CHAPTER XVII — THE SICK AND THEIR PHYSICIAN
(Suppl. Q. 29-40)
ONCE upon a time, not so very long ago, Se birth of a child was considered a private, or at most, a family affair. Today, a man’s birth is one of the most public acts of his life. The business office of the hospital has been notified weeks beforehand. On the carefully calculated date, the hospital staff is ready, the operating room prepared. In the course of the actual birth, the delivery room is crowded with nurses, doctors, anesthetists, while relatives throng the corridors. Somewhere in the crowd, of course, there is a mother.
All this is not merely because the mother needs help and, as anyone can see, the infant is completely helpless. It is reasonable that all the knowledge, technique, and experience of society be put at the service of mother and child. The particularly interesting thing about this help is its superior tone. We are not only willing to help; we are eager, even anxious to help as a man with a voice is to accept the slightest hint of an invitation to sing. He knows he can sing and we know we can help. The whole motion here is towards life; we join in heartily as we might chime in with a lusty group who are singing, cheering, surging towards a happy gathering place. We can help. We are alive, with all of life’s experience behind us. We are equipped for living and for fortifying these feeble beginnings of life; we gather around protectively lest a sudden gust extinguish the tiny spark of life.
The lonely hour: Contrast of birth and death
On the contrary, death is becoming more and more a family affair; some day it may even become a strictly private matter. It is true, that in older days hundreds of people gathered for a wake; the significant thing is that friends and neighbors came in long before death itself had knocked at the door. One monastic survival of this can be seen in the death of a Dominican. He dies surrounded by all of his community, passing out of the world with the notes of their victory hymn, the Salve Regina, echoing in his ears. Nor, incidentally, is there anything lacking in the wake which follows. The days to which such practices belonged held to the notion that others could be of some help to a man who was dying; and that death was in the nature of a great victory. As materialism seeps through society, and with it a conviction of helplessness, death becomes a private affair, to be hushed up and hustled out of one’s attention.
In death, the motion of nature is not toward life but away from it. We may like to stop it, but we know very well that we cannot. We may stave it off for a while or we may drug a man so that he has not his wits about him at the instant of death. But in the moment of actual death, as contrasted with the moment of actual birth, there is simply nothing we can do but what might be done by the bitterest enemy of the dying man: what was done equally by Roman soldiers and the mother of Christ — merely sit and watch a man die.
Bitter exile — a man alone
At that moment, a man stands utterly alone. Society and his family have been of incalculable assistance to the fullness of his life from the first instant until this time; but now he is as completely cut off from their help as if they did not exist. They must stand by, as did the mother of the Maccabees, helpless to do more than offer the crumb of wisdom that can be carried on the backs of feeble words. At this moment, a man is an exile, condemned to a bitter loneliness with no hope of reprieve, no chance to return again to the ranks of men. What is more, this exile comes at the most difficult moment of his life, the moment when a man needs help most, for the success or failure of all of his life depends upon these last moments.
Somehow, the thing seems monstrous. We have contempt for a business man who deserts his associates just at the moment of financial crisis. We despise a husband who abandons his wife just as her time for childbirth approaches. We are in horror at the betrayal of Christ by Judas. It is that note of disloyalty, of betrayal that makes our helplessness the more bitter.
The family and a death-bed: Human family
Perhaps it seems this way to the dying man. But, really, this abandonment is not our fault. We are as helpless to come to his assistance as we would be to rescue a child if we were bound hand and foot. In fact, we are shackled hand and foot by nature itself. Although it is not beyond our sight, this emergency is beyond our reach; we may evidence our desire to do what can be done by the anxious solicitude we spread as a comforting cover over the wasted frame of the dying man, but it is a cold comfort. There is still the general practice of a scattered family rushing to the deathbed of a loved one by every means of quick transportation; and when they arrive, what? They can do no more than give themselves what little comfort is to be had by sharing the last moments of the dying man.
It must be well remembered that our shackles are those of nature. They do not imprison the supernatural any more than steel bars keep out sunlight or a locked door blocks a guardian angel. This dying man may be a member of a supernatural family, a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. If he is, then there is another family physician present who does more than shake his head in a sympathy which expresses his impotence.
