so willed it that the priestly life begun with the supplication and sacrifice of His mortal body should continue without intermission down the ages in His Mystical Body which is the Church. That is why He established a visible priesthood to offer everywhere the clean oblation which would enable men from East to West, freed from the shackles of sin, to offer God that unconstrained and voluntary homage which their conscience dictates.
In obedience, therefore, to her Founder’s behest, the Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ mainly by means of the sacred liturgy. She does this in the first place at the altar, where constantly the sacrifice of the cross is represented and with a single difference in the manner of its offering, renewed. She does it next by means of the sacraments, those special channels through which men are made partakers in the supernatural life. She does it, finally, by offering to God, all Good and Great, the daily tribute of her prayer of praise. “What a spectacle for heaven and earth,” observes Our predecessor of happy memory, Pius XI, “is not the Church at prayer! For centuries without interruption, from midnight to midnight, the divine psalmody of the inspired canticles is repeated on earth; there is no hour of the day that is not hallowed by its special liturgy; there is no state of human life that has not its part in the thanksgiving, praise, supplication and reparation of this common prayer of the Mystical Body of Christ which is His Church!”
Verse After Verse
For some reason, while praying the Hours of the Divine Office since my arrival in Ireland, I have had a heightened awareness of the efficacy of this prayer. In every psalm, verse after verse seems to correspond exactly to the particular needs made known to me by people who have approached me, saying, “Will you say a prayer for me, Father?” I am, moreover, aware of the struggles of certain souls, of the sufferings of others, of the concern of parents for their children, of spouses one for the other, and of those afflicted by sicknesses of the mind or body. All of these needs find expression in the psalmody of the Hours. The Psalter, taken up by the Church, and placed on the lips of her bishops, her priests, and her deacons, is the divinely inspired form of their sacerdotal intercession, and the expression of their effective participation in the mediatorship of Christ.*
*I must add that those who have received the Order of Subdeacon, as well as solemnly professed choir monks, choir nuns, canons regular, and other solemnly professed religious are, unless their Constitutions specify otherwise, bound to the daily recitation of the Hours, if not in choir, then in private.
Accountable on the Day of Judgment
The Divine Office is far more than the personal prayer of the priest, circumscribed by his human limitations, and giving voice to his own needs. It is the grand sacerdotal intercession for which he will be held accountable by God and by the souls entrusted to him on the Day of Judgment.
The Weekly Psalter
As a priest who is a monk, I am bound to honour Saint Benedict’s injunction in the Holy Rule that the entire Psalter (all 150 Psalms) must be prayed over the course of one week. Increasingly, I experience this weekly repetition of the Psalter not as a burden to be acquitted, but as a privilege, and as the means appointed by God and given me by the Church to adore, to praise, to supplicate, and to make reparation.
The traditional Roman Breviary, reformed by Pope Pius X, held fast to the principle of the entire 150 Psalms being prayed over the course of a week. Only with the post-Conciliar Liturgy of the Hours was the weekly offering of psalmody drastically reduced, to the point of distributing the 150 Psalms over four weeks instead of one. This was done primarily to accommodate the demands of priestly ministry in modern culture. The change was, I think, conditioned by Western society’s obsession with tangible results, and shortsighted. The answer to stress is more prayer, not less, particularly in the life of a priest. Curiously, since the post-Conciliar reduction of the weekly obligation of liturgical prayer, the recitation of the Hours by priests as fallen off significantly. More priests were faithful to the daily obligation of the Divine Office when it was more “meaty” and substantial, than now when it has been reduced to a mere vestige of what it formerly was.
“Will you say a prayer for me, Father?” Indeed, I will. I do so seven times a day and once in the night, and I will continue to do so, making use of the all-sufficient prayer given me by the Church, the very prayer of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, encapsulated in the Psalms of Israel, “Sion’s songs” in this place of exile, and in this valley of tears.