The priest is both the physician and the agent of that supernatural family. With him come the innumerable offspring of the family; not only the living from all parts of the globe unhindered by time and space, not only the hierarchy of ecclesiastical nobles, but all the dead who will never die, and the whole hosts of the angels. The small room is packed with the family, making the room of birth seem empty and barren by comparison; and everyone there can do something and does it. This is something this family can understand, this motion from life to life, from nature to supernature, and they are as eager to help that motion along as we are eager to contribute to the first motion of natural life.
Double union of birth and death: First birth and first death
Last birth and last death
There must be constant amusement in the angelic ranks at the befuddlement of men as the paradoxes rain upon us, holding our puzzled interest until the complexities are made plain at the end of life. At the first birth of man from his mother’s womb, we scurry about, hurried by our anxiety and eagerness, stressing the beginning of life; the world of the supernatural enters in with quiet efficiency to emphasize that what dies here is more important than what lives. The Church, continuing the life of Christ in the sacraments, is there at birth, giving an assistance that goes far beyond help to bodily life; but the assistance is towards destruction, towards death, to the obliteration of sin.
Last preparation for eternal birth — Extreme Unction:
The sacrament: Its essence
At the death of a man, the Church is also present, again quietly efficient, busy, not in staving off death, but in ushering in life, eternal life. Again the help given is far beyond that to the body. It is help to ends unseen by nature, for at this time nature must leave a man most alone; while supernature gives him most company. This last paradox is effected by the final gesture of a loving mother who has watched over a man from birth through growth, nourishment, mistakes, adulthood, and domestic life. That gesture is called the sacrament of Extreme Unction, literally, a last anointing. It is a term that calls up the first miracle-working expedition of the apostles when, with all the wonders they were working, they still stopped to anoint the sick with oil; there is about it the flavor of the story of the good Samaritan who did not pass by, and the touch of Christ on the fevered brow of Peter’s mother-in-law.
Extreme Unction is another of those divinely instituted sluice-gates which man has only to throw open to have his soul flooded by the living waters of divine life. Like all the sacraments, it was instituted by Christ, though the institution is not recorded in the sketchily written account of the things done by Christ; rather it comes to us by way of tradition and its use is noted by St. James in his epistle. Like all the sacraments, it was instituted in a shape that enables man to take it to his bosom, to introduce it to the family of his acts, sure it will be at home; for it, too, is a sensible sign charged with the spiritual. It is a sign made up of matter and of a form that makes the meaning clear beyond all doubt; above all, it is an effective sign producing what it signifies. Like all the sacraments, man can understand its use, learn quickly and easily how to manipulate it, though he will never grasp its mode of operation nor fully understand the marvelousness of its effects.
The olive oil, which is the matter of this sacrament, is not mixed with balsam as it was in Confirmation; for this sacrament is solely for the inner precincts of a man’s soul, it is not meant to permeate the world, to drive a man out among men, to move him to share his fullness with others or to defend that fullness. The oil itself is a statement of the purposes of the sacrament; of its soothing, penetrating, healing, unspectacular help against the fever and sickness of sin. Since the matter of the sacrament was not consecrated by Christ’s use of it, it needs the consecration of the bishop, who possesses the fullness of the priesthood of Christ. As for the form, well, it is in complete harmony with the quiet, gentle helpfulness characteristic of this sacrament. Rather than a bluff command, it is a quiet prayer eminently fitted to the sickroom or the deathbed; it slips in as unostentatiously efficient as a nun, to give comfort to one who is almost beyond comfort.
The dying man is at the end of his resources. This prayer, which is the form of the sacrament, is a supporting arm raising him from the pillow that he might accept the divine draught. He is slipping out of the arms of his mother, the Church, and in that prayer there are all the good wishes and pent-up love that is too deep to find more lengthy expression. The stumbling limitation of words is, by its very inadequacy, the most authentic expression of the profundity of emotion behind the last fare-loving mercy, pardon you whatever by sight, hearing, smell, taste, word, touch or step, you have done amiss,” anointing each of the members of the body as he says the appropriate words.
It is a simple ceremony, a matter of a few moments. It not unlike a Pullman porter’s personal pride in his passengers’ appearance as he fusses about, brushing shoes, coats, hats, straightening things so that everyone will be in perfect order when the train pulls in. Its simplicity suggests the little, insignificant touches that love prompts when it wants its loved one to look his best; like a mother’s last moment poking, pulling, arranging of a child’s clothes before entering the old homestead with its eagle-eyed inspection. Obviously, this sacrament has none of the desperate necessity we find in Baptism or Penance. It is not a resurrection or a surgical operation, but a moment of refreshment. After all, we can get home without a Pullman porter; a child can visit the old folks with its hair a little awry, its clothes a little wrinkled. The sacrament of Extreme Unction is not absolutely necessary for salvation.
As a matter of fact, the simile of a mother and her last-minute arrangement of a child’s clothing is a quite accurate picture of the primary effects of the sacrament of Extreme Unction. It is not primarily ordered to reconciliation of a rebel with God nor to the resurrection of a man from the dead; it is to remove the slightest smudge from the face of a man’s soul, to assure his mother, the Church, that the garments of his soul are spotless, that his robes hang just right, most becomingly. Mother Church is preparing to introduce her child to the ancestral mansion, the home of her forefathers, and she insists, lovingly, on her child looking its best.
Effects of the sacrament: Primary effect
The primary purpose of the sacrament, in other words, is not to forgive sin but to increase the beauty and vigor of the soul through an increase of habitual grace and the remission of the punishment due to sin. In a sense, this effect is common to all the sacraments of the living. The very special effect of this sacrament, its sacramental grace, is to strengthen the soul for the last momentous breaths of life, to destroy venial sin and the vestiges of sin, and, where such contributes to the spiritual welfare of the patient, even to give strength to his body.
Few Catholic families have not had a death-bed visit from the priest. To practically all Catholics, then, the ordinary procedure is quite familiar: the priest first hears the confession and gives absolution, then administers Holy Communion; finally, he gives Extreme Unction. This is not merely an arbitrary procedure; Extreme Unction is a sacrament of the living, meant for men in the state of grace, and it is the very last tidying up of the soul before its appearance in eternity.
It happens, now and then, that a sacrament of the living enters the house of the dead by mistake. Confirmation and Holy Communion in this situation, coming upon mortal sin unexpectedly, are a little at loss. Certainly, they are not equipped to deal with this situation any more than a man in evening clothes is ready to handle the gangster who, to his complete astonishment, answered his ring at a friend’s door. Both Holy Communion and Confirmation destroy this sin they have met, but accidentally, in a totally unpredicted fashion, as unusual as the daughter of thousands of enemies with the jawbone of an ass, or the choking of a man with a baby’s rattle. Neither of these two was made for this kind of brawl; but they do well enough when forced into it. On the contrary, Extreme Unction is not caught unawares. Coming upon mortal sin in the soul of a dying man, it gets in its destructive blows, not accidentally or indirectly, but with the efficiency of a detective who carries his gun even when off duty. Extreme Unction has hidden powers designed precisely for this; its purpose, you see, is to prepare a man to meet his God, to groom the soul of a man for entry into the kingdom of heaven however much grooming be necessary.
Its beauty and fittingness
In the light of all this, it is astonishing that so much abuse was heaped on this sacrament by the sixteenth century reformers and their successors. It almost seems as though their pride had blinded them to both the beauty of God and the capacity of the human soul for beauty. If the angels are not pure in the face of God’s absolute perfection, man’s last preparation obviously should be as complete and perfect as divine power itself can make it. If man is made to the image of God, adopted into the divine family, and shares the life and beauty of divinity, surely his last moments are precious for the fullest possible burnishing of the family likeness which is the passport to heaven.
What a time in the life of a man to ignore the help that was so necessary for every other step in his life! There is a kind of indecency about it; as though a captain were to desert soldiers who had fought behind him, not always so brilliantly, but constantly and loyally, or as though a mother were to abandon a child in its loneliest, most helpless moment. This is hardly the way of men worthy of the name; it is certainly not the way of God.
As the advertisements warn us on all sides, we might pick up a germ in the course of our ordinary day’s work; so far, the common sense of men has kept them from encasing themselves in rubber or cellophane to escape contamination. A man might die while eating his breakfast; but that is no reason for every man demanding Extreme Unction every morning as a dyspeptic calls for his glass of hot water. This sacrament is for those who are about to enter the kingdom of heaven through the ordinary portals of sickness and death; it is for the sick, for those in danger of death from sickness or from that natural infirmity which is old age. It is not for a soldier going into battle in full possession of his strength; nor for the criminal stepping into the electric chair; not even for the mother on her way to the delivery room.
Its subjects: In general
Since it exists for a last minute beautification of the soul, this sacrament has no place in souls who need no such last minute attention; souls, for example, like Our Lady’s, infants’, the insane who have never been capable of sin. Briefly, it is for the spiritually and physically sick. It is the work of a physician; it is those who are sick who need the physician, and they need him as often, at least, as the sickness takes a fatal turn. Consequently, Extreme Unction can be, and is, repeated again and again, not in the same danger of death, but when a notable improvement gives hope of recovery, and then the patient buffers a relapse. It is extremely important to remember that the effects of the sacrament endure as long as the danger for which it was given; by it, we are dressed for divine company, there is no danger of our becoming dishevelled while we wait for the door to open.
The anointing of Extreme Unction is made in the form of a cross: first on the forehead, and this suffices in case of necessity; then on each of the senses by which the enemies of the soul’s beauty might have made an entrance or through which the soul might have passed to keep a rendezvous with sin. Every corner is carefully swept, dusted, polished, that there might not be the slightest disorder in the house of our soul when we throw open its doors for divine inspection. It makes no difference that this particular dying man can no longer smell, or taste, or touch; indeed, it makes no difference if he never had this or that particular sense, the anointing is nevertheless made on the organ of that sense, or as near to it as possible. For even men blind from birth can commit sins of sight; the soul can use these paths to the world, even though they be barred to the entrance of the world into the soul.
It was pointed out, earlier in this chapter, that Extreme Unction is not as indispensably necessary as Baptism. As a consequence, it has not the same universal material nor the same universal minister; only olive oil which has been blessed by the bishop can be used in this sacrament, and it can be administered only by the ordinary minister of all the sacraments, the priest.
The minister of Extreme Unction
It is time to inquire more closely into the making of these divine physicians. We have been talking, off and on, for most of this volume about the priesthood, for the subject matter of this book has been the life of Christ and its continuation in the sacramental life of the Church. It is impossible to talk about either without covering a great deal of the activity of the priesthood; priests, after all, are other Christs existing to administer the sacraments and offer sacrifice.
Divine physicians: Consecration of the priesthood:
The sacrament of Holy Orders
There is more immediate reason now for this special treatment of the priesthood, for we have finished with the five sacraments which minister to the individual life of a son of the Church, the personal sacraments. It is now a question of the social sacraments, those by which the community is cared for: first, the spiritual care and rule of the community through the sacrament of Holy Orders; then, its perpetuation by the sacrament of Matrimony. We might say that this sacrament of Holy Orders completes the image of God in the supernatural world of men’s souls. He appears not only as He is in Himself through the participation of His life by grace, but also as the Agent, the Mover, the Cause of goodness in others. That is the distinctive mark of Holy Orders; it is primarily and principally a conferring of the power to fulfill the offices of another Christ, to give to others the sacrifice and sacraments by which they live.
Its institution and essence
This sacrament is a sensible sign of sanctification; by it the priest is sanctified to divine service, consecrated to the work of Christ. As do all the sacraments, it produces what it signifies. It was instituted by Christ, partly at the Last Supper, when He said: “Do this in commemoration of me”; and partly after the resurrection, when He said: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” The sacramental life of a man moves to this sacrament as to a sweeping climax, from his first right to receive the sacraments by Baptism, through Confirmation’s strengthening, the Eucharist’s nourishing, and Penance’s correction to this active power to bring to others the wonders he has himself received. Like all the sacramental signs, this is a perfect sign. Its matter’s signification is clarified, brought to the perfection of signification, by the words of the form. In a general way, because there is much discussion about it, it can be said that the proximate matter of the sacrament is the giving of the instruments of the priesthood and the imposition of the hands of the bishop; the form is made up of the words of the bishop as he does these things.
Ordination is a solemn, impressive ceremony; it proceeds slowly, with the masterly precision of the erection of a medieval cathedral. For this a master craftsman is necessary. Short of papal delegation, only a bishop and always a bishop can confer this sacrament; he has the fullness of the priesthood, he is the successor of the apostles, to him it belongs to share that fullness as to God it belongs to share His divine fullness in creating the world. Slowly, stone by stone, the edifice of the priesthood goes up; there is plenty of time for the workers to give up the work and leave, but also plenty of time for them to concentrate on each detail all the strength, grace, and solidity demanded of an eternal structure.
Surely, this is the longest, the most solemn, and the most impressive of all the sacramental ceremonies; itself an indication of its importance to both people and Church. At the same time, the ceremony is a compressed story of the long, slow, beautiful, patient preparation of the preceding years. The thirty quiet years of Nazareth were much more than a symbol; they were an example, even a precept for other Christs. The priest’s work is not work for a child but for a man, and for more than a man; he is not building for a day or a year, but forever. Each stone is carefully selected, put in place with laborious exactitude. This community is enduring, and the sacraments that serve it are not passing gestures; what Christ will not abandon, being with it all days even unto the consummation of the world, neither must men abandon.
The dignity of the priesthood: Effects of the sacrament
Holy Orders, as a sacrament of the living, floods the soul with yet more sanctifying grace. It deepens the participation of divine life in him who is to bring that life to others, so that in the priest even so personal a thing as sanctifying grace has an apostolic flavor. For, bringing the priest closer to God, it enables him to lead those he serves to the same and even greater intimacy; giving him more life, it enables him to bring forth a sturdier spiritual progeny.
The special grace of Holy Orders comes to the priest as a million dollar legacy to a pauper; he hardly knows what to do with it. No wonder he is overwhelmed by it; it is a mass of gilt-edged credit that would astonish even the angels. It is a title to all the actual graces a man needs to carry on the work of Christ Himself: to heal the sick, raise the dead, preach the gospel to the poor, cleanse the lepers, make the blind see, and the lame walk; even to go through the agony of Gethsemane and, with somewhat fearful willingness, to lay down his life for a friend. For this, a man needs so much help that only an infinitely rich God could advance him the credit.
Ambassador of God
With sanctifying and sacramental grace, there also comes the character of the priesthood. It is a mark on the soul of a man not to be eradicated by a decree of any state, by any force of arms, indeed, even by the perversity of the will of the priest himself. He is a priest forever; even in heaven, even in hell. By it, his life is stamped with a purpose, he is a divine emissary, commissioned with the same commission as the Son of God Himself: to bring to men the things of God, to scatter these gifts with a royal hand, munificently, unstintingly, as though the treasury were inexhaustible. Freely he has received; freely must he give.
What things of God ? What does he give so freely ? What is it that men need so desperately ? A few years ago, these questions might have been asked with a cynical smile as men looked at their bursting barns, humming factories, and peaceful lands, refusing to look beneath the surface to the souls of men. Today it is more than evident that men need truth: the truth of life, an intimate knowledge of the life of God and a deep knowledge of the meaning of the life of man; the science of living, the secret of successful living, the key to the significance of the universe. Man needs the truth that will free him from the chains of the universe and allow him to wander in the courtyards of God. This is the truth the priest brings.
But truth alone would be as barren a gift as a road map given to a man without a car. Hell is full of men who knew better. Besides truth, man needs help, divine help, constant, penetrating help. It is not easy for a man to live a man’s life; how then can he be expected to live God’s life among his fellows? Yet, this is the more abundant life that Christ came to give to men. It is the one life which a man must live to escape the awful crash of eternal failure. Help? Indeed, man does need help. Clearly, it is not a light load of gifts that the priest carries; nor does the load ever lighten, the gifts grow less, the importunity of giving ever diminish.
He is a divine plenipotentiary who need not give a reckoning of what he has dispensed but rather of what he has failed to dispense; for it is not generosity but niggardliness which will merit him a contemptuous dismissal. He will not be asked if he had enough rest, plenty of nourishing food, if he enjoyed good health and pleasant recreation; no one cares whether he has these things or not, least of all God. As if to show His contempt for just such things, He visited their opposites upon His favorites again and again: Thomas could not finish the work given him to do, even with his genius and giant strength; Dominic’s life is a round of night-long vigils, extreme mortification, and day-long labors showing little results; there was the incredible endurance of the Curé of Ars, practically unsupported by substantial food or rest, and so on and on down the ages. After all, the Master of them all had not so much as time to eat nor whereon to lay His head, He was born in a cave and died naked on a cross; His own question was: “Shall the servant be greater than the Master?”
There is another side of the picture, a distinctly human side which is yet thoroughly divine. To an outsider, a priest seems to be terribly alone. To Catholics, it is comfortingly clear that he is never alone. From the moment that indelible stamp is put on his soul marking him as one of those gathered around the table of the Mass, he is no longer mercy a private person. Indeed, he is a whole spiritual community. His acts are no longer private but common, community things; he is the spiritual leader acting in the name of all and for all. What is originally true of the successor of Peter — where Peter goes, there goes the Church — is true in a real sense of the priest.
Just as his prayers in the Mass, in Penance, in Baptism, and all the rest have their efficacy not from him but from God, so they have the people, not himself, for their object. He is the ambassador of men as well as the ambassador of God; in his step can be heard the rumble of millions of feet in perfect unison with him. Where he goes, the whole Mystical Body of Christ goes along with him: into a narrow confessional box, into the quietly final atmosphere of a sick room, to an altar set up in a desert bristling with armies, to the deck of a ship buckling under a hail of bombs. His hand raised in blessing does not merely reach to the walls of his church, but to the walls of the world, and beyond.
Ambassador of men
He is an ambassador of men, a plenipotentiary of the human family. What does he bring to God? Well, the gifts of men never exceed that first gift of swaddling clothes; but often enough, men can be found to give all they have. The priest’s arms are piled high, as he approaches the divine throne, with sacrifice, prayer, penance, high courage, generous, unconditional love; miserable mistakes with their redeeming tag of determination to start the fight all over again. All these are freely given him by men, freely put into his hands; freely is he to give. There will be no account demanded of what he has thrown at the feet of God; but rather, of what he has failed to bring to the Master.
Subjects of the sacrament: Its limitation in general
Christ Himself died young; and he insisted that His followers at least stay young, drink so deeply of the fountain of youth as to become little children. To the divine mind, it must have been clear that only the very young and very foolish could ever undertake to live His life; for of course, it is an impossible task. It simply cannot be done except by God; only on that basis can even the romantic daring of youthful love approach it in answer to the beckoning finger of God. With the assurance of that divine call, the young man, on his part, brings sufficient science, sufficient health, the right intention, and sufficient virtue; with these, the youth sets off, almost whistling on the long, long road.
There has been some wonder, in the world outside the Church, that Catholic women have not resented their exclusion from Holy Orders. Some of the modern champions of masculine femininity have even been moved to pity. Why is it that men have all the positions of power in the Church? Why is it that only men can be priests and do the work of priests ? Why should men be in all the positions of preference ? The question could have been asked much more nobly, and fairly, if it were: why should men be put in the positions of danger ?
At any rate, the facts are not a proof of God’s greater love for men, or of men’s superiority over women in getting things done. It is not a bit of divine anti-feminism. It is simply a question of order. Someone must be at the head of any enterprise engaged in by more than one human being, just as among the powers of a man’s soul, one must be in supreme command. Obviously, that position of command had to be given either to a woman or a man, there was no other choice; the ordination of God fell upon the man. Man and woman both have their part to do when they are set apart for the work of God, the priest and the consecrated virgin. Why aren’t priests teaching kindergarten, disciplinarians in girls’ colleges, or caring for the sick in hospitals? To pursue the questions, why did a man hang on the cross while a woman stood underneath, which was the easier part? Why did Mary, who was obviously superior, mother the infant Church instead of preaching the Gospel and working miracles as Peter and John did? After all, she had not fallen asleep in the Garden, or denied Him to escape the criticism of men. In actual fact, the Catholic woman needs no pity; probably no one is more grateful than she that it is a priest, not a priestess, that she must approach in the crises of her life.
Qualifications of the subjects
It needs no argument, in view of what we have seen of the priesthood, to prove that this is not a sacrament for children. Nor can it be given to the half-witted, or to infidels. Its proper subject is a baptized man of normal intelligence. The laws of today demand that he have completed his twenty-fourth year, have sufficient knowledge for his office, and some title to the support of that office — or else the complete contempt of any support which is the official “title of poverty” on which religious priests are ordained.
Impediments to the sacrament
The list of possible impediments to the sacrament of Holy Orders is so long, forbidding, and complex that one might wonder how anyone ever does get ordained. However, the candidate for the priesthood need have no worry about any one of these being overlooked when he presents himself. Little of this is left to chance, for the obligation weighs heavy on those who advance a man to the priesthood; lest there be any doubt, the obligation is finally placed squarely on the bishop who administers the sacrament. For this chapter, it will be sufficient to take advantage of Thomas’ gifts for compression and analysis.
He divides these impediments into two classes those that might impede a man’s performance of the duties of a priest, such as blindness or deafness; and those which detract from what Thomas calls the transparent beauty of the personality of the priesthood. Thomas, you see, besides being a highly speculative thinker, had a keen eye for the practical. The priest is to stand before both God and the people. For the first, eminent sanctity, or at least a state of grace, might be enough. But this is not enough if the priest is to serve the people; what impedes his service of them, destroys his usefulness to them. If he stands before them, not in divine dignity, but rather as a clown, an ogre, or a sloven his very practice gives the people reason for mirth, horror, or disgust, impeding the very things he exists to promote in the people.
It is for them he exists. He must be prepared to go to them in all circumstances, as Christ did. Above all, he must be one to whom all men will come as they did to Christ. The arms of Christ were stretched wide indeed, as wide as the world, as wide as all the conditions in which men of the world can be found; the arms of His Church are no less wide in their embrace. There were no castaways from Christ, only fugitives from the Hound of Heaven. In fact, Christ’s attachment to the castaways of the world was an outstanding characteristic of His life. It was to them that He gave the most hearty welcome: the ugly, as ugly as men eaten with leprosy or possessed by demons; the poor; the lonely; the sinners; the sick; the dying — all found their way to the feet of Christ and were welcomed there. This welcome was not by a mere gesture of pity, for these people rarely welcome pity’s slightly superior air; rather, it was by divine help and divine love
Conclusion. The welcome of Christ and His Church: the fact
Among men, there are many grounds of welcome: beauty, power, position, wealth, health, strength, sociability, and so on. None of these was the grounds for Christ’s welcome to His castaways. Rather they were welcomed on the grounds of their humanity; because they were men, and so capable of joining the family of Christ and becoming heirs of heaven There is a sharp contrast in this to the world of our time. Our tendency is to insist on the annihilation either of the sinner or the fact of sin; the poor and sick should be hidden away; the lonely abandoned; the dying avoided in a shuddering escape from the thought of the bitter exile of those last moments. It is not that man is less human in his sin, poverty, sickness, loneliness, or death; rather, the difficulty is that we are not interested in man’s humanity.
Contrast of fact with modern world
If the original rejection of Christ by men had actually been effective, if His tomb had remained sealed, all of this welcome to men as men would have been over with. The same would be true if the continuation of the life of Christ should be broken, if the rejection of the Church and her priesthood by men should ever be efficacious. In the purely human order, the rejection of the officers of an army and the officials of a state turns men from a community into a horde; that is no less true in the spiritual order. Such a rejection would be a kind of vivisection of the Mystical Body of Christ; it would be a wholesale destruction, at one and the same time, of the teachers, the doctors, the judges, and the diplomatic corps of the spiritual community that flows from the life of Christ. It would, indeed, be literally shooting the supernatural Santa Claus precisely at Christmas time.
World without Christ — a priestless world: The fact and its consequences
The fact is that the world rejected Christ and crucified Him. In the last three hundred years, we have seen a gradually extending rejection of priests and the Church. What is the reason for this modern enmity? We are taking a superficial view of it if we think this enmity is explicable on the grounds of the human failings, or even the crimes, of priests. Christ had none of these failings, no one could convince Him of sin; yet He, too, was rejected. These things are merely the occasion, as was the conviction of Christ out of His own mouth by the high priest. Where the occasions are real, the guilty priests will indeed have questions to answer when they return to their Master. But the real reason for the death of Christ was the work of Christ; that is always the real reason for the rejection of priests. Truth is hated by liars; help is detested by the proud; the spiritual is mocked by the material; mastery by license; divine life by animality; light by darkness.
Reason for the fact
Every age faces the same paradox. Christ did all things well. He came to give life more abundantly, He died for the remission of sin. He came bearing the divine gifts of truth and help. And men shouted: “Crucify Him.” Why? Because it is hard to be a man; much harder to be a Christian man. It is easier to snuff out the reminders of man’s possibilities and obligations, to let the easy process of disintegration go its corrupting way.
A lonely world
Lying on his deathbed, a man faces his bitterest, most lonely, most helpless moments — if there be no other Christ there. Against him are hurled the assaults of Satan making the most of his last chance; the memories of sin and of discouraging failure are there; and the terror of the unknown which no human hand or agency can help. The world without Christ is a dying world; literally alone, lonely, helpless, facing those same enemies, the ghastly unknown, and nothing that nature offers can be of any help. Even the sincere friends of the world who do not know Christ can only sit and watch its agony; for this is the place for the divine physician, and for him alone